Young leaders are not just aspiring leaders of the future, but, in recent decades, appear as major factors in raising awareness of and popularizing the most urgent problems of our society formalized through the United Nations as the Sustainable Development Goals. In part I of this Quick Look, we have gathered a list of a dozen inspiring young sustainability leaders who have both shown their remarkable personalities as leaders, and managed to initiate movements and establish international organizations focused on societal transformations. Part II of the Quick Look is devoted to eight Next Generation Fellows who wrote the noteworthy report on Our Future Agenda.
Part I: International Leaders
- Malala Yousafzai (malala.org) is a Pakistani activist for female education and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She is the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, and second Pakistani to ever receive a Nobel Prize. She is known for human rights activism and especially for advocacy for women and children education in her native Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, northwest Pakistan, where the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had at times banned girls from attending school. Yousafzai called on world leaders to invest in “books, not bullets” and her advocacy has grown into an international movement. Yousafzai made donations for reconstruction of schools on the Gaza Strip and opened a school in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for Syrian refugees. The school, funded by the not-for-profit Malala Fund, offers education and training to girls aged 14 to 18.
- Greta Thunberg (Fridays for Future) is a Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation. She received numerous honors and awards, including an honorary Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people, being the youngest Time Person of the Year, inclusion in the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women (2019), and nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Thunberg participated in the organization of the “school climate strike” movement called Fridays for Future. After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world and by 2019 turned into coordinated multi-city protests involving over a million students each.
- Joshua Gorman is the founder of Generation Waking Up, an organization that “ignites young people to bring forth a thriving, just, and sustainable world”. He holds speeches and organizes workshops and leadership trainings. He self-designed a major titled ‘Global Youth and Social Change’ at George Mason University and supports youth-led projects and movements internationally. Gorman is also a founding member of Youth Passageways, a network of individuals and organizations working in the fields of youth and community development, contemporary rites of passage, intergenerational collaboration, and cultural renewal.
- A former Iranian refugee, Siamak Sam Loni is the founder of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth, where he served as a Partnerships Manager in charge of financing for Sustainable Development. SDSN Youth creates platforms for young people to connect and contribute to regional and national pathways for the implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. So far, 700 schools across 72 countries, representing more than 200,000 students, are involved in the comprehensive sustainability curriculum for primary and secondary schools developed by SDSN Youth. In 2017, Loni was recognized as a young peacebuilder by the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. In 2020 he was enlisted 30 Under 30 list of Social Entrepreneurs by Forbes. Loni is the chair of the annual Vatican Youth Symposium, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS), which mobilizes young leaders in support of human rights, Laudato si’, and sustainable development.
- Brighton Kaoma is a youth activist and social entrepreneur. At the age of 14, as a radio broadcaster, Kaoma started informing people about the environment and climate crisis. Soon after he served as the UNICEF Child Climate Ambassador. He co-founded the Agents of Change Foundation whose goal is to empower the voices of young people across Zambia. After earning his Master’s degree in Public Administration with Environmental Science and Policy at the Colombia University, he worked as Technical & Research Consultant at World Wildlife Fund in New York. He joins SDSN Youth to become the Network’s Global Director in June 2021.
- Felix Finkbeiner is a German environmentalist and the founder of the international tree-planting and environmental advocacy organization Plant-for-the-Planet. At age 10 he spoke in the European Parliament and at age 13 at the UN General Assembly. In 2015 he was Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year, in 2016 one of Junior Chamber International’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World, in 2018 Focus Magazine’s Person Most Likely to Shape the Next 25 Years. Finkbeiner was decorated by the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany by President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
- Benjamin Quinto is the executive director of the Global Youth Action Network, a leading alliance of youth organizations in over 180 countries. Mr. Quinto is also associate director for Youth in Action, a United States-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving youth civic engagement, and he acts as international co-coordinator for Global Youth Service Day, the largest annual celebration of young people making a difference. Mr. Quinto’s work over the past seven years has included advocating for effective youth participation within the United Nations, organizing political representation for American youth, and speaking at and organizing international forums. He is also consulting on Chat the Planet, a new television program that connects young people throughout the world to discuss key issues affecting their lives. Mr. Quinto serves on the board of Mobilizing America’s Youth and serves as youth and education officer at the United Nations Communication Coordination Committee.
