World leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development last year, which comprises the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals, ranging from the elimination of hunger, provision of quality education to gender equality, are highly intertwined. Their ultimate aim is to eliminate poverty, fight inequality and justice, and minimise climate change by collectively achieving this plethora of goals and targets.
Even if you are a skeptic of the efficacy of the United Nations, or what simply putting words to paper can actually muster, you have to concede that the predecessors of the SDGs, i.e. the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were instrumental in slashing poverty, hunger and disease across our planet. The MDGs unified our planet’s efforts. Though the goals were not fully realized, they demonstrated the power of a common-shared agenda. Poverty was more than halved globally, millions more children are in full-time education, and women have gained better political representation in over 150 countries.
But of course, the good work is not yet completed. The SDGs now seeks to complete the work that the MDGs left behind. Or rather, build on the momentum created by the MDGs.
Youths will be the designated change agents who will have to implement the bulk of this new agenda for the next 15 years. During my recent trip to the United Nations for the 2016 Summer Youth Assembly, I had the opportunity to pitch my own social venture to distinguished judges, glean insights from UN officials, and meet passionate peers who are budding advocates for social change.
Here are 17 inspiring global youths whom I met in New York City. Some of them have already started their own NGOs, some whom are already serial entrepreneurs, and some whom possess a keen awareness of the social issues.
Here are 17 portraits and short stories:
1. No poverty
“I volunteered as a teacher with a school in West Bengal, India for five months. It was at in a little village surrounded by lush green hills. A stark contrast to where I grew up in Canada. During those months, I realised how I really took what I had back home for granted. Seeing how little everyone had, and yet how thankful they were to have the little things changed me. I didn’t realise the honey-pot of opportunities I had back home in Yukon. But I know that I have the resources to provide the children there with the opportunity to learn.
When I got back, I started my NGO, the ‘Gyan Jyoti School Building Society’, with a mandate to improve the quality of education in the hills of Kalimpong. Job prospects for the troubled Gorkhali citizens of West Bengal are few and far between. I hope that our projects will create a more educated, and better-trained workforce that can hopefully land the children a job in other parts of India when they grow up. They will then be able to provide for their families back home, and improve conditions for all in those hills.
‘No poverty’ means being able to provide equitable opportunities for everyone. And the ‘us and them’ mentality between rich and poor needs to go. We are just people. We are brothers and sisters.”
2. Zero hunger
“When you come from a developing country, you’re constantly told that hunger and poverty are just a part of your system and it’s never going away. It’s reinforced when you see it every day. It’s true. It’s there and it’s so real. And it seems hopeless.
But it’s that mindset that bugs me. It doesn’t mean that people are just born to live and die in hunger. I started PAMANA with two friends to help subsistent indigenous farming communities with such low yields that it’s barely enough to feed their families. Food is a basic need, but so many people don’t get it. I think that if you can find ways to generate the right amount and right kinds of food for a community, then soon you’ll be watching them get stronger and healthier. A healthy community is the starting point to solving the other problems in our society.
In a country like the Philippines, where we have such bountiful natural resources, I feel like we have everything we need to make our world better. We want to change the system, and make food security something attainable, sustainable, and achievable. It’s so much bigger than me and my team. We’re just here to spark the change.”
3. Good health and well-being
Since 2013, Jolly has been an Ambassador at ‘Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation’, a community-based organisation that promotes holistic wellness for women and families through education, physical and mental health, economic and self-empowerment. She is also the youngest ‘Youth Chair’ for the Youth Assembly at the United Nations. You may wish to view her opening speech at the UN General Assembly here.
4. Quality education
“I believe in the importance of a well-rounded education. Instead of just feeding facts to our young, we need to empower and equip each individual to acquire the knowledge they desire. So they can build the future they want for themselves.
Our project ‘Igniting Young Minds’ reaches out to more than five thousand children from less privileged backgrounds every year. These children are often denied a holistic education, and also lack the motivation. This lack of motivation often comes from financial pressures in their family, a pressure to meet their immediate needs, and the lack of jobs available due to their lack of skills. So we facilitate their learning process and ensure that they are equipped with the skills to help facilitate their future career growth. We work with youth volunteers to help these children, anywhere between ages of 5 to 14.
