Speaking Truth to Power: How Youth Voices Are Sparking SDG Progress

Cynthia Yue, the U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations, has spent her term connecting local communities to the Global Goals. Photo: Greg Kahn.

As U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations, Cynthia Yue has spent the past year talking with young people across America about what matters most to them — and how members of Generation Z can harness their unprecedented power to do good.

From mental health and climate action to social justice and innovation, she shares some of the most memorable encounters and experiences from her term, and how the nation’s youths are re-imagining their futures using the Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint for local action.

My grandfather was the oldest of six children in a country torn apart by poverty and hunger. By the time he turned 13, he’d watched every one of his younger siblings die from preventable causes. As a first-generation American, I grew up hearing stories of all of the atrocities that plagued my family over the years, and how humanitarian agencies like UNICEF helped their communities survive.

It’s why my passion for the United Nations is a personal one — and why I decided to apply to be the U.S. Youth Observer to the UN. I grew up in rural Tennessee, where seeing local problems through a global lens can be a challenge for many. I wanted to reach young people who might not know what the UN does, what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are, or why they matter. Though they each represent distinct goals, the 17 SDGs are interconnected because poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, and other problems all intersect. For instance, good health and well-being — SDG 3, for example — affects our progress on all of the Global Goals.

The organization I represent, the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA), predates the United Nations. World peace advocates launched the organization after World War II with support from leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt to champion the idea that we could prevent global destruction and disaster by creating the UN. Since then, it has evolved to become our nation’s largest grassroots movement in support of the UN’s mission. Every year, over 20,000 supporters come together on behalf of the UN and the global work being done around the SDGs. We travel to Capitol Hill from all 50 states to speak with our nation’s leaders and lawmakers. We lobby for humanitarian workers and the families they serve. We raise our voices because we know that support for the UN comes from Americans everywhere, from coast to coast and the heartland of the United States.

Cynthia recognizes that not everyone knows about the United Nations or the Sustainable Development Goals. Part of her mission as U.S. Youth Observer was to connect young people around the country with these global concepts. Photo: Greg Kahn.

Listening to America’s Youth

At the core of everything I wanted to do in my term was to ensure that we had diversity, not just in representation but also in whom we reached out to and amplified. I wanted to create spaces for young people who have never had the opportunity to participate at the UN to take action on our world’s most pressing issues, including the SDGs. To do so, at the beginning of my term, I hosted a listening tour to connect with thousands of young people across the country. One story in particular that stuck out to me came from a student from Iowa. He told me that, back in 2008, his hometown experienced the worst flood in recorded history. To this day, his community is still dealing with the aftermath — you can still find homes that were damaged and rubble from buildings that were destroyed Yet, what also came from that disaster was collective action, a thread that connects all of the SDGs. It sparked a group of young people, including that student, to rally together and push the mayor to adopt cleaner energy practices (SDG 7), which helped transform their town into a regional leader on climate action (SDG 13).

Young people today have a unique ability to influence decision-makers in ways they’ve never been able to before. Technology and social media are enhancing youth advocacy in extraordinary ways. Advocacy has so much power in numbers, and we now have the tools, power, and capabilities to create tangible changes simply by raising our voices.

Despite all of this progress, I’ve also seen and heard firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected my peers. There is this growing epidemic in the United States — not just with Gen Z, but with every generation — of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people in my age group. On a community level, studies have shown that young Asian American and Pacific Islanders like me are the least likely group to seek help for mental health and that AAPIs, in general, feel an immense level of stigma within our community despite often experiencing a great deal of intergenerational trauma. Especially given the rise in hate crimes against AAPIs in recent years, mental health awareness is increasingly important in our nation as a whole and within the AAPI community. With all of that in mind, I really wanted to focus on mental health during my term.

Cynthia and other youth leaders pose with President Joe Biden at the White House for the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum in May 2022. Photo: Cynthia Yue.

After 10 years of working as a mental health advocate, I was honored to be invited to the White House this year as one of 30 youth leaders to meet with President Joe Biden, the first lady, Selena Gomez, and the U.S. Surgeon General to share my story at its inaugural Mental Health Youth Action Forum in partnership with MTV. This event marked the first time in our nation’s history where U.S. leaders united to recognize that mental health is a unique challenge affecting young people in the U.S. in unprecedented ways. Additionally, with a team of other passionate youth advocates, I proposed a national campaign for mental health action to private, public, and nonprofit partners across sectors to work in solidarity with diverse stakeholders across the U.S. Having the opportunity to discuss how mental health has personally affected me and others in my generation was an empowering experience that showed how our world’s leaders are not only listening to young voices but also transforming ideas into impact.