- Sophia Kianni is an American climate activist specializing in media and strategy who helped organize the 2019 Black Friday climate strike. By 2019 she was a national strategist for Fridays for Future, and a national partnerships coordinator for Zero Hour. She is the founder and executive director of Climate Cardinals, an international youth-led nonprofit that works to translate information about climate change into over 100 languages. She represents the United States as the youngest member on the United Nations Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.
- Karuna Rana is the Head of Climate, Impact & Policy of LOLIWARE Inc., an award-winning, materials tech company focused on replacing single-use plastics with seaweed-derived alternatives. She is also the Co-Founder of SYAH, the only regional organization that brings together young people across 8 African and Asian SIDS to advance the sustainable development of small island states. She served as the Coordinator of the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network and the African representative of UNEP’s Tunza network for young people. Rana has lobbied governments at key negotiations and high-level meetings such as the UNFCCC, Rio+20, and the African Union. Karuna is also a proud Global Shaper, the editor of the 5th Global Environment Outlook for Youth publication by UNEP, and the recipient of prestigious awards such as the Queen’s Young Leader Award and the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Award.
- Jayathma Wickramanayake represented and motivated global youth development on an international level since the age of 21, notably during high-level United Nations initiatives including the declaration of World Youth Skills Day. She participated in the creation of a large movement for civic and political engagement of young people named “Hashtag Generation” and contributed to the dialogue leading to Our Future Agenda. Ms. Wickramanayake has previously served as Secretary to the Secretary General of the Parliament of Sri Lanka (2016-2017), Project Officer-Youth, One-Text Initiative in Sri Lanka (2015-2016), Member and Youth Lead Negotiator, International Youth Task Force of the World Conference on Youth 2014 (2013-2014) and Official Youth Delegate to the United Nations, Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development (2012-2013). She was furthermore a Senator in the Sri Lankan Youth Parliament (2013-2015). Ms. Wickramanayake is presently working as an officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, while the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has selected her as the next Envoy on Youth.
- As a teenager, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has given TED talks and was invited to speak before the United Nations on environmental policy. At the age of 15 he spoke in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl before the UN General Assembly on Climate Change. That same year, he competed with young musicians from around the world who submitted self-produced music “to inspire the negotiations” at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with their music and Martinez’s selection “Speak for the Trees” was chosen as the Jury Award Winner. In 2015, Martinez and 21 other youths filed a lawsuit against the US Federal government, Juliana et al. v United States et al. They argue that the federal government is denying their constitutional right to life, liberty and property by ignoring climate change. In 2018, he and 13 other youths filed another lawsuit, this time against the state government of Colorado. He is the lead plaintiff in this Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case. In December 2018, Remezcla named Martinez in their list of “30 Latinxs Who Made an Impact in Their Communities in 2018”. In 2018, he received a Generation Change Award at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Martinez served as the Youth Director of Earth Guardians through 2019, transitioning to co-Youth Director alongside Marlow Baines, who assumed the youth leadership role in 2020.
- Catherine Kakolo Mongella has over 10 years of experience in the NGO sector within East Africa, dealing with both local and international stakeholders. She led an organization, based in Mwanza Tanzania, who provides psycho-social support to children and youth living and working in the streets. She currently serves as the executive director of Earth Guardians.
- Ryubun Kojima joined Junior Chamber International Osaka (JCO) in 2012 to become its President in 2019. In 2017, at the national level, he served as Chairperson of the Promoting Sincerity to the General Affairs Commission and in 2018, at the international level, he served as Vice President of JCI. In 2020, he was the Executive Vice President of JCI for Asia and the Pacific. From 2021 he serves as the President of JCI.
Part II: Next Generation Fellows
Our Future Agenda: A Vision and Plan for Next and Future Generations, by Next Generation Fellows (Washington DC, United Nations Foundation, 2021), Sept 2021, 54p. The eight Next Generation Fellows were invited by the UN Secretary-General to solicit proposals from young people worldwide for a New Deal for a New Generation. Proposes a New Deal for a New Generation – “a global plan to tackle immediate and urgent priorities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and to address the longer-term need for quality education and skills development, secure and meaningful jobs and economic opportunities, and more sustainable ways of living”. Here below is the list of the document’s authors with a brief description of their achievements.
- Amoding Agnes Cynthia is a Feminist Leader, UN Foundation NextGen Fellow, Deputy Chairperson at MasterCard Foundation, Alumni at BRAC Uganda (MFABU), & Director-Founder at Focus on the African Child.
