September 20, 2016

Leadership Now: Youth Voices for Young Lives

Written by Julie Cornell, Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact

“Nothing about us, without us.” If you’re in New York City this week for the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly, you have probably heard this expression reverberating dozens of times within the UN Headquarters building and at numerous side events throughout New York City.

The “us,” in this case, are the youth of today, and this expression is their call to action for the health and wellness of young lives. But what does today’s youth leadership look like in practice?

On Sunday evening, the global health community got a glimpse into what youth leadership looks like in the present day during a session sponsored by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). At a side event focused on adolescent health attended by ministers and media elites, the stage was dominated by youth voices — not for the sake of inclusion, but in fact because UNFPA and PMNCH recognize that solutions for youth must be driven by young people themselves. The focus of the evening went to these young people, each a champion in his or her own community for improving adolescent health.

The moderator, Gogontlejang Phaladi, a young person herself leading change as the executive director of Pillar of Hope in Botswana, set the tone for the event, saying early on in her remarks, “The generation of adolescents we have today turn challenges into opportunities. They are the leaders of today.”

The six young leaders who owned the stage Sunday night proved just her point. From issues as varied and complex as combating child marriage, overcoming ageism in health care access, to the tokenization youth faced by being pushed to the fringes of inclusion, these young leaders each grasped a challenge in their hands – now and today – and each of them are pushing the global community to act.

The message is clear: youth are the leaders not just of tomorrow, but also of today. They must be included in conversations not only at side sessions like this amazing event hosted by PMNCH and UNFPA, but also at the center of decisions that affect the heart of care worldwide. As Yemurai Nyoni, a Women Deliver Young Leader put it, “There are no ‘grown up’ conversations – if something concerns young people we need to be at the table, and see transparent conversation.”