by Lauren Kaufmann, WEDO Research and Outreach Intern

NEW YORK (June 24, 2013) – After dutifully matching the blue of my UN Grounds Pass to my blouse, I passed through the many security gates at UN Headquarters and tried to look like I knew where the heck I was going. But as a 21-year-old who had lived in Manhattan for just over a week, I was completely intimidated.

Thankfully, WEDO’s Eleanor Blomstrom took me under her seasoned wing and led us to the first event of the day, an NGO public hearing on youth, education, and culture, as part of a three-day Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals. I took my seat alongside other NGO representatives, unzipped my laptop case, and diligently took notes on the dialogue that followed.

My first days at the UN were fascinating to me, as a young woman with strong ideals and a belief in the power of my generation. Many (if not all) of the events I attended included voices advocating for youth involvement and empowerment—even direct participation in the development of UN goals. And that first event, the public hearing, indeed included youth representatives from other NGOs, presenting written statements and making their voices heard.

One young woman, from Youth Blast, responded to the co-chair’s call for input regarding implementation of educational improvements within a sustainable development framework. She recommended a 30% cut in military spending, diverting subsidies from fossil fuels industries, and using revenue gained from the closure of tax havens as sources of financing. A chuckle went through the room, followed by enthusiastic applause.

To me, the moment was indicative of what young leaders, academics, and thinkers commonly experience at the telling intersection of “empowerment” by the hegemonic elders and the inherent tokenism that comes along with our response to that call. We are encouraged to speak and to be radical in our thinking, but our ideas are seemingly unavoidably preceded by the label of “youth” before we get to page one. What does this mean for the content of our messages and the ways in which they are received and implemented?

The following day at the UN, I attended a meeting by myself. Entitled “Ending extreme poverty: getting ambitious on health and education for children,” the side event was packed by attendees. Government representatives and NGO advocates participated in the discussion while the diverse crowd of interns, NGO representatives, and UN workers looked on. I sat on the floor, alongside a dozen others.

After Jean-Marc Chataigner discussed France’s use of revenue gleaned from the Financial Transaction Tax and the Air Ticket Tax in funding healthcare and expanding education, the moderator from World Vision referenced the recommendations from the previous day, voiced, he noted, by “a seventeen-year-old girl.” He did not mention her name or organization, nationality or position. He did this, I think, to highlight the presumed intrepid, forward-thinking nature of my generation.

But, again, I felt the lurch at the nexus—the odd yet poignant space between empowerment and tokenism.

And it made me wonder: at what other intersections can this tug be felt? Between economic status and ethnicity, gender and geography, age and education—all of these “categories” combine to form unique spaces in which we all function and navigate. How much power truly exists to those occupying these borderlands between identities and categorizations? Would the comment recommending a 30% cut in military spending have been heard differently, or heard at all, had a Permanent Representative said it? What about a co-chair? Or even the Secretary-General himself? What do these positions of power tell us about the force behind an idea?

As I filed out of the seminar room alongside the dozens of others at the conclusion of the meeting, I felt the beginnings of sense of understanding and purpose. We all inhabit some combinatory identity, and we all experience the ways in which given categories influence our place in the world. That, I hope, is what the development goals are all about—recognizing the unique experiences of everyone, including the most marginalized, and nonetheless aiming, fearlessly, to form a world in which we can all enjoy a life worth living. At the end of the day, “women’s” issues overlap with climate change concerns, which impact healthcare and the politics of global justice. These categories, age included, inevitably speak to one another.

To me, that’s a pretty powerful idea—regardless of who says it.

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