2022 in Review: Young Leaders Are Designing their Own Futures

By Inés Yábar on December 19, 2022

Renata Koch Alvarenga, founder of EmpoderaClima and Fellow at the United Nations; Alice Mukashyaka, co-founder of Starlight and Next Generation Fellow; Gregorius Yoseph Laba, Youth4EIE; and Raakhi Williams, Chief of Strategy and Planning, ECW, during the Let’s Adapt: Education for Climate Justice panel at the Unlock the Future of Learning event.

Young people may be the ones bearing the brunt of societal failures and compounding global crises, but they are also uniquely positioned to help create a better world for all generations. Inés Yábar, a 26-year-old activist and Lead of the UN Foundation Next Generation Fellows program, reflects on a year of learning, community, and progress — and shares what young people (including herself!) are hopeful for in 2023.

Now facing soaring inflation, rising energy bills, and sky-high housing costs, the world seems to be lurching from one global crisis to the next. The strain to make ends meet and secure basic necessities like a warm home, quality education, and decent work is hitting young people hard. Living in Sierra Leone this past year, I saw how a rise in fuel prices left people without any means of transportation, enough food to eat, or hope for the future. I am concerned that despite global efforts to solve these different crises, my children and grandchildren will not inherit a better planet than the one I was born into. These challenges are not only affecting us right now; they will also rob the next generation of the great future they deserve.

Because of these compounding crises, we, as young people around the world, are stepping up as leaders and mobilizing with fierce urgency to change our current trajectory. From leading rallies in the streets to advocating for innovative solutions in formal decision-making spaces, our generation is taking the lead.

However, we will not be able to change the world alone. We know that to truly build a livable future for people and planet, people of all sectors, countries, and generations will need to work together. So young people are committed not just to fighting for change, but also to reaching across divides and ensuring that everyone, everywhere is able to join us in this work.

Last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a call for young people to be “designers of their own future.” In response to this challenge, the United Nations Foundation set up the Next Generation Fellows program, giving dozens of youths from around the world, including myself, a platform to fight for change at the United Nations and through our local governments.

In my role as the leader of this year’s cohort of Next Generation Fellows, I have the great privilege of coordinating a stellar team of Fellows and working with the UN Foundation to put the concerns of young people and future generations at the top of the international agenda.

It has been a whirlwind year, but looking back I am so proud of everything we have achieved together.

Bringing Young People Together to Brainstorm Solutions

2022 kicked off with the inaugural Big Brainstorm hosted by Unlock the Future, a coalition of some of the world’s biggest youth-led and youth-focused organizations with a reach of almost 800 million people. The Big Brainstorm was an open call to anyone who was passionate about shaping the future to help create, lead, or participate in a youth-led Action Group.

Each Action Group was tasked with developing a 10-month action plan to address a pressing global challenge of its choice. At the end of the two-week Big Brainstorm, each group pitched its ideas, which ranged from tackling everything from unequal access to education to gender-based violence in digital spaces, to an experienced advisory panel, other young thinkers and activists, and prospective donors and partners.

Since February, they have worked to turn their ideas into reality with the support of Unlock the Future partners. By pooling resources, these youth-driven organizations have been able to provide strategic advice, capacity, and in some cases funding, for the Action Groups. And in turn, the Action Groups have become the “engine room” for the coalition, guiding and driving the partners’ efforts to deliver transformative change for the world’s young people.

One Action Group that had early success was the Future Generations Action Group, led by Bianca Goebel and Taylor Hawkins. In just three months, the group developed a Future Generations Leadership Accelerator to empower young leaders to be productive advocates for the interests of future generations. The Leadership Accelerator ran for four weeks and took participants from 42 countries through a series of videos and activities to better understand what is meant by “future generations” — and importantly, what we might owe them in terms of an equitable, healthier, and sustainable planet.

Bianca Goebel, Foundations for Tomorrow, and Makanalani Gomes, co-chair of the Indigenous Youth Caucus, present a Contract for Our Future to Stefan Löfven, co-chair of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.

The project culminated at Stockholm+50 earlier this year, when Action Group leader Bianca Goebel presented a Contract for Our Future to Stefan Löfven, the co-chair of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. This ambitious document calls for all leaders to protect the interests of future generations and lays out a potential five-point plan for the UN to accomplish by 2025.

