Working for change at the UN

By  Shannon Joseph, Catholic Register Special
  • December 7, 2007

Last spring I trekked up to the University of St. Michael’s College to hear a presentation by Anna Halpine, founder of the World Youth Alliance (WYA). The story she told was absolutely inspiring. When it ended I introduced myself and asked how I could get involved.

{sidebar id=1}WYA started at the 1999 United Nations Conference on Population and Development held in New York. During this meeting a group of 32 young people were given the floor and on behalf of the world’s three billion youth demanded three things: abortion as a universal human right, sexual rights for children and the deletion of parents’ rights.

Realizing that these young people did not speak for her or millions of her peers, Halpine and a small group of like-minded youth distributed flyers with a counter-statement at the meeting. They asserted that the 32 youth did not represent them and they called for a discussion of the real issues of development, including nutrition, safe water, basic health and education.

Halpine, then 22, was warmly thanked by delegates, particularly from developing nations, who asked her to work with their young people and to maintain a permanent presence at the UN.

Since then WYA has worked to fulfil two mandates: promoting the intrinsic dignity of the human person at the United Nations and other international institutions, and building solidarity between youth in the developed and developing world. It’s a daunting task in an international environment in which words like “dignity” have a flexible meaning and years of bullying have fuelled mistrust between developed and developing nations.

WYA’s experience shows that young people, particularly in the developing world, are desperate to experience dignity, solidarity and life. Their communities are downtrodden by poverty, AIDS and war. When young people realize they have dignity, it changes everything; it unlocks their youthful energy and capability to change the world.

The Viviamo project in the Philippines is one of WYA’s most inspiring stories. In slum communities, neighbours earn materials to build their homes by building their neighbour’s homes. This approach not only builds solidarity, but creates more humane living conditions for the poor.

At the beginning of the project, children were asked what their dreams were: girls wanted to be exotic dancers and boys wanted to be drug dealers. These were the only known ways to escape the slums. As the project evolved, so did the children’s belief in their own possibilities. They wanted to be teachers, doctors or the mayor and they felt that their input mattered. Experiencing dignity changed their lives and their community.

I am now an intern with WYA in New York City. My two main projects are to organize our Emerging Leaders Conference in Ottawa and our International Solidarity Forum at the United Nations. Through these events we train youth to articulate their positions and influence policy. It’s truly rewarding to contribute to a political culture of life that recognizes people as the focal point of progress. I love it!

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(Joseph, 27, is a masters grad from the University of Toronto.)

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