My wish is to build this youth movement into an international platform.”
5. Gender equality
“Gender equality means so much to me as a young woman. Experiencing minor injustices has allowed me to see the bigger picture of inequality. My gender has brought me challenges, but I’m still privileged compared to women of color, trans-women, and women of poverty.
This was my introduction to intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism is not popular in my area, and especially lacks discussion. I felt the need to start something to get people talking about women’s rights and to take action. I founded the ‘Pro-Girl Collective’. And I was only 15 at the time of the group’s inception, so, my largest platform was my school. Our mission is simple. To advocate, educate, and aid women on the local and international level.
We truly stuck to our mission during our first year. We led a campaign to improve self-image, raised awareness about misogynistic themes surrounding breast cancer, and raised money for breast cancer research. We educated our community about CEDAW and ran a donation drive for a domestic abuse shelter.
Our recent project is our most relevant to date. Local Muslim women face discrimination due to others’ ignorance. So we created a series of educational snippets to be aired on our televised school announcements to combat this. We also held a bake sale donating proceeds to the Malala Fund. My hope is that our message reaches a wider audience this year.”
6. Clean water and sanitation
“Recently, parts of Canada had a ‘boil water advisory’ due to a contaminated water supply in over 90 communities, but this is something small compared to what many other communities in the world face in not having access to a long-term supply of water.
People should be able to live without worries about clean water or sanitation, or the fear of hazardous water that harms them. It is a basic human right and something that is required for a nation to progress.”
7. Affordable and clean energy
“I’m a South Korean immigrant to Canada. Growing up in Korea, I heard constant warnings about smog and air pollution from the coal plants and factories in China and Korea. I heard constant warnings about the nuclear plants and waste leaks from Japan. But these weren’t just warnings. People die from such pollution every day.
Canada is in actuality not that much different. Oil, particularly tar sands, is both a blessing and a curse to Canadians. What is shocking is that our people chose this way to live and to build our economy, when clean, renewable, and sustainable energy is now readily available to us.
One hour of sunlight is enough to meet the entire world’s energy needs. Renewable energy presents an opportunity to rebuild the foundation of how we power human civilization. With climate change, renewable energy should no longer be deemed as ‘alternative’ energy, but it should be viewed as the primary source of energy. It is the only form of energy that is harmonious with humanity for the long-term.”
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
“I’m from the Republic of Moldova. We’re a very poor country. As a young child, I saw my parents working more than 16 hours a day, every day, to support our family. For more than 8 years, I saw my parents going abroad to make a living and invest in our education. They wanted us to feel like we belong in society, go to school, and later on get a decent job.
Growing up in a village with only 2,500 people, I did not have access to technological resources or digital tools growing up. It was a strong barrier for me as a young professional to catch up with peers from developed countries. In this digital era, this held back my country’s progress. That’s why I started my social enterprise DigiKidz back home, to implement a sustainable model of I.T. education and computer literacy for high school students. DigiKidz gives students the opportunity to receive direct mentorship from professional trainers, and try their hands on new digital tools to be more competitive in the job market.
That’s why I’m very interested in promoting development-oriented education projects that support equal access to data, create jobs, and promote innovation. I’m now collaborating with people at the international level to address the Sustainable Development Goals.”
9. Industry, innovation, infrastructure
"My interest in social change and development began as a stroke of luck. A university friend invited me to volunteer for an NGO a few years ago. We were just building transitional houses for families living in poor conditions. But the experience was transcendental to me after I saw how we were changing the lives of others. It made me conscious that Peru was not only Lima, the capital where I am from. It was also a world of hidden inequality.
Years later, with the support of Telefonica Foundation, some friends and I founded a social project named ‘Vive Tu Futuro’. It means ‘live your future’. We are entirely run by fifty volunteers. We connect high-level professionals with low-income school students to provide them with advice on their careers and life plans as coaches. We also tap into virtual platforms to provide the underprivileged communities with access to technology to promote digital inclusion. For my day job, I am part of a team in my company focusing on the development of disruptive technologies with positive impact in our Peruvian community, making people’s life easier and narrowing social gaps. I am pretty sure that it is possible to create and start new initiatives that can help both the company and our local communities, and taking on the role of an entrepreneur no matter where we work or where we are in our careers.
