By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.” ~ President Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Roosevelt may have been speaking to those of The Greatest Generation, but human rights activists believe the call to action is equally important to the young people of today.
“As the gears of justice turn, we can take heart in the actions of youth around the country and the world to reclaim democracy,” said Alex Loznak, a fourth-year undergraduate at New York’s Columbia University and one of three panelists who spoke at the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Related Video: Watch the U.N. Conference
Among the dignitaries, U.N. representatives and experts from across the globe poised behind microphones to ask the tough questions was a delegation from Mater Dei Prep’s Global Leaders Institute. The institute’s mission is to prepare students for leadership and positive change as part of their Catholic and Christian identity. The program is led by educator George S. Anthony, a parishioner of St. Mary, Middletown, and Pathways to Peace U.N. representative.
No stranger to the U.N., the Middletown school students sat on the ground floor of the Dec. 10 discussion, which addressed human rights inequalities, climate change and new technologies.
“Do you have any specific ideas for a young person like me to best ensure human rights and its agenda are being upheld in my own community?” senior Ishan Sharma asked the U.N. panel in a strong, confident voice.
“I think the key word is contained within the question itself, and that is community,” responded Loznak, one of 21 youth plaintiffs who in 2015 filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government to secure the legal right to a stable climate system. “It cannot be just individual actions and individual lifestyle choices, although those decisions are important. I think in any human rights issue – the community level is a very good place to start.”
Sharma is already putting that community-level service into action. He created a Red Cross club at Mater Dei Prep and is the fundraising manager for the Sayreville Red Cross. One of the goals, he said, is to educate the younger generation about the Red Cross and its services.
“If you want to work on a wider scale, start at the local level,” he said, echoing Loznak’s advice. “It’s not just an individual. It’s a community that has to encourage the human rights agenda. One person doing it is great, but if you have more people, it spreads.”
Fellow senior Callan Laux, a member of St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, is all about forming alliances, too. “How do you all feel about a collaboration between civil society and the United Nations in order to create a universal, global human rights certification that youth can achieve in order to educate and get involved in human rights issues?” she asked the panel, which included Brett Solomon of Access Now, which advocates for human rights in the digital age, and Nadia Daar of Oxfam International, which works for economic equality.
Loznak was the first to respond. “I think that part of the path that many of us who are working on these issues begins with education … classes that we’ve taken in school, university … but also a path of self-education. I am very supportive of the construction of new platforms – including through civil society and a partnership with the United Nations – that can allow youth in a formal classroom setting or as individuals seeking out information on their own … to learn about these issues and be able to engage.”
Sherine Tadros of Amnesty International, which moderated the discussion, smiled as she addressed the Mater Dei prep students. “Just by you turning up today and asking these questions and about what you can do as a young person to defend human rights is very heartening,” she said.
Andrew Gilmour, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, went a step further. “I think it’s clear that our generation has messed things up – both environmentally and in indeed in terms of human rights.
Basically, we look at you and people of your generation to try to put things right and how to do it.”
That’s a challenge the Global Leaders Institute students are ready to heed.
“I think we’re up for it,” Laux said. “We’re so much smarter than people give us credit for.”
Added sophomore Alexis Lombardo, “Don’t let others judge you based on who they think you are.”
Junior Dominque Bryson agreed. “I think sometimes people older than us devalue our opinion. So if we can create a platform for younger people to get involved, we should. It’s our future, too.”
Noah Petry, an eighth-grader in St. Mary School, Middletown – which shares a campus with Mater Dei Prep and intends to begin a similar group – said one of the causes he is most concerned with is equal rights and equal pay for women. “I really do think that is a major problem in our country and other nations as well,” he said. “I feel a responsibility to speak out on this situation.”
Fellow St. Mary School eighth-grader Emma DeBiase said just being at the United Nations made a difference. “I felt like I was part of the world instead of part of the United States. I felt more as part of a whole.
“Maybe when I grow up, I can become a U.N. representative, or the president, and help form those laws to have equal rights, equal pay, and most of all, make sure everyone has the life that they actually deserve, instead of the life the government thinks they deserve,” she said.
Sharma agreed. “The United Nations is not just a building. It’s a pathway to peace. You have a voice here. Human rights talks about everyone’s voice being heard. That’s what happened today. In a way, as we were speaking on human rights, we were also giving ourselves the human right to talk and be heard.”