Fighting for Social Justice Worldwide

During my national listening tour, young people shared how, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, social justice is a huge priority in the United States. Yet, many shared that they view social justice predominantly as a domestic issue. They didn’t see the international connection to the global movement for reduced inequalities and justice. To enhance the sustained movement for global solidarity in social justice, I founded the Social Justice Series to hold conversations and workshops on advocacy, antiracism, and social justice, connecting these domestic concerns to social justice movements in other countries and broader global efforts. We invited expert speakers across sectors — academic institutions like Harvard and San Francisco State University; private sector companies like Google; advocacy organizations like Stop AAPI Hate and the NAACP Foundation; and public sector representatives from the European Union, G20 Summit, and various country missions to the UN — to talk about social justice, both the history behind movements and the future of activism. We showed that, as the leaders of tomorrow, young people are united for change. Our generation is aware of and equipped to recognize that the specters of imperialism, colonialism, and racism built an unequal world, and we are the force for change in this and all spaces.

In the Social Justice Series, we created spaces for hundreds of young people from five continents to discuss their personal stories as anti-racism advocates and ways to stand in solidarity to create a lasting global movement for social justice, The event culminated in an international roundtable where young people from around the world shared how they are advocating for social justice in their own home countries. Throughout the planning process and my term, I also had great conversations with students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard University’s UNA-USA chapter here in D.C. to amplify their voices in the UN space. Their chapter actively works with The World Is Watching, a Black Lives Matter organization that focuses on international issues and international social justice, and Black Professionals in International Affairs to empower students to pursue careers in the international space. We discussed tangible ways to not only enhance the content of the Social Justice Series but also ways to involve more youths from HBCUs at the United Nations. By working to create opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to share their stories and participate in international UN-related conversations, we can build a larger movement to create systemic change.

Cynthia completed her undergraduate degree at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Photo: Greg Kahn.

Building Solidarity in Our Nation’s Capital

As a recent graduate of George Washington University, I’ve spent the past four years living in D.C. and learning how inequity and injustice have shaped the lives of Black and Indigenous people here, as well as people of color (BIPOCs) in general. Our nation’s capital tells the tale of two cities, one of immense levels of wealth and power, but another of families that are struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. Just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Hill, you will find historically overlooked neighborhoods such as Ivy City, a predominantly Black community with residents who have shared with me that they have felt disenfranchised for years. As one of the only neighborhoods where Black people were allowed to reside after the Civil War, Ivy City carries a rich history and is home to residents whose families have been there for generations. Recently, developers have started to gentrify Ivy City, creating developments and policies that have pushed out families with decades-long roots in the neighborhood.

Recognizing the need for equity in all development, I worked with a team of students from GW and Université USL to create a proposal on the sustainable and equitable development of the area for the C40 Students Reinventing Cities competition. Quite simply, our team aimed to address the question at the crux of the issue: How do we create a flourishing neighborhood where we revitalize the community without pushing out residents whose families have been there for generations? After interviewing numerous stakeholders including residents, activists, business owners, and community leaders, we created a three-pronged plan focused on community, mobility, and sustainability. Based on the consultations from community members, components of our proposal included improving public transportation, re-imagining abandoned or industrial spaces as community centers and public green spaces, and providing clean energy for local households and businesses — work that aligns with and helps achieve the SDGs.

During her time in Washington, D.C., Cynthia explored the dual realities of the city’s residents. She is seen here in Ivy City, a historically overlooked neighborhood in the northeast quadrant of D.C. Photo: Greg Kahn.

Amplifying the Voices of U.S. Youth at the UN

Young people want more opportunities to engage with the UN and directly speak about global issues that affect them personally. Although my role as the U.S. Youth Observer to the UN is to represent the voices of U.S. youths on the world’s stage, true representation is not just about me speaking on behalf of others — it is about empowering others in my generation to directly address global leaders themselves. From the very beginning of my term, I made equitable representation one of my core goals. Over the past year, I have worked to bring more opportunities for young people to have a direct say in the UN system, including modifying the UNA-USA’s annual case competition into a format that challenged young people to present their ideas on innovation to help children through the pandemic to representatives from UNICEF, UNICEF USA, and the U.S. Department of State. Recognizing the intersection of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) innovation and the UN’s Global Goals, we also worked with the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs to create a series for U.S. youths on promoting world peace and sustainability through outer space research and technology. After all, when we think about issues like climate action — SDG 13 — a lot of the data that we know about climate change stems from space innovation, and topics like outer space will grow more relevant as our world continues to innovate and search for solutions to pressing global topics.

As my term draws to a close, I’m grateful for all of the young people I’ve met and all of the experiences they shared. Youth action on the SDGs is crucial because the global problems we’re facing — climate change, conflict, inequality, health access, food insecurity — are going to affect us the most. We inherited a broken planet and will continue to feel the impacts of our leaders’ decisions today and in the decades to come.

The SDGs are here for our future. They exist for the planet, they exist for our communities, they exist for us. The more we do to make these 17 goals a reality, the more we do to invest in our own future — and that of every person who comes into this world after us.

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American Leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals.

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