Now I’m bringing in my knowledge of technology to my social venture. We have a new initiative to give underprivileged students access to entrepreneurship opportunities. Even though I believe Peru is one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world, not all students have equal access to the business world and innovation. Now I’m just part of the few leading this change.”
10. Reduced inequalities
“When Wall Street crashed, the impact on my family was immediate. We were neither rich nor poor, but things got more difficult. It was nothing detrimental. But as a student in a fairly upper-middle class environment, I felt isolated and ashamed because I did not have those exciting stories of vacations, of piano recitals, or even birthday party invitations. But I know that I am still in a much better position than many of my peers. And for that I am extremely grateful.
I fell in love with the policies of Senator Bernie Sanders last year. In May, when he announced his run for candidacy, I immediately got in touch with the people at ‘Millennials for Bernie Sanders’ and ‘Boston for Bernie’ to begin advocating for the policies and issues that he brought to the national stage. Though we did not win the nomination, the first step to tackling any problem is to recognise it exists. And Senator Sanders’ platform has certainly done more than raise awareness on inequality. He laid out a blueprint for my generation to address this issue with the new movement ‘Our Revolution’.
To ask for change is to ask millions of people to question conventional wisdom, and ask if things are truly equal. I think that’s what being politically active in this new era of media is about. To see things as they really are, and to step into the shoes of others.”
11. Sustainable cities and communities
“The bottom line is that our Sutainable Development Goals are really about deep cultural transformations. And cities are the single most important cultural institution of the 21st century. This is where over 50 percent of our world’s population work, play and socialize.
I have become interested in social capital and urban acculturation. Cities concentrate wealth, poverty, vulnerability, and, most importantly, energy consumption. My research is focusing on how urban post-secondary institutions prepare leaders as our complex global and urban systems breakdown. The end of the petroleum era is going to be very unstable. So in order to remain hopeful universities must recognize that sustainable transformations are rooted in youth. Youth will provide radical, imaginative and relational solutions.”
12. Responsible consumption, production
“When I was in India in December, I was at a street market when a lady gave me a bracelet. She told me that the entirety of that bracelet was made up of recycled material that she picked off the ground. And it turns out that she runs a street stall, made entirely of goods that were disposed of. But she made them look beautiful and new. I thought that woman in Kolkata was probably running the greatest accessory stall not only in India, but the world.
For me personally, I’ve grown up learning not to waste food. It was ingrained in me as a child from my parents. Even in school, we’ve been picking up bottles to recycle in bottle depots and using that money to fund other campaigns. I was inspired to start ‘FoodShare’ with my best friend after a John Oliver episode on world hunger. Do you know that in Canada alone, we can fill 188 football stadiums with food wasted in 6 months? Do you know that globally, a third of all food goes wasted? So ‘FoodShare’ is doing our part by connecting households, events, stores and restaurants on university campuses with students to prevent food waste. Many of us are not using food properly and sustainably, and at the same time, many people are cash-strapped and hungry every day.
Eventually, when I am older, I aspire to be the next Prime Minister of Canada. It’s my dream. Part of that dream is ushering in a new era of sustainable consumption.”
13. Climate action
“I feel strongly for climate change, especially because of the many floods that strike my country. In 2005, Guyana had one of our largest floods in history. It was a disaster. Every house was three feet underwater. It claimed the lives of more than 34 people, and left so many of our people homeless.
Afterwards, I started looking into ways which I can do my part to ensure our country never has to face this problem again. I want to raise awareness to fight against climate change. Guyana had our first ‘Plant A Tree’ day last year, and I loved that both the private sector and public sector came together to plant trees all across the country.
Now, I’m starting my own project called ‘#GivesBin’. We simply donate bins to schools and public areas to reduce littering and encourage cycling. When I graduate, I hope to work in the Office of Climate Change in Guyana, and see the world come together to fight against climate change.”
14. Life below water
“I have always been fascinated by the oceans growing up. My parents first brought me to a small marine lab when I was a child. And I remember feeling so amazed when I first got to put my hands into the water. When I interacted with the small sea creatures, I knew then that was I wanted to do. I am now a scuba diver, avid aquarium-goer and also an aquarium curator.
