The State Department and USAID Get It
This weekend I was in New York for a State Department Panel entitled, "Youth Driving Change: Global Youth and Civic Engagement." The event itself was just as amazing as the story behind it -- one that is still developing.
Over the last year, the State Department has quietly started to increase their youth outreach efforts. The most high profiled of these efforts was Secretary Clinton appointing Ronan Farrow as her special adviser on global youth issues. They also have launched an internal taskforce around youth policy. The effects of the Arab Spring and the underlying current of youth engagement sweeping Washington have no doubt been a motivating factor in the State Department's new youth focus.
In August, I got a call from the State Department asking if I would chair a Working Group of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO on youth issues. It would be dedicated to connecting more youth in the U.S. with UNESCO's mission. More importantly, the working group's creation marks a change in the way the State Department is interacting with youth by bringing them into the fold on policy discussions.
I brought together eight talented social entrepreneurs, all young people, who had experience working around youth service and education issues.
Two weeks ago, right as I was finishing the agenda for our first meeting (a Google Plus Hangout), I got a call from our State Department liaison, Paul Kruchoski, (a 23 year old, himself) that Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero was interested in hosting an event with young people on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. He asked if we could lead the planning for this event with the Under Secretary.
I took it to our Youth Working Group and they immediately agreed. And so Saturday's event was developed -- not by adults but by young people. We chose our topic to be the start of a larger conversation around global youth civic engagement. It also corresponded to one of the topics at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris this October, which the State Department is sending two youth representatives to.
Our Youth Working Group assembled a balance of panelists -- all amazing young leaders themselves -- who could have an interesting discussion and highlight the important role of young people. We put together prompts for the opening questions and then made sure the event was formatted to allow both those in the audience and those watching on the live stream to ask questions. Finally, we mobilized our youth networks to pack a room on short notice. In five days, we had so many RSVPs that we had to move to a bigger room.
The event was a fantastic success. Some of my favorite lines were, "We need to invest in our youth" and "We don't need future leaders, we need youth leaders now." But we didn't stop at empty rhetoric.
For the second half of our event we wanted to show how youth can and are making an impact right now. Last week USAID Administrator Raj Shah launched a new initiative called FWD (Famine, War, Drought) aimed at calling attention to the 13 million people affected by crisis in the Horn of Africa. When the project was in its design stages they talked with young people and asked for their feedback and thoughts informing their "Do more than Donate" action page.
At our event we wanted to take this initiative back to the young people. Nicole Goldin, the senior policy adviser at USAID on youth issues (and a member of the campaign design team) came and presented the website and how young people in the audience could take action. We then broke up into three groups and had a discussion on both what was done well and what could be improved.
The conversations were led by young people themselves so as to allow for an open discussion. But what was also important was that each of the three groups had an adult that had helped put the campaign together (either from USAID, the Ad Council, or the pro-bono media firm R/GA) present to hear what the youth were saying. We wanted to see our words taken into action.
The State Department and USAID allowed for a shared partnership to take place: they put young people in charge and responsibility on our shoulders. There is no doubt both the State Department and USAID get how to properly do youth engagement and I couldn't be more excited for what will come in the future.
Alex Wirth is an advocate for youth involvement in government, community service, and service-learning. Alex works on a national youth engagement strategy for the federal government with the Forum for Youth Investment. He chairs the youth working group of the U.S. National Commission to UNESCO, is also a member of the Board of Directors of Youth Service America and the National Youth Association and numerous youth councils. He is currently a student at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter at @amaliowirth.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post. It is reprinted here with permission.