Next Generation Fellows Jacob Ellis and Claudette Salinas Leyva are now committed to building on this work in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future. The Summit is scheduled to be held in 2024 and, in the words of the UN Secretary-General, will bring people together to “forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like.” The Next Generation Fellows will be preparing for this milestone moment of global reflection and agenda-setting by encouraging people of all ages to endorse the Contract for Our Future and building a network of champions for future generations.

"This year I attended COP 27, and I faced two possible futures. On the one hand was failure to negotiate and take radical action (would we ever see an end to these at COP Summits?). But on the other hand I reflected on progress. A youth pavilion for the first time, a historic agreement on loss and damage — the future has never been more present."

Jacob Ellis

Next Generation Fellow on Future Generations, Wales

Transforming Education: With, By, and For Youth

The Transforming Education Action Group, led by Next Generation Fellows Alice Mukashyaka and Thais Queiroz, also leveraged momentum from the Big Brainstorm to achieve their goals. They used the platform to connect with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General’s team, and as a result helped to ensure young people were given a voice at the UN Transforming Education Summit, a political conference held this year to inspire leaders to invest in the world’s education systems so that they are fit for the 21st century. In particular, the Action Group pushed for nonformal education — an issue close to the hearts of many young people — to be added to the Summit agenda, and enabled more young people to be able to attend the Summit in person.

Next Generation Fellow Alice Mukashyaka at the Transforming Education Pre-Summit in Paris. Members of the Transforming Education Action Group and Unlock the Future coalition partners made their mark at this milestone event, signaling the beginning of international efforts to reimagine our education systems for the 21st century and beyond.

The Action Group was also a key part of Unlock the Future of Learning, a high-level multistakeholder event held adjacent to the UN Transforming Education Summit on Sept. 19 that I was privileged to host. Over 1,000 people took part (in person and online) from 94 countries, and over a third of participants were under the age of 30. This was not a tokenistic representation of youth at a global event. Rather, I was thrilled that we got to co-design, lead, and not only be showcased, but also have a space to connect with decision-makers as equals working toward the same objective: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A personal highlight was seeing three young leaders from Zimbabwe, South Sudan, and Guyana pitch win-win solutions to transform education by 2030. Beyond already tackling these issues brilliantly in their own communities, they encouraged us all to think about what we could do on these issues in our own communities. After all, we young people are experts in our own realities and tackling these issues is part of our daily lives.

Michelle Chikurunhe pitched the need for digital access. Maurice Okello shared a video on the importance of mental health and education. And Mahendra Phagwah, using an orange as a prop to help make the case for good nutrition, spoke about the benefits of school feeding programs. I know it was particularly meaningful to have young people from diverse backgrounds pitch in this space because far too often those from only the most privileged upbringings get the chance to speak on stage in New York City, something we call “the golden circle.” However, young people with varied life experiences — like Mahendra, who was unable to finish formal schooling, or Okello, whose education was disrupted while living as a refugee — are the voices we should be listening to, supporting, and trusting when it comes to addressing the biggest challenges standing in the way of education today.

Mahendra Phagwah, Restless Development, makes his pitch for the Youth Solutions Challenge at Unlock the Future of Learning.

"More than ever before, we need a collective effort of young people with firsthand lived experiences in this process of tackling education crises and learning losses. It is a common responsibility to take action, and every action counts."

Alice Mukashyaka

Next Generation Fellow for Transforming Education, Rwanda

Although the Transforming Education Summit officially concluded in September 2022, Action Group members have still been connecting with their governments to share their concerns and recommendations. We were thrilled, for example, that after writing to his government, Action Group member Kaigama Ismael was able to sit with the Academic Inspector of Cameroon for a two-hour meeting about national education transformation. Just last month Kaigama started national consultations in schools in order to connect with students, teachers, and parents — all of whom are relevant, yet often overlooked, stakeholders in the Transforming Education System process. Kaigama will draft a national report together with an inclusive proposal and submit them to the Prime Minister of Cameroon at the end of the school year in 2023.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks with Elisa Shafiqah Shahrilnizam (right) and Michelle Lee Xi Fuong before the International Day of Peace youth observance held on the theme "End racism. Build peace." The event draws attention to the importance of combating racism and building societies in which all people are treated equally. Photo: Ariana Lindquist/United Nations

That the Action Groups have made an impact at the local, national, and global levels in such a short time is a testament to the passion, ability, and commitment of young people. And it also shows the value of spaces like the Big Brainstorm that maximize the collective power of youth, as well as those who work to ensure that such spaces exist.

