2021 in Review: American Leadership on the SDGs

Students hold up SDGs icons they received from the Puerto Rico chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA. Photo: UNA-USA PR

As 2021 draws to a close, the United States is at an inflection point when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is a vibrant and growing coalition of actors who are bringing the SDGs home to their communities, campuses, and workplaces. The SDGs are increasingly taking root as a common language for connecting efforts and aligning ambitions — from the classroom to the boardroom; in communities as diverse as Orlando and Pittsburgh; and in states as varied as Kansas, Minnesota, and Hawaii.

With the world entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic amid worsening climate impacts, and as the United States continues to struggle with persistent racial, economic, and gender inequalities and a growing political divide, the need for a resilient, inclusive way forward is clear. The 17 SDGs are at the heart of these challenges and provide a road map to advance solutions. They set specific targets on issues that matter to Americans — including food security, quality education, and clean and affordable energy — and have the potential to build common ground around working toward shared outcomes for all.

There is growing alignment in the United States with the principles at the heart of the SDGs: a commitment to reaching those who have been left behind and a recognition that we need a full picture of progress and comprehensive understanding of the gaps across issue areas, as the country’s challenges are deeply interconnected.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joins the Los Angeles Mission to serve and distribute takeout meals for skid row residents. Photo: Eric Garcetti / Flickr

But more work is needed to demonstrate what the SDGs offer across the board, from local communities to the federal government, and to encourage new commitments and action. Overall, it can be difficult to figure out entry points for SDG engagement and to find information on U.S. SDG activity, including innovative models and approaches.

These trends motivated the launch earlier this year of American Leadership on the SDGs, a partnership between the UN Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, and pursued in close collaboration with SDG leaders from all sectors. This effort is elevating and connecting the incredible work already happening in this space. It is working to expand the community’s reach by bringing in new actors and connecting them with the tools, resources, and experiences of America’s SDG leaders, including through a dedicated U.S. SDG resource library. And it is leading new research on crosscutting issues and polling to better understand Americans’ opinions about the SDGs.


Many exciting developments happened this year. The Mayor of Phoenix made new commitment to the SDGs in collaboration with Arizona State University. Orlando released its first Voluntary Local Review of progress on the Goals, joining New York City, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. A group of small, rural community foundations in Kansas embarked on a two-year program to apply the SDGs to their work. There was growing leadership across universities with several campuswide efforts, including at Carnegie Mellon, George Mason, and Auburn Universities. And a network of American universities and research institutions known as SDSN USA explored the unequal delivery of the SDGs in the U.S. by race and ethnicity, released a state-level SDG assessment, and launched a working group on Diversity, Equity, and Justice for Sustainability.

Orlando released its first Voluntary Local Review of progress on the Goals, joining New York City, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Hawai’i.


Though the SDGs were designed as a global framework, they are universally applicable and become real and tangible when brought into communities and connected to the local context. During the past year, as we explored the many ways Americans are bringing the SDGs home, a few key themes emerged:

Power of collaboration through the SDGs. The SDGs offer a common language to connect communities, and this cross-sector collaboration in turn strengthens SDG outcomes. In Hawaii this means pursuing a consensus-driven effort built on the community’s long-standing commitment to sustainability. For Pittsburgh, it takes the form of collaboration between sectors to revitalize the city’s economy and improve the well-being of its residents. In rural Minnesota, the SDGs act like a connective tissue to build relationships and share knowledge across communities and around the world

Pittsburgh has evolved from a predominantly industrial city to a leader on sustainability across sectors. Photo: Rivers of Steel

Addressing inequalities as a guiding principle. Many people in America are economically insecure and face vast disparities in outcomes, from health and well-being to essential services, quality education, and personal safety. Meeting the needs of vulnerable and marginalized communities is the opportunity at the heart of the SDGs. Representative Sara Jacobs, Democrat of California, said it best during the third annual American Leadership in Advancing the SDGs event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly when she stated that “we need to chart a path forward with equity at the core, and that’s what the Sustainable Development Goals are all about.” Los Angeles is already doing this by using the SDGs to build public dashboards to better understand where and for whom disparities exist across issues and to hold leaders accountable for outcomes, with a specific focus on ending gender inequality.

Young people and universities as important leaders and partners. Sustainability is not an abstract idea for young people, who are doing the work to make the SDGs a reality by elevating inequalities, advocating for change, and using their data and research skills to improve accountability. Cynthia Yue, United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) Youth Observer to the United Nations, heard this firsthand during her listening tour last summer as young people said they feel they have inherited centuries of inaction and are ready to lead. Similarly, universities are playing a pivotal role in advancing the SDGs on their campuses and in their communities by equipping the next generation of SDG leaders, pursuing SDG-focused research, and partnering with local governments to support their efforts.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is one of several leading higher education institutions making strides on the SDGs. Photo: Cam Miller / Flickr

Local leadership can have a global impact. American SDG innovation and leadership are helping to advance efforts around the world. New York City has sparked a global SDG movement through its Voluntary Local Review Declaration. Hawaii is a key partner in the Local2030 Islands Network, an effort connecting islands to advance island-led sustainability efforts. And Los Angeles joined five other cities to launch City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE) to help address global gender inequality by sharing experiences.


Against a backdrop of continued uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, ongoing social and economic disparities, a contentious midterm election, and growing divides and distrust, 2022 is likely to be another challenging year for the U.S. But the coming year also holds great promise, if the world can put equity and sustainability at the core of efforts to rebuild.

This is where the SDGs come in. We hope to see more governments and agencies, at both the local and federal levels, taking on the SDGs through new political commitments, data efforts, and partnerships. We also hope to see a growing number of actors, especially education systems, philanthropy, and the corporate world, using the SDGs to benchmark progress. Through American Leadership on the SDGs, we will look to broaden the reach of the Goals to new actors and deepen engagement to help turn SDG commitments into action. This includes a focus on elevating the many ways in which the SDGs translate into tangible results for American families.

American Leadership on the SDGs exists because of the dedication and effort of people across the country. 2022 is the year to come together through the SDGs and to build a better, healthier, and more sustainable and equitable future for all.

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