Written by Melissa Lee
As a young person deeply emotional, critical and endlessly quizzical about the system–the status quo, what is “rational”–it was incredibly hard for me to evaluate what it meant for me to be heading down to the United Nations. It was playful to think about being at such a high-level institution attending an annual conference (the High-Level Political Forum) that would gather leaders from all around the world to talk about issues and try to progress change. I have been working and breathing in the non-profit world for the past two years. My experience and true understanding of change has been local, community-based, and, because of that I feel, very humanizing and intimate. I knew that at a higher level I would face bureaucracy, traditional ideas, scripted speeches prepared in advance to be delivered and resistance to change. I wanted to get the most out of the experience I was about to walk into and make connections between the local and global levels of change but realized that no matter how much research and planning I did, I never felt prepared enough. I felt unease. I didn’t know what my position or role would be there.
Finally stepping into the institution (which involved getting through swaths of people and security checks), I was able to attend the first Voluntary National Review session that had started earlier in the morning. I sat in my seat right at the moment when the representative for the Major Group for Children and Youth was called upon to give their four designated minutes to pose their questions to country representatives that were reporting on their country’s progress. I marveled at the symbolic timing of me entering just when a young person was called to speak next. I also marveled at the setting and what was happening in front of my eyes. The youth first expressed how they thought having four minutes each for all the major group representatives was inadequate to fully address their concerns, then went on to pose questions. Mid-sentence their mic was cut, as time had run out.
I never would have expected to be so upset and hopeless only 15 minutes into being at the UN. The level of bureaucracy and business as usual of things were so unforgiving that they would cut off a young person’s voice in front of everyone. After all questions were posed, country representatives were given their turns to answer the questions on their progress. Two minutes each. For all the questions.
I also wasn’t sure what to be frustrated at more: the time-capping agenda of the session structured by the UN or the fact that country representatives could take advantage of the limited amount of time they had to drag on with the scripts they prepared which were highlighting their successes and not actually answering the questions. Perhaps both.
How do we talk about change and advance solutions effectively when we’re bound by such red tape? Limits that also allow for lack of political will?
This pattern continued throughout the official sessions I attended at the UN where many written speeches I heard were disappointing and not change-provoking enough, further affirming my complicated relationship with the institution and its powers:
There is so much potential, opportunity, resources, tools and capability to progress change.
There is so much of this in the Sustainable Development Goals framework.
There is so much when a space has been created to gather countries, community leaders, politicians, government, investors, civil society and youth from all around the world to work on issues together.
There is so much invitation and mobilization to progress change.
But all this was not being maximized. Instead I saw barriers, little sense of urgency, limited representation from communities (especially those being left behind the most—the vulnerable, the marginalized, youth), and not enough action.
Accountability and Lessons from Sierra Leone
There was one thing I heard that really stood out for me and helped reassure my purpose at a side event I attended called “Holding Duty-Bearers Accountable to the SDGs: A Workshop for Civil Society” and that was, in response to fearing that the High-Level Political Forum would turn into just another socializing forum (which in many ways it already has), it is our responsibility as civil society to show up and continue showing up, especially at times least expected, to hold leaders accountable. We are stakeholders and rightsholders, and their actions should be serving us. If we are not present and pressuring leaders for real and urgent change and sharing our stories and demanding for solutions, no one else will and there would be no incentive. We need to be there to disrupt the status quo, shake them out of their comfort zones and remind them of the humanity we all share.