The Sustainable Development Goals Are a Problem-Solving Road Map

This year, I also gained a new appreciation for the interconnectedness of the challenges facing humanity. We cannot solve one without solving the others — and that is the beauty and the challenge of SDGs, which themselves are inextricably linked. With the second SDG Summit fast approaching in September 2023, creating and emphasizing links among the 17 SDGs is more important than ever, and we, as young leaders, are in a unique position to do this.

Last month, Next Generation Fellow Anita Dywaba, from South Africa, kick-started this work by leading a digital campaign in support of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” campaign, initiated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. Over the 16 days Anita highlighted the link between SDG 5 (Gender Equality) and every other SDG and pushed for greater “collaboration and cross-activism” with young people at the forefront of such initiatives.

"It is crucial that young people are at the forefront of this collaborative effort, and I’m looking forward to another year of working together with other young activists, from all areas of interest and walks of life, to help advance our shared goals."

Anita Dywaba

Next Generation Fellow for Gender Equality, South Africa

When the new year opens, Our Future Agenda will double down on keeping the SDGs at the heart of everything we do, starting with a second, annual Big Brainstorm.

At the Big Brainstorm 2023, which will run from Feb. 16 to Feb. 28, young leaders from around the world will come together to embark on a design sprint to explore, prototype, and launch initiatives to tackle some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

The theme of the 2023 Big Brainstorm is “A Year of Action for the SDGs.” As we reach the halfway point to the 2030 deadline to achieve the Goals, it’s crucial that we pick up momentum, tackle challenges together, and especially, that we don’t lose hope. Because I believe if we all care, learn from each other, and take action wherever we are, we really do have hope.

Like last year, the second Big Brainstorm will be a chance for young people from around the world to come together as young leaders to explore, prototype, and launch initiatives to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges. And over the year, the Next Generation Fellows will act as peer-to-peer mentors to the different Action Groups, so that they can be spotlighted at the SDG Summit to demonstrate that progress is possible, and that as the Secretary-General said, young people should be “at the table — as designers of their own future.”

"With the numerous difficulties we face, the world looks to be more vulnerable than ever, and I implore the international system to do the right thing for all of us. To maintain our globe safe for future generations, we must all work together. We must take action to protect our environment, combat climate change, and promote world peace and security. We must also endeavor to make the world more equitable and just, with access to basic essentials for all."

Kelechi Achinonu

Next Generation Fellow for Justice, Nigeria

I know that, as young people, we want to shape the policy agenda, drive innovation and the delivery of solutions, and strengthen partnerships between generations. At the same time, we want to hold the generation in power to account. It is time for the world’s leaders to catch up — or risk being left behind.

Young people gather at Foley Square in New York City on Sept. 23, 2022 for the Fridays for Future NYC Global Climate Strike. Carbon Stories/UN Foundation

I have personally committed to supporting, engaging, activating, and bolstering young leaders — just as others have done for me. If you’ve made it to the end of this blog, I know you care and can commit to acting, too. This, after all, is about humanity’s future on Earth, and we are all in this together. So, what do you concretely commit to do? Maybe start by thinking about which Action Groups you want to join in the Big Brainstorm. Or build momentum toward the SDG Summit by starting intergenerational conversations and linking your local actions to these global moments. Whatever it is, I believe if we do this together we still have time, and — I see it in young people every day — we still have hope.


Save the date! Feb. 16–28, 2023

The Big Brainstorm is an annual virtual event designed to give young people an opportunity to create, lead, and participate in a series of Action Groups. These Action Groups are the engine room of the Unlock the Future coalition, guiding and driving our efforts to deliver transformative change for young people and future generations.