My world, reimagined: When youth have a seat at the table

Salvador Gómez-Colón speaking at the World Economic Forum alongside Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, and Natasha Mwansa.

Since I was a young boy, I was not too fond of kids' menus. Even though I found chicken tenders irresistible (and still do to this day), I would often ask for meals from the regular menu to make the point that I wasn't going to yield. In places like school and even family gatherings, our voices were often silenced or not taken seriously. I was taken aback by how kids were not heard, acknowledged, or respected like adults. I refused to let this happen.

Although we were smaller, shorter, and younger, I never doubted our potential. At 11 years old, I became the youngest political analyst in Puerto Rican television, appearing on the island's leading primetime political talk show. I remember going on set every Wednesday evening with my blue wire-frame glasses, a tidy suit, and a colorful necktie, ready to express my concerns regarding both local and global current events. Politicians would look dazed as I asked them questions sitting alongside seasoned television personalities. I learned the importance of speaking up with assertion, open-mindedness, and respect, even with those who didn't agree with me. 

When Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, my world was turned upside-down. I reeled from the destruction that María had caused, and I couldn't bear the thought of thousands of people losing their belongings, homes, and family members. Rather than rest on the privilege of having a roof over my head and a family to turn to, I vowed to create a positive impact. Rather than merely speak up, I wanted to take action, concrete action. 

I wasn't going to be put down by all the people who said that I was too young or inexperienced to do anything meaningful. I was not going to be discouraged by people who said I needed boatloads of money. I refused to let others determine what I could or couldn't do.

After the success of Light and Hope for Puerto Rico—my initiative to raise money to purchase and distribute solar powered-lamps and hand-powered washing machines— I recognized that our limitless potential as youth to create change. I learned that when there is a will, there is a way. If we listen to needs, determine our course of action, garner support, and lead with positivity, anything is possible. I validated that our age does not define our maturity, responsibility, or capacity to create change and impact others positively.

Many people refer to my generation, Gen-Z, as the future of our world. In reality, we aren't just the future but also the present. Young people around the world have proved time and time again that we have an incomparable drive and passion for creating positive change. We do so creatively, courageously, and passionately. 

In my world, re-imagined, young people have a seat "in the room where it happens"— that is to say, where people make paramount decisions about our collective future. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the way we live. The world has discovered through hardship that we cannot merely wait for a crisis to occur to start reacting. It has exposed and exacerbated our society's fragility, demonstrating the need to rethink our approaches to education, fostering sustainability, and alleviating poverty. If humanity wants to solve these global challenges, young people must play an active role.

As youth, we have proved that we don't have to be seasoned politicians, professionals, or public figures to address our common challenges. We've shown that we have what it takes to make meaningful strides to improve our world, leading with passion, empathy, and positivity. If older generations brought us along, the impact we have would be boundless. 

I am hopeful for a future where we embrace challenges, harness our empathy, and continue to take action. Youth need to have a seat at the table to improve the course of the world— whether through advisory boards or direct collaborations to develop policy. The world is facing a plethora of challenges, so we need all hands on deck.

Young people around the world have proved time and time again that we have an incomparable drive and passion for creating positive change. We do so creatively, courageously, and passionately.