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Young people remain disproportionately underrepresented in global policy and business decisions despite the fact that climate change, mental health, education, and much more will impact them the most. 

At the 2022 Annual Summit, Concordia collaborated with UNICEF USA (a 2022 Annual Summit Lead Programming Partner) to host a session featuring activists Sofia Carson, Ayaan Siddiqui, Ashley Lashley, and Kyle King. The mainstage panel focused on the importance of giving young people a seat at the decision-making table. You can watch the session and read about it here

UNICEF USA National Youth Council Members Kyle and Ayaan recently shared their thoughts on youth-led change, the role of policymakers and business leaders in supporting young people, and the future of youth activism and connectivity. 

Kyle, during the 2022 Annual Summit, you mentioned the importance of having a “youth voice at the table”. Can you elaborate on what this inclusion means to you? 

The big decisions are made by adults. The decisions that determine education and infrastructure and healthcare and international relations are made by adults. On the local and global level, in the public and private sector, the decisions that shape the future are made by adults. To a large degree, this makes sense – often these adult decision makers have the experience to make these decisions. That said, when these decisions are made unilaterally by adults, they fail to take into account the opinions of those with the most at stake, the ones who will be inheriting the future these decisions shape: young people. To me, this feels wrong. How can we possibly decide the future of something like, say, healthcare without asking the opinion of the people who will have to live with the decision? The phrase “youth voice at the table” is a shorthand for the solution to this problem and essentially means including the opinions of young people in the process of making big decisions. And this does not mean having a “youth envoy” that you have a 30-minute call with once a quarter and then largely forget about; rather, it means allowing youth to play an active role in formulating and deciding upon policies and standards. “Youth voice at the table” does not just mean listening to youth, it means partnering with them, truly taking their vision into account when making the decisions of today that will affect their world of tomorrow. 

What can the general public do to better advocate for youth mental health, Kyle? 

The best thing we can do is also the simplest: talk about it. Talk about how poor the state of youth mental health is, the significant social losses this problem amounts to, and all the things we could invest in to ease this problem but don’t. People of all ages need to talk about mental illness and normalize conversations about mental health so youth feel comfortable to seek help when they need it. We need to talk about the lack of accessible and affordable mental health services all around the world to put pressure on lawmakers to invest in mental health infrastructure. In short, the best way to advocate about mental health is to responsibly draw attention to it, a simple act that can both reduce the stigma associated with mental health and embolden decision-makers to act. 

Finally, Kyle, as a youth advocate, what is something adults could do better to lift up younger voices? 

Despite all our ideas and ambition, one of the largest obstacles young people face in advocacy is figuring out where exactly to go if they want to be heard. It is often unclear where and when the most pressing decisions affecting young people are being made, and how youth can try to voice their opinions. Running with my table metaphor, it’s often hard to find the table let alone bring a seat to it. Thus, something adults can do to better lift youth voices is to make forums and decision-makers more accessible to us. Whether this comes in the form of hosting town halls for youth,actively polling young people on relevant issues, or making explicit on a website who we should contact if we want to meet with a decision maker, deliberately making clear how youth can use their voice to influence a given discussion will elicit more of that voice. 

Moving to you, Ayaan, you are part of the National Youth Council for UNICEF USA. What opportunities have you had to make a difference in the activism space and what is your focus? 

Ever since I joined the National Youth Council at UNICEF USA, my advocacy and platform has been augmented in every sense imaginable. It’s hard to describe these once in a lifetime opportunities in so few words because the magnitude and the life-changing direction that come with being recognized as an advocate and your work being legitimized is the most rewarding feeling I’ve had in the activism space. When I first joined, I was almost shocked at the wealth of the opportunities present and encouraged to be taken on. I started with giving Opening Remarks at the State of the World’s Children Report in which I was able to talk along with esteemed experts, an NBA legend, and a senator. And this was right after I had submitted my APUSH paper. That was such a big realization for me—that the opportunities I hadn’t even dreamed of were presenting themselves right in front of me as a Council member. I mainly focused on immigration and mental health aside from the council and those two issues were amplified by the council intentionally. I was able to work on a project that created discourse amongst youth activists across the globe and helped bounce ideas off each other in order to gain a better understanding of global policy and youth’s role in it. That year-long process was so formative for me and only recently when I was invited to speak at the Concordia Assembly alongside the UN General Assembly did I understand the importance of that dialogue. Truly, being a council member is such an enriching and humbling process, showing me just how much more I can do to uplift my voice and voices like mine. 

Watch more from Ayaan at a UNICEF USA mental health event. 

What can we learn from UNICEF USA and the National Youth Council with regard to youth mental health, Ayaan? 

Like physical health, mental health should be thought of as a positive: It underlies our capacity to think, feel, learn, work, build meaningful relationships and contribute to our communities and the world. It is an intrinsic part of individual health and a foundation for healthy communities and nations. We need to remember that mental health exists on a continuum that includes both periods of well-being and periods of distress.

How can the general public better support youth advocates? Where should people start?

Like UNICEF USA has done, giving platforms to youth advocates in your respective communities is the best way to recognize their voice, their ideas, and their bids for progress and change. It starts by not shutting down the ideas of progressivism heard around schools across the nation, by encouraging open dialogue among students and among adolescents, by giving resources to those with visions. Youth has often been a group that have been pushed aside in important decision-making conversations. When we give them the benefit of the doubt and understand their motivations, it becomes a lot less easier to let their voices fall on deaf ears. A youth voice is powerful because it’s unadulterated, it’s candid, and it’s sincere—it’s the purest indicator of public receptiveness because ultimately, we inherit the policies that are being decided in front of our very own eyes. Recognize that and give them their stool and microphone.

Kyle King first began volunteering for UNICEF through his high school club in South Florida in the 9th grade. Throughout high school, Kyle became more and more active in his club, eventually serving on the National Youth Council in his senior year.  Now a junior at Yale University, Kyle’s passion for mental health advocacy has led him back to UNICEF as a returning council member for the 2022-2023 school year. Kyle is currently pursuing a degree in neuroscience and hopes to attend medical school after college.  Although Kyle wants to be a neurosurgeon, he hopes to return to the UN after practicing medicine. Outside of UNICEF, Kyle is a National Advocate for the International OCD Foundation and works as a post-grad associate at the Yale OCD Research Clinic. Of all the amazing work UNICEF does, Kyle is most passionate about supporting the mental health of youth everywhere.

Ayaan Siddiqui is a freshman at Vanderbilt University from Arizona. Ayaan has been involved as a representative and state engagement liaison to ZeroHour, The Borgen Project, and ImproveTheDream where he has lobbied government offices to advocate for climate justice, increased USAID to severely impoverished communities, and immigration reform respectively. He has worked to help introduce two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate supporting immigration reform for documented dreamers. Ayaan has delivered oral arguments surrounding Fourth Amendment search and seizure as Petitioner through Torres v. Madrid in front of the Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General and judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as well as being invited to meet with the full panel of the Arizona Supreme Court. Through his appointment as a National Youth Council Member, he has given opening remarks at the State of the World’s Children Report on mental health.

For more conversations that took place during the 2022 Annual Summit, view the official report. UNICEF USA is a 2022 Concordia Annual Summit Lead Programming Partner. To learn about organizational engagement opportunities with Concordia, please contact partnerships@concordia.net