Making a Difference, Against All Odds

I was called into the room at 2 a.m. There I was, half asleep, sitting in a crowded, sweaty hall in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. At that time, in 2002, I was 16 and there were 100 other young people from all over the world sitting around me. We were there for the Children's Earth Summit to discuss how to create a better future.

As I sat there, I could feel my stomach churning. We were supposed to write a declaration outlining a clear plan of how we, as youth, could affect positive change. But instead we were spending our night in heated disagreements and trivial accusations based on nothing more than stereotypes. Suddenly, a young woman from South Africa stood up to speak. I'll never forget what she said:

"Aren't we different?" The crowd fell silent. "We watch the politicians argue, we watch the wars and conflicts. But aren't we supposed to be different!? We are the next generation. It is our responsibility to take action. We cannot waste time in arguing and blame. The need calls for our generation to be different!"

As she spoke these words, I watched the tension in the room begin to dissipate. That night we were able to come together. And, over the next few days we wrote the Children's Earth Summit Declaration -- a five-page document that outlined our ideas for achieving a more sustainable future.

This experience proved to me that at each moment we have the opportunity to begin the world again. As young people, we can do it ourselves.

Yes, young people are the future; but we are also the present. Today, in this moment, there are millions of young people around the world with incredible ideas. And many of us have turned our ideas into action to make a real difference in our communities and beyond.

This month [September 30] I am honored to be one of seven recipients of the Earth Island Institute's Brower Youth Awards -- the most prestigious award in the country for young leaders of the environmental and social justice movements.

Our stories are all different. We come from various regions of the country. But we all have one thing in common: we are leaders of right now trying to build a better future, today. We have responded to the need that "calls for our generation to be different."

One of the winners, Andrea Garza, founded an organization to protest a nuclear waste facility in Texas at the age of 13. La Constance Shahid, at the age of 17, started a wetlands rehabilitation project in her inner-city San Francisco neighborhood of Bay View Hunter's Point. Fifteen-year-old Zander Srodes from Florida is on a mission to save the loggerhead sea turtles from extinction. Daniel Rosen, 19, is working to create a bio-regional farming network on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona to provide healthy foods to local populations. Erika Chase and Kayla Carpenter, 17, organize an annual race to raise awareness about the plight of the salmon in Northern California's increasingly polluted rivers.

I am amazed to call this group of inspiring young people my peers. After my experience in South Africa, I wanted to create a program to facilitate cross-cultural understanding, youth leadership, and community service. The result was One World Youth Project: a program that pairs middle and high schools in the United States with schools from around the world together in learning partnerships. Students work together with their sister-school on a collaborative community service project inspired by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, tackling such issues as the reduction of poverty.

This past year I visited South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Morocco, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Costa Rica, Mexico and India to work with participating schools. There are now 36 schools in 16 countries involved in the program.

Young people can make a tangible difference. That's not a cliché, it's a fact.

As you read this, think about a young person that you know: perhaps your child, friend, or yourself. This person will be part of the next generation to inherit the earth. He or she could be a future world leader. No matter what, he or she will most definitely be effecting change: positive or negative, big or small. Now picture this same person as a leader of this moment, as a leader of today. What could they or you be doing right now to ignite positive change?

The Brower Youth Award recipients exemplify that it is possible to be young and make a huge difference. Every single one of us possesses the ability to change the world. Every day there is a new opportunity.

Just as one's actions can have a positive effect on the world, one's inactions can have a negative effect. It's up to each of us to decide what kind of difference we choose to make.

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