Q&A: Youth leaders on how to engage young people in development

A view of the Trusteeship Council Chamber during the United Nations Economic and Social Council Youth Forum. This year's theme is “The Role of Youth in Poverty Eradication and Promoting Prosperity in a Changing World.” Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

The United Nations routinely serves as a forum to discuss the needs and interests of the 1.2 billion young people worldwide. Less often, it opens its doors for those youths — a group aged between 15 and 24 that is expected to grow by nearly 7 percent by 2030 — to speak on what matters most to them and how best to engage them on development issues.

Last week, Alpha Sennon, 29, and Natasha Puri, 21, were among the speakers selected to present their development projects on health and well-being at a breakout session during the two-day Youth Forum, hosted by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which stressed engagement in development at all levels.

The forum has been held annually since 2012 and aims to “bring youth into discussions” on the U.N.'s development agenda.

Sennon traveled from his home in Trinidad and Tobago to “pitch” his work at WHYFARM, a farming nonprofit he founded and directs. The organization works to train young, new farmers in issues surrounding food security.

Puri, a senior studying global public health and medicine, came only from her downtown campus at New York University to outline plans for a new mental health app “emp(a)t(h)y,” which she and other students are developing. The app will connect users who have had similar experiences with mental health and “offer an an opportunity for them to talk to one another in a safe space that is anonymous, while also promoting well-being,” said Puri during her remarks at the forum.  

The two found common ground when they spoke to Devex about how the U.N. needs to rethink the way it includes youth in its work — and how they, as youth leaders, can help to make concepts such as the Sustainable Development Goals more appealing to their peers. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.  

Could you walk me through your projects and what you are pursuing?

Natasha Puri: We are working with the understanding that, in order for development to happen, you want people to be in good health. We know about the rise of mental health and the stigma surrounding it, and so our app kind of functions on that unmet need. Our project focuses not just on interventions or scientific treatments. It is about that peer-to-peer connection. A certain level of empathy. We know that personal connections can go far beyond treatments or drugs or such in the realm of health care. We wanted to inspire people to change not only their own lives, but the lives of others; to realize that they can champion their own health.

Alpha Sennon: I have been working on a nonprofit organization called WHYFARM, and it means We Help Youth Farm. My main goal was to give people a better understanding of “why farm, and why food security, why agriculture” — to give young people that understanding so they can get involved. I saw that a lot of programs would sort of do the how but, to me, the why was missing, so most of the time when young people would get involved they would not take it at a serious level, or they would not consider it as a career option.

The things that attract young people must be inspiring, it must be innovative. We came up with the idea of promoting our activities with a superhero character ... to use comic books, animation and to bring the message through theater production, music, poetry and spoken word. In 2015, we launched a superhero series, AGRIman. It features a superhero for food security and, interestingly enough, it was the first in the world. So we have a live AGRIman that would go around to schools. We scaled up quickly and were able to launch in four other countries — three in Africa, one in Haiti.

For both of you, this was your first time presenting at the U.N. during the Youth Forum. How did you find the process of trying to engage with people there and getting your ideas across?

NP: I think the U.N. provides a really good space for discussion and it brings youth together from all parts of the world, which is so important for the work that we are doing. And I think being able to present at the U.N. validates our ideas; it gives us the feedback and momentum to actually implement them. But one thing I would love in the future is to be able to work not just with youth, but other individuals at the U.N. who are coming together to benefit one another and learn a lot. But we need that integration with those around us so we can start filtering and diffusing our ideas.

AS: I definitely agree with what Natasha says. It validates our ideas, because a lot of people will be like, “Wow, you have spoken at the U.N.” When you are invited to speak at the U.N. that puts a stamp on it. It is worth something. It definitely allows us to get some resources for the work that we are doing. [But] one challenge is that we don’t want bodies like the U.N. to work for us. We want them to work with us. That is extremely important. Working for us is OK. But working with us is something else. There are many brilliant young persons I have met over the past few days. They are doing good work in their communities, they are taking up the challenges, they are solving issues. But there is only so much they and we can do with the limited resources we have... But [what] if [the UN] were to say, “OK, we are thinking about doing a youth project. Why not connect with this one, connect with that one, bring this under our arm of programs.” Our concern will always be that we are sat on different panels. We spoke and we hope that they don’t just take it on paper. Hopefully some of these things can become a reality, some of our suggestions, and it does not become just policies on paper.

Do you find the Sustainable Development Goals influence the work you are trying to do in connecting with young people?

NP: Absolutely. I believe it is SDG 3, on health and well-being. We know that mental health plays a huge role in well-being ... and we want to create a safe space where people can discuss these issues. Sometimes it is hard, given certain societies or cultures, to promote treatment, so this app is a good way to help promote those services and eliminate the other issues that surround it.

Do events like these help you make those connections between the SDGs and work you are doing on the ground?

AS: For me, attending the events, it really placed a lot of things into context for my group. We talk about SDG 2 — zero hunger — and it allows us to tie our work back to that … so now when pitching projects, we can add that. Before we would not look at that directly, but so much of what we are doing is automatically [involved in] that. A lot of young people don’t know about the SDGs. At one of the events I said, “The problem is creating youth engagement and the solution is creatively engaging the youth.” We can’t just have the SDGs in a big textbook and expect people to read that. But if you come up with different creative ideas they will care. So, yesterday, I wrote this poem about this, and will do a video. It is these ways to get them to understand, because I can’t just say, “Well, I was at the U.N., working with the Sustainable Development Goals.” People want to engage with creative and social stuff.

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.