How I Discovered the Meaning of 'Youth Empowerment' at ECOSOC

by Amelia Colban

My experience as a Millennium Fellow has been one of partnerships above paternalism. In every endeavor I have undertaken thus far in my fellowship at the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), I entered knowing that I was working within dynamic collaborations, and with tremendous support from powerful, capable allies. I am generally confident that more than enough corporations, institutions, and individuals (including, my mentor, Natalie Tevethia), have my back. I can count on most of them for great advice, even when I call at odd hours. Millennium Fellows are privileged in this regard. We can be exceptionally productive in our respective projects because it is always so obvious that others are confident in our professional prospects and value our personal perspectives.

This year, I represented MCN at the United Nations’ youth forum for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Being a student working on socioeconomic issues from a university in New York City, the ECOSOC 2016 Youth Forum would not be my first time at the UN. However, I had not been involved in any youth-specific project until MCN invited me to this conference. I was perplexed to realize that, although I am a “youth, ” I work with “youth” through my involvement with FLIP at Columbia, and I study with other youths, I never made “youth empowerment” my goal. I never saw young people as victims of the kind of systemic oppression that defines most underrepresented minority groups.

I was perplexed to realize that, although I am a “youth”...working with other youth...I never made “youth empowerment” my goal.

Young people are so obviously “represented” in the development of global affairs. We are valued as consumers and voters. We are the basis for much of what is portrayed in all forms of media; we are the target audience for a disproportionate number of advertisements, we are crucial social media consumers, we are pop culture determinants. I have often felt that the world, in its all its corporate hegemonies, is eager to win brownie points with us. We are each a prime datapoint in the abstract collective, “youth.” We are the future.

In all this, I undervalued our generation. ECOSOC 2016 helped undo my misconception. On the one hand, I was taken aback by how time was allotted over the course of the conference for actual young people to speak, much less deliberate, given that it was a youth forum. On the other, I appreciated being made to think on several occasions during the long strings of predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly balding speakers as they each reiterated the importance of the youth voice…

This is why the UN is creating structures...eager to have Millennium voices in the room as it works toward the SDGs.

Mr. Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, remarked that, in 2008, many perceived the two-percent voting rate amongst eligible young Egyptians to be reflective of a kind of growing laziness or entitlement amongst Egypt’s youth. Obviously, this theory had to be discarded when those very youth revolutionized their country in the years that followed. Mr. Eliasson noted that sometimes, such low rates of involvement are not indicative of boredom, but of protest. Certainly, this is a pervasive phenomenon amongst young people in many countries now. I thought of this a week later, as I noticed American news publications citing high young voter turnout for supposed “anti-establishment” candidates--Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders--as a crucial force in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.

This is why the UN is creating structures, including the youth forum at ECOSOC, to ensure it what people our age think. This is why it is eager to have Millennium voices in the room as it works toward the SDGs. We are privileged for already not doubting whether we will be taken seriously because we are young. That is why we need to keep doing everything we are already doing.