My city also has a terrific public science museum where I interned with their Fish and Invertebrate Department under their Junior Curator programme. Over four years, I learnt a variety of aquaria and husbandry techniques. It really deepened my love for marine life. I feel very fortunate to have had this front-row seat to the beauty and wonder of our oceans. But, I also have a firsthand awareness of the detrimental, and often irreversible consequences of overfishing, pollution and climate change. In many communities, including mine in Raleigh, North Carolina, the environmental consequences of the damage to our marine ecosystems often go unseen.
So I am going to change that. In the future, I want to direct a public aquarium and be directly involved in marine biology research. I will spend my life supporting our world’s oceans, waterways, and all the life forms in which our waters support. It has been my dream since I was five, after all.”
15. Life on land
“Living in a developed country like Canada where we can easily import what we need from other countries makes it difficult for us to see the impact of our actions on our land. But everything on Earth is interconnected. It is important that young people are more educated and more aware. I recently volunteered at a local conservation area to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity and ecological restoration.
I have also spoken in citizen assemblies and UN conferences for climate change. The problem is that people need to understand that short-term solutions are ineffective to create a sustainable world for our future generations. Instead, our governments, leaders, citizens and all other stakeholders need to opt for a resolution that lasts a lifetime.
I hope to develop sustainable alternatives for our current living conditions in the future. It is not an individual responsibility. It is our global responsibility.”
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
“Having grown up in the United States, but having Mexican and Lebanese heritage often made me think: What would have happened to me if I wasn’t educated here? Why am I safe from the corruption and violence that my family members have to deal with?
As I grew up, It became clearer to me that my current life is not the result of mine or my family members’ individual decisions. Everything that they suffered, or everything I did not suffer was a consequence of political decisions. It’s a strange feeling.
Recently I volunteered at a refugee social services office, and a young woman took me under her wing. I knew her past vaguely; she was from Afghanistan and lost her mother at a young age. But during one of my last days in the office, I asked her about the situation in Afghanistan. She then gave me a glimpse into her past. A bomb struck their home when she was a child, and she lost most of her siblings. She lost her mother shortly after, and her father then fell ill. As a result, she had to drop out of school at 14 to work and raise her remaining family members. Hearing this from the gentle young woman who had been sitting next to me for weeks changed me completely. I had no idea.
Sometimes it’s hard to identify refugees, or empathise with what people have suffered. But to me, it was a testament to how real these conflicts are. Each and every human life should not be decided by political interests. Nations need to be accountable. Everyone has a right to grow up a peaceful environment.”
17. Partnerships for the goals
“One of my favourite quotes is ‘Knowledge can bring you the opportunity of making a difference’. I believe education is important for every individual to make a meaningful difference to society. And to make a meaningful difference globally, forming partnerships between countries and institutions are crucial. This is especially relevant for our Sustainable Development Goals. Partnerships in trade, resources, and technical knowledge required for different nations to come together.
I’m currently pursuing my major in information technology at Rutgers University, and I’m focusing on entering the tech sector in the future. I also understand how important quality education is, and my future dream is to open an educational institution in India for underprivileged children.”
“This is the first generation that can end poverty, and the last that can end climate change.” - Current Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon
Indeed, it is as if our world is at a precipice.
Our current generation of youths is the largest the world has ever seen. For the next fifteen years, it is indubitable that what our young minds resolve to do will determine the path of future generations.
We may finally get our minds together, and sort out our global ills through collaborative partnerships, social enterprise, and technological innovation.
Or we may fall off the metaphorical cliff where things go horribly wrong past the tipping point. Unforgiving climate change fuelled by short-sighted self-interest.
Let’s hope that we choose the former.
Powered by the EdAid Foundation. This article is written in collaboration with the EdAid #StudentVoices series. #StudentVoices aims to invite discourse on the value of higher education through vivid portraits of diverse learners of all ages. EdAid is a social enterprise which aims to democratise access to higher education. Any feedback? Tweet your thoughts to Jaron here: https://twitter.com/jaronsjr.