September marked the conclusion of the 69th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in which dignitaries (and their entourages) descended on New York City to discuss the pressing issues facing our world today. Predictably, statements calling for peace in war-torn regions and demanding international collaboration to address problems that know no borders grabbed the headlines and dominated our social media feeds, but so did something else: ordinary citizens.
That’s right. “Regular” people, with strong opinions and good ideas, stole the spotlight from world leaders during an annual convening that is closely watched by journalists, academics, policymakers, and non-governmental organizations alike. How did they manage this? By standing up, speaking out, and calling attention to the problems that affect all of us but are often dismissed by those in power because they are not deemed “high priority.” On September 21st, the People’s Climate March rallied untold numbers of participants—protestors in Manhattan alone numbered hundreds of thousands—at 2,646 events in 162 countries to demand action on a phenomenon that threatens the existence of humankind, especially the already impoverished and vulnerable populations in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Held two days before the UN Climate Summit, the march sent a clear message that we can no longer ignore the effects of rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather patterns.
A young person who made an impactful and broadly recognized statement was Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, who delivered a speech on gender equality at the launch of the HeforShe campaign, an initiative that calls on men to become feminists and advocate for closing the gap in social, political, and economic rights between men and women. Watson accurately describes a world that has limited the progress of both genders through perpetuating harmful stereotypes and principles that prevent women from making reproductive health decisions, receiving a quality education, entering the profession of their choice, and achieving pay parity with men. The “Harry Potter girl” also illuminates the importance of having allies that can reach out to members of other constituencies and accelerate the rate at which change occurs. It is impossible to supplant the preexisting paradigm if we do not involve all stakeholders. Watson proved you don’t need to be an elected official to gain momentum on your issue.
This need for board citizen engagement is recognized by A World at School, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all youth around the world receive an education. It faces a staggering challenge: approximately 58 million children do not attend school due to conflict, inaccessibility, and a host of other reasons, but this only means that it needs to engage staggering numbers of actors to join the cause. Working across sectors, mobilizing five hundred Youth Ambassadors in eighty-five nations, and building a coalition of diverse faith groups are among the tactics that the organization is employing so that we may be able to achieve at least one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the U.N. in 2002. Although the deadline to eradicate poverty is less than a year away, the international community has failed to make significant progress, and that’s where we, the “ordinary citizens” come in.
Despite their power to effect change, our heads of State have not always honored their commitment to address the economic, environmental, health, and social ills that afflict the poorest, most marginalized, and least represented people in our world. But the fight’s not over yet – if we, the citizenry, speak up. The events of the last several weeks demonstrate that individuals will rise to the occasion to make their grievances known, but it is imperative that we translate our words into actions and take tangible steps to remedy the problems we face today. Think globally, act locally. Through actively participating in our government, we can put pressure on our elected officials to keep the promises they have made not only to the citizens within the borders of the United States but also to those who live beyond them. Generation Citizen students and Democracy Coaches know this to be true – by all appearances, we may seem ordinary and unimportant, but our power to make a difference is not.
– Sidra Ahmad, Generation Citizen Democracy Journalist, New York University
Sidra is a student at NYU majoring in International Relations with minors in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Public Policy and Management. She has spent two semesters as a Generation Citizen Democracy Coach, and this semester, she will serve as a Democracy Journalist, capturing and sharing stories from GC classrooms. Sidra has held internships with NBCUniversal, the Ford Foundation, Estée Lauder, and the Pearl Theatre Company.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.