- Amelie J. Mariage is an advocate for children rights to access inclusive education in Spain and around the world. She founded Aprendices Visuales, an award-winning tech for good organization that makes learning inclusive for all the children. At the intersection of innovation, education and visual learning, they have created a series of online courses, e-books and apps with pictograms to facilitate learning, reaching near than 2 million children worldwide. Amélie has received several awards for her work to promote equal opportunity for all, between them, including being selected as one the most influential young people in Europe by Forbes magazine and having the opportunity to participate in the Nobel Peace Prize Summit.
- Aya-Maria Rouhana is an economics student and human rights advocate from Lebanon. Since January, she has been nominated and appointed as a Next Generation Fellow at the UN Foundation, working alongside young people to shape policy for the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda. She has also worked with Restless Development and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Youth at Heart project, tackling the future of education and work in the Middle East and Africa.
- Jevanic Henry is a 23-year-old young man from St Lucia. Living on a small island state threatened by rising sea levels, Jevanic has become a climate change activist serving as an ambassador for the Global Youth Climate Network. Jevanic held numerous speeches on how climate change is shaping his own life, the future of his country and what is at stake for the next generation.
- Kartik Sawhney is a disability advocate and technologist who has done substantial work in empowering other people with disabilities to be successful tech professionals. He founded NextBillion.org, a global mentorship program for students with disabilities and has received numerous awards for his work.
- Poonam Ghimire wrote a play demanding equal education for girls in Nepal at age 11. Since then, she’s become a committed climate activist advocating for a clean, green sustainable planet. Poonam has received several awards for her work including Global Citizens’ Youth Advocate.
- Valeria Colunga is a 21-year-old Mexican activist and podcaster. As well as being involved in Girl Up, Valeria has founded and led successful campaigns (La Neta Mexico and Tuvoztuvoto) to equip millions of young voters across Mexico with information to make informed decisions about how to use their political voice.
- Aishwarya Machani is a 22-year-old convenor of the Next Generation Fellows. Aish has led a consultative process involving hundreds of young people across the world throughout the Covid pandemic and is now “an advocate for the hopes, dreams and demands of the next generation”.
Even though in the last two decades youth has been given voice in major international organizations and even government policy making groups, for now, its most potent work seems to be in bridging between local self-organized citizen initiatives and international NGOs. Furthermore, international youth organizations (see SSG QL on Youth Groups) have manifested strong capacity for advocating on sustainability in community organizations, through civic engagement and reforms in education.
This Quick Look is by no means a comprehensive list of all the inspiring youth leaders of today, but only serves as an illustrative proposition aiming to motivate collaboration between varied worldwide youth initiatives.
Here is a list of organizations connected to the leaders profiled above. For more on these and other notable youth organizations, please take a look at the Security and Sustainability Guide Quick Look on Youth Organizations.
- Apprendices Visuales #14
- Climate Cardinals #7
- Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network #8
- Earth Guardians #10, #11
- Fridays for Future #2, #7
- Generation Waking Up #3
- Girl Up #19
- Global Youth Action Network #6
- Global Youth Climate Network #16
- Junior Chamber International #12
- LOLIWARE #8
- Plant for Planet #5
- SDSN Youth #4
- Youth in Action #6
- Youth Passageways #3
- Zero Hour #7
- Our Future Agenda: A Vision and Plan for Next and Future Generations by Next Generation Fellows(Washington DC, United Nations Foundation, 2021), Sept 2021, 54p.
- Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America by John Della Volpe, St. Martin’s Press, 2021,272p. Deals with the forces shaping Gen Z’s (“the zoomers’ ”) lives, the issues they care most about, and their efforts in standing up to the challenges of the perplexing times they live in. It also confronts statements of older generations about today’s youth being overly sensitive and lethargic.
- A Call for Accountability and Action: The Deloitte Global 2021 Millenial and Gen Z Survey, 2021, 39p. The Survey tackled the issues that seem to be of essential importance for millennials and “zoomers”, i.e., environment, social equality and discrimination, and inquired about youth’s satisfaction with business’s role in society. The results suggest that the extreme challenges of the contemporary world, such as pandemic, climate crises and charged sociopolitical atmosphere, make the youth more persistent and vocal in challenging the status quo and recognizing the importance of individual responsibility. The Survey further states that youth express the wish to “work for companies with a purpose beyond profit—companies that share their values” (p.33).