People across America are using the Sustainable Development Goals as a road map to build back better by turning these global ambitions into local action. For Dustin Liu, who spent the past year as the UNA-USA’s Youth Observer to the UN, that means connecting with young people nationwide who are working to achieve the SDGs in their own communities.
I was sitting in a classroom in a small town a few hours from Kuala Lumpur when I first realized that COVID-19 would upend all of our lives — including my own.
I had just started a Fulbright teaching fellowship, and my students had left for the weekend. I was gathering my belongings when I received a phone call from my supervisor informing me that I would be leaving Malaysia eight months earlier than expected due to the global lockdown. In a matter of days, I arrived back to my childhood bedroom in New York. It felt straight out of a science fiction novel: a global pandemic, school moved to Zoom, a collective experience of loss amid converging economic and public health crises.
It was halfway through the shutdown in April that the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) — an organization founded in the aftermath of World War II to engage Americans of all ages in the newly formed United Nations — sent their monthly newsletter and highlighted open applications for their U.S. Youth Observer to the UN position. On a whim and as a project during my quarantine, I decided to apply, motivated by the prospect of funneling my belief in the power of young people to change the world.
As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, I inherently felt connected to my family outside of my local context. Mornings were spent in front of a webcam saying goodnight to my grandparents halfway around the world. Growing up in a predominantly immigrant community on Long Island, N.Y., made thinking globally a natural part of my upbringing. From a young age, I followed my mom, a nurse and volunteer for the Tzu Chi Foundation, to community meetings as a helping hand. These experiences exposed me to what is possible when we work together to tackle social issues. I often share that growing up with my mom was my longest internship; those formative experiences had a profound impact on my faith in collective action. I saw proof that, together, we can make a difference.
It was an incredibly humbling experience to be selected for the position, and I knew I wanted to embody the lessons I learned through my own change-making journey. For me, getting selected was an opportunity to build for others what was transformative for me: the understanding that all people — including and especially young people — have the potential to change the world.
While the role of UNA-USA’s Youth Observer is shaped by each individual who fills it, what has remained central to the position is its mission of connecting young people in the U.S. with the UN. Over this past year, despite a global pandemic and the Zoom fatigue we have all felt, I have had the opportunity to connect with nearly 28,000 young people across the country through virtual webinars, workshops, meetings, and dialogues. I went on a listening tour, connecting with 128 groups of young people on how they hoped to be engaged with the UN. I designed and had an opportunity to learn with the young people I met through a series of workshops, ranging from movement building to systems change.
These conversations have provided a deep and unfiltered view into how young people nationwide are bringing their creativity, innovative spirit, and diverse perspectives to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 ambitious aims adopted by all 193 UN Member States. The most rewarding part of the role is having the chance to learn about how young people are thinking globally while acting locally.
It was through these interactions that I discovered how each and every one of us has particular skills and talents to contribute — and that many members of my generation are already using these unique gifts to help achieve the SDGs in their own communities.
The most powerful lessons I learned during this historic year can be found in the stories my peers shared with me. For the students I met, achieving sustainability — in our communities, in our workplaces, in our schools, in the environment — is not an abstract aim. Our generation is already experiencing the consequences of climate change and inequality. I think about Sarah, a youth leader I met early in my term, who is working to expand service opportunities for her high school classmates in Colorado by connecting students directly to community-based organizations. I remember conversations with John in upstate New York about tutoring middle schoolers in his district who were struggling to adapt to remote learning. I think back to my talks with Cole, a student in Oregon who mobilized food, clothing, and fundraising drives to support his community after a devastating forest fire. These actions taken by young people at the local level are helping the U.S. make progress on the SDGs in tangible ways.
I’m also reminded of the dozens of UNA-USA campus chapters that held virtual UN Day events for their communities last October, shedding light on our generation’s widespread support for the UN and our work to achieve the SDGs locally. I think about the college students who are building coalitions to demand climate action, like divesting from fossil fuel, from their institutions and school leadership. I feel honored to have participated in dialogues with so many activists, advocates, and dreamers who are reimagining how the U.S. approaches complex and complicated issues that will shape our future — from climate change to a living wage.
It is clear to me that business as usual simply won’t do for my generation. We are witnessing a power shift toward a more equitable and sustainable world.
As my term concludes this summer, I’m conscious that young people are experts of their own experience. I’m inspired by the work of folks like Andrew Brennen of Kentucky, who is working toward equity in the classroom as an Education Fellow at National Geographic Society. I’m reminded of the importance that storytelling plays in this work by Ahmed Badr, a 22-year-old Iraqi American author, poet, and social entrepreneur working at the intersection of creativity, displacement, and youth empowerment. I’m moved by the work of Sam Vaghar, activating hundreds of young people engaged in the Millennium Fellowship, a semester-long leadership development program focused on the SDGs. I’m encouraged by the work of Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth who is thinking systemically about how young people can be more engaged with the UN.
The power that young people bring to the SDGs is the ability to imagine a world that does not yet exist. Realizing the SDGs must start with the belief that they can be achieved. Working toward that which does not yet exist seems to be inherently an act of science fiction. To me, that is the purest form of hope. Amid a year of crises where we experienced a profound sense of loss and grief, these moments have provided bright spots for how we may build back better through the leadership of young people.
Serving as the ninth UNA-USA Youth Observer to the UN has reaffirmed to me that achieving the SDGs will not be possible without putting youth voices at the center. Young people are already doing the work.
Just picture what’s possible when they’re not only recognized for what they have done, but given the opportunity to lead.
From 2020-2021, Dustin Liu (he/his) served as the ninth UNA-USA Youth Observer to the United Nations, a role in which he works to engage young Americans in the work of the UN.
The United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) is a movement of Americans who believe that our interests and values can best be advanced by standing with the planet’s only truly universal institution: the United Nations.
This conversation is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American leadership on the SDGs.
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Featured Photo: UNA-USA