Nearly 3 years ago today, I started a UNICEF Club at my University in the US. In some magical and unexpected way, this single action changed my life. It led me to totally change my career path. It inspired me to travel to Europe to research child refugees and access to education. It caused me to invest myself in the lives of young High School students from the Bronx. Most importantly, it allowed me to grow in my confidence as a young leader. Today, I work at UNICEF USA, mobilizing thousands of people in New York in support of children’s rights.
The truth is, the journey wasn’t easy. Despite the hard-earned successes, there were more failures and challenges than I can count. And along the way, I always wished there was someone there to tell me the 5 things I’m about to share with you. From young person to fellow young people - here are “5 ways to change the world: Starting with you!”.
1) TAKE THE LEAP. We’ve all been in a situation where an exciting opportunity has emerged. Maybe we’ve had a unique idea to bring change to our community. Or maybe we’ve been offered to take on a leadership role. In any of these situations, we might have been excited about the opportunity, but stopped ourselves short out of fear of failure. Sound familiar? Well, I’m here to tell you to take that leap! Turn that unique idea into a full-fledged proposal. Step up for that leadership role and learn along the way! We can’t risk being overrun by self-doubt or fear of the unknown. Three years ago, I was absolutely terrified of public speaking. I had no idea how to mobilize students on campus. In fact, I had never even taken a class on human rights! But I was devastated by the war in Syria and I wanted to make a change. I took one small leap by starting a UNICEF Club at my University and the rest is history. It’s only when we take a leap of faith that we see what we’re truly capable of.
2) OWN YOUR STYLE. In college, I noticed that my friends took on different types of activism. Some of them were loud, proud, and in your face about the issues they cared about. They staged protests on campus. They debated with those in opposition. They attended marches in the city with thousands of others. And there were those who practiced their activism more quietly, but equally as powerfully. They wrote riveting op-eds and articles. They mobilized their communities online. They approached activism diplomatically, even working behind the scenes to make change happen. Though each group had very different styles of activism, they were successful in their own ways. Through them, I realized the importance of owning your style. There is no one way to lead or to advocate. There are many! We’re most powerful when we reflect on the strengths we bring to the table and follow the style that is most true to who we are.
3) BE CRITICAL. It’s easy to point out crises happening thousands of miles from us, in other countries, communities, and societies. But it’s hard to be critical of the issues happening in front of us! The issues threatening our institutions. Lack of access to clean water is of major concern in Sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s also talk about contaminated water in Flint, Michigan! The EU’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis has drawn criticism around the world. Why not also examine the U.S. response to child migrants fleeing Central America? I’ve found that surrounding global issues are most valuable when we connect the dots and apply things locally. We have a responsibility to be critical of the institutions closest to us. Though I spent years in college advocating for improved education in developing countries, my perspective shifted when I realized that youth in the South Bronx, right around the corner from my University, had some of the poorest educational outcomes in the country. Soon, my activism turned local too!
4) ACT BOLDLY. Youth have been at the forefront of major social movements throughout history. Even today, young people around the world are stepping up to address issues like Climate Change and Gender Equality in a way we’ve never seen before. Our generation doesn’t see the world for what it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago – rather, we imagine what it could be. We bring a fresh perspective that often challenges the status quo. We demand more from our leaders. We require social change at every level. Our youth is in a lot of ways our greatest asset! So, let’s continue to be bold in defending the things we care about! Because the rumors are true - young people are already changing the world.
5) KNOCK ON DOORS. In my last year at University, I applied for my dream Graduate Program in the UK with guidance of my academic advisor. Despite my excitement, I knew that without a significant scholarship, I could not afford the program. In early November, I got the news: I had been accepted to the program, but I had not been awarded any financial aid. I was devastated! I called my academic advisor that evening, nearly in tears, to share the news. He paused and said: “You’ll find a way. It will take a bit of time. But you’ll find a way. Just keep knocking on doors. It’s what you do.” Just keep knocking on doors. I still think about those words. They were a powerful turning point in a dark moment. Keep knocking on doors. Keep seeking out opportunities. Keep sending out emails. Keep building new proposals. I realized that I would find a way. Pursue your most ambitious dreams with persistence. Many doors will close. But when one finally opens, it might change the world!