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International Youth Day, 2021: Celebrating Toronto's Youth Leaders

“Young people are on the frontlines of the struggle to build a better future for all. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire need for the kind of transformational change they seek—and young people must be full partners in that effort".

For International Youth Day 2021, UNACTO team member, Vidya Pandiaraju, chatted with two other youth leaders in Toronto about their thoughts on change and the world today.

The world that youth face today is rife with poverty, political hostility, climate change and a devastating pandemic. Recent estimates suggest that 600 million jobs would have to be created over the next 15 years to meet youth employment needs. Youth not in employment, education or job training has remained stubbornly high over the past 15 years—an international 30 per cent for young women and 13 per cent for young men (UN, 2021). The most recent paper published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that the Earth has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, what is now considered an “unprecedented” and “rapid” change—unlike anything in the Common Epoch (IPCC, 2021).

However, even through these trying times and vast, complex issues, young people are still rising up to the challenges and fighting for their future.

Aishwarya Puttur, a rising Grade 11 student and organization working group co-ordinator at Fridays for Future Digital, has been tirelessly committed to advocating for “drastic” climate change measures. Last month, she coordinated the Save the Okavango Delta Global Day of Action on behalf of Fridays for Future. Puttur recalls the mass online petitions they organized to “[pressure] the Canadian government and Recon Africa to stop drilling in the Kavango Basin”. Puttur has also contributed to the development of a widely-used “action toolkit” empowering other youth to advocate by sharing the necessary knowledge and resources required to successfully complete an action item.

Erfan Nouraee, Toronto City Youth Councillor for Ward 18, is dedicated to fostering important conversations surrounding youth mental health, something he finds particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. This past year, Nouraee hosted a virtual youth mental health summit, featuring speakers such as Richmond Hill MP Majid Jowhari and Toronto City Councillor Cynthia Lai. His aim is to, “increase accessibility to mental health specialists and to create more awareness around mental health, especially in Toronto’s minority communities”. Nouraee spends his time advocating for mental health reform on a municipal level while helping youth to connect with the appropriate support systems they need.

I am the social media coordinator at UNACTO and a member of Deputy Prime Minister Freeland’s Youth Council. For me, the conversations that are happening, that are accessible, that are open to all, are the same conversations that concern the future, our future. When youth don’t show up, we’re missing out on using these valuable roles as indispensable voices and as the future’s biggest stakeholders. We’re not doing ourselves justice!

Puttur says that within the climate movement, they hope to see “a more intersectional approach in everything [they] do”. She says that “in order to achieve climate justice, we must decolonize and value healing with communities. We must know when to step down and when to check our privileges. I want to see the movement valuing the voices of people of colour without tokenization”.

These youth are just a few of many emerging young leaders across the world. Whether for climate change, mental health or politics, youth are finding their stride in terms of bringing about change and emboldening others to advocate to do the same.

I encourage youth to get involved. To find a cause that ignites something within them and fight for it. To use their voice, even if it’s scary at first. To take action before it’s too late.

Puttur echoes this call to action, reminding everyone that “the beauty of activism is that there are so many avenues: art, striking, mutual aid, legislation, finance, etc. Find where you fit in and go for it!”

Despite the world’s future resting in the hands of today’s leaders, many active youth, like Puttur, Nouraee and myself, remain steadfast in our commitments to change, to contributing to a better global future, and to remaining dedicated to the issues that matter most to them.


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