One great example of accountability by getting directly involved was modeled by the government of Sierra Leone at an event I attended called “Walking out of Fragility: Education & Justice for All.” They reported on how their country has been working endlessly to restore peace in their society since the civil war (that went on for a decade and ended in 2002) by investing in and building accessible, quality education for all (indeed Sierra Leone has been hailed as one of Africa’s most peaceful countries, perhaps the most peaceful in sub-saharan Africa, published by the Global Peace Index in 2018). They recognized that nothing could be achieved without political will, that, to foster national ownership of the consequences and impacts brought by the war, they had to think about partnerships differently and break down silos between the government, private sector and civil society. In their newly announced plan for free, quality education for primary and secondary school children, the government included as part of the development of the plan “all stakeholders, all young people, all local leaders, all women, all districts.” The development would additionally be guided by three main principles, two of which were: coordination across government and civil society, and allowing ownership of the plan by the people by decentralizing power and responsibilities to them. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Sierra Leone reported that they had announced a national vision for inclusivity and justice. After the government finished their reporting, they gave the floor to their civil society representative to share their thoughts on the report. They confirmed that civil society members truly have felt they have been able to play a large role in the work and got to collaborate effectively and inclusively. Then the government gave the floor to their youth representative, who had a disability, and they shared how they have felt supported in the whole process, even for vulnerable youth who are carrying a disability. Knowing that hosting time and speaking time were limited at the UN, the Sierra Leone government still chose to fit civil society and youth in and made sure they had a platform to speak alongside on the issue as well.
Accountability doesn’t and shouldn’t always have to be demanded by us. It shouldn’t be an area of tension and bitterness and hostility. It should be welcomed, received and willingly collaborated by both sides in the process for change.
Intergenerational Partnership: Confronting my Ageism
In such a critical and urgent time requiring collaboration and partnership while also, unfortunately, in what feels like a time where youth feel increasing mistrust towards their leaders and governments, particularly towards older folks, it’s easy to feel that there is a strong, intimidating dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’. “They don’t get it,” I keep hearing from young people, and catch myself saying it too. This makes it so easy to avoid walking up to them and trying to collaborate with them. And at times when they extend that invitation to do so, we can instantly feel we cannot trust them and shut the opportunity down.
Even though there are genuine attempts out there to welcome meaningful youth participation (whatever that looks like), those feelings of mistrust and separation do come from real experiences and, sadly, I did feel them throughout the HLPF:
There were times when I would try to talk to older folks but did not feel like I was really being listened to or that my thoughts were valid. Instead I felt that I was being talked at and that I as a young person did not know much or have had enough experience to deserve to be a part of these conversations and this important work.
There were times when I felt like they took up space to speak and left little for me.
There were times when I felt like my presence was tokenized.
There were times when I would accidentally make eye contact with them as I was walking through the halls and felt looked down at.
There were times when I would feel a discomforting unbelonging when I was the only young person with them in the elevator.
There was a time when one of them actually asked a group of us at the door of an event, “hey, don’t you guys have somewhere else to be? There are some youth side events happening right now, you know.”
It’s all confusing and discouraging. I rep and value intergenerational partnership and collaboration so much but I felt so much resistance and pushback at the UN–a place where large change is possible.
Still, I think I need to keep trying. We need to keep trying. Let’s give them a reason to believe we do know things, that we are competent, and that we are worthy to be here and be a part of this work, because these issues and decisions affect us too, and to lead this work in our own communities.
That man who told us to go somewhere else? I told him, “yes, we know there are youth events happening. But,” and I pointed at the door, “we want to go to this one.” I felt so much resentment, that he dared to say that. I felt I wanted to prove to him so bad that we deserved to be here. And so we decided to take up the seats at the very front of the room right when doors opened. And as the room started to quickly fill up, he sat behind us.
But this resentment, this bitterness…is not healthy. We need to collaborate. We need to welcome each other and honour that, although we are different, we have stories, experiences and skills unique to us that must be exchanged and shared to advance change. We need each other, more than ever. And that is why I am trying my best to heal from this toxic ageism that is holding us back. And as you are reading this, whoever you are, please consider it too. We will undoubtedly continue to face times where we will be tested, but we must see those as opportunities to reconcile and open each other’s minds. Time is a critical factor. These issues are affecting all of us now and will continue to be harder to tackle if we don’t work together.