I had the privilege of attending the United Nations Economic and Social Youth Forum, a conference that gathers youth from all over the world to discuss worldwide economic and social development. Attending the forum proved to be a memorable experience that will serve me well in my career, but only as a means of how to engage with professionals and diplomats rather than a method of executing effective action. Here’s a reflection on my day at the UN:
It was my first time at the United Nations and my first time being in New York early in the morning on a bustling weekday. A stringent smell of cold coffee and an air of weariness and alacrity greeted me as I descended from my bus onto the Port Authority platform – yes, I’m trying to romanticize my experience, but, in reality, I was pushed and shoved a few times and a man scolded me for abruptly stopping in the middle of the sidewalk – totally New York.
I picked up some coffee and a quick breakfast from a cute, little French cafe to get something in my system – but really to fulfill the cliche image of a New Yorker fashionably rushing to work with a coffee in hand.
After being somewhat caffeinated and alert, I was ready to head over to the UN. My friend, who took the trip with me from Jersey, stopped a cab for me with her all-too-perfect New York suave. It was my first time riding a cab alone; it was a day full of “first times.” After about 5 minutes of silence in the cab only interrupted by the angry noise of New York traffic, I struck up a conversation with the cab driver, who later told me he was Bengali. I started by telling him that it must take some major skills to maneuver through these large crowded streets. He responded with a hearty laugh and told me he’s been cruising around the busy city for about 15 years now and knows it quite well. He started telling me about the difficulties of being a cab driver, and that the key is being able to determine a good customer from a bad customer by merely taking a look at the person. We went on to discuss politics and history before he dropped me off across the street from the UN.
So there I was, before the world’s arguably most institutionalized building, ready to discuss, but only discuss because, here, words often do not advance beyond dialogue and the topics on today’s agenda were no exception.
I would be utterly lying if I said the guards were nice, but yeah I get it, we live in a post-9/11 era, a post-Charlie Hedbo era, a mass school shootings era, a time period engulfed with fear and insecurity and combated with more fear and insecurity that this place authorizes, so yes, a thorough security check was due.
After some complicated navigation, I finally made it into the conference room where the forum was taking place. It started with a panel of distinguished people discussing the role and power of youth in Africa, how the youth have the potential to transform the status of Africa, and how it’s important to integrate girls and women into the movement. There was much talk about the drastic change expected to happen within 15 years, and more closely, the change expected to happen in 2020. The tone was too hopeful, too ambitious, or perhaps I’m too cynical and critical of empty rhetoric.
One panelist said something that accurately captured the mood of the conference. Ibrahim Ceesay expressed, “Youth policies without youth funding is bullshit.” The audience was taken by surprise that a diplomat sitting on a panel in the United Nations just said “bullshit,” but his honest remark was greeted with hysterical laughter because he addressed the big elephant the room, the truth we all quietly know. For the remainder of that panel “bullshit” was tossed around here and there.
Another panelist, Rachel Nyaradzo Adams, an educator at Yale University, made a critical point on gender equality. She articulated, “Our glorification of women shouldn’t mean the bastardization of men,” pointing to our tendency to neglect men in the advancement of women. She maintained the importance of educating both genders and of treating both sexes equally.
During lunch I had the opportunity to socialize and network with the other attendees. I approached the Libyan delegate, who had asked the panelists how youth can combat violence that’s reciprocated as a result of activism, to applaud her for bringing up an important issue, which had been brushed off by the panelists with an inadequate response that asserted that all activists face challenges and they somehow have to overcome them, without exactly emphasizing how. We started talking and she told me about a blog she started up called Writings from Benghazi, with the purpose of promoting awareness on Libyan issues through writing. I spoke with other delegates and they told me about the organizations they’re a part of and how they’re building their communities and bringing about change through means outside of the United Nations. Some also agreed on the ineffectiveness of this forum.
After a light lunch filled with interesting discussions ranging from the meaning of the Arab identity and the best stores to shop at in New York, I headed back to the conference room hoping things would take a turn. While sitting there listening to people in fancy clothes discuss important, faraway issues, I couldn’t help but think about HOW these words would be mobilized into action. It’s one thing to talk and a completely other thing to implement. One of the panelists noted how important it is to have grassroots organizations on board, to which I thought of course its important because it’s through grassroots that action is effectively taken.
At some point towards the end of the forum, I walked out and started writing this blog post. I felt like I was being told, or rather, reminded of what I already know: gender inequality persists, poverty remains prevalent in Africa and other places, and activism is frequently met with violence. What was critically absent in the dialogue is how these words can be transmitted into action.
I firmly believe that it’s not through a gathering of people in fancy clothes discussing empty jargon that change is executed, it’s through action, through investigative journalism, through protesting the status quo, through garnering awareness. Granted, it felt cool to say I spent the day at the United Nations, which only consolidates the notion that the UN is merely a popularized and prestigious institution that succeeded in creating a name for itself.
The forum essentially succeeded in starting a conversation on the involvement of youth in the advancement of society, but it failed to provide a step by step procedure on how to implement it and what further active steps will be taken after this fancy dialogue. If I have one word to capture the essence of the Forum it would be simply – and diplomatically – bullshit.