On a sunny Friday afternoon, something is not quite as usual at the UN City. Throughout the halls of the building, the voices of a younger audience resonate. The message is clear: It is necessary to listen, to learn, to share, and to secure a seat at the table right beside the important men in expensive suits who normally walk around the sacred halls. Why? For a broader perspective, to aim for diversity and true representation of young voices.

“Welcome to the UN City, welcome to the 10-year anniversary of UNYA Denmark” are the guests welcomed at the entry to the UN City in Copenhagen. For many volunteers and guests, it is the first time in the UN building and after the pictures were taken and hands shaken, the event began to shine a light on the future and more concretely the Summit of the Future, taking place this September 2024 in New York. 

Rikke Mathiasen (Chairperson of UNYA Denmark) and Jens Christian Wandel (Chairperson of the UN Association Denmark and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations) welcomed those celebrating and set the tone for the event: It is indeed possible to impact the – our – future, but some challenges need to be overcome first! 

How can youth participation be more inclusive, diverse, and thus accessible? How do young people find and voice their opinions and who listens to them? Where can youth make an impact and how? While the Copenhagen sky cleared up in a literal sense and the sun shone through the window front, panellists were shining a light on those questions: “We cannot just claim our seats at the table, someone needs to get up and leave a chair or put another one there”, remarked climate activist Selma de Montgomery. While the wish to sit at the table is wanted and the inclusion of youth into future matters is pressing, Danish UN Youth delegate Jacob Blasius reminds us of patience: “Meaningful participation cannot be achieved with a one-stop solution, it is about gradual change over time by multiple people.” He advises to find allies at those tables where decisions are made and slowly getting a foot into the door, leading to youth engagement and demands becoming a point of the agenda. That might give hope in the moment as “we need to remember that if we are not at the table, we might be on the menu”. 

(Im)pact the Future? Now! 

In his welcoming speech, Jens Christian Wandel, who himself will attend the Summit of the Future promised to take voices gathered at the anniversary event with him to New York for the negotiations of the Pact of the Future. Said and done, the volunteers and guests gathered in smaller groups to discuss future challenges and voice their requests and ideas. 

In a meeting room right beside the main hall of the event, 14 youngsters are sitting around a conference table to discuss nothing less than the future of the international peace and justice system. “Let us also realize our perspective and rather privileged upbringing and listen to the voices of those suffering”, requested a guest who wants the UN system to have the same self-awareness, especially regarding the role of the UN Security Council and the old-school veto system. Eves dropping on another discussion, the crucial role of education and especially intercultural education and awareness was brought up by a UNYA volunteer: “We need to understand other cultures and people, we need to learn how to tolerate and understand differences and thereby solve conflicts peacefully!”

Right outside the meeting room of those interested in questions of international peace and justice, a few people came together to debate how the education system as a whole needs to be tackled. “Democracy needs to be taught, practised, and implemented in the school system from a very young age. That will evolve critical thinking skills in kids and those skills are the key for solving future challenges”, mentions a UNYA volunteer from Aalborg. Further, the group critically looked around and realised: “We need more people from vocational backgrounds and not just university students when it comes to effective youth participation! Let’s address that issue also in our local groups!”

Future challenges? We got this! – A sneak peek into the UNYA working groups

Young people need the skills and knowledge to participate and make a change. The UNYA working groups share skills, resources, and expertise to take action. 

The activities and important subjects vary as much as the participants. It is fairly important to remember that young people are not just young, why our dreams and goals are different – what unites the UNYA project is just the shared hope of making the world just a tiny bit better compared to how the older generation left it: Regarding the climate, peace and justice and gender equality. 

The room darkened and the air was thick with excitement, and curiosity but most of all gravity when Zoom call connected the group to a place on earth almost three thousand kilometres away: Nearby the Gaza Strip. Here we got a truly specific and personal insight into the daily life and current situation of the young people in the area. One of the specific challenges that was mentioned was the complexity of information pathways, internally in the area but also how to connect with the rest of the world. 

If there is one thing that we do not lack in the modern days of 2023, it has got to be information. Information is everywhere: It can be manipulated, and the level of subjectivity is always a question – so how are we able to understand the world around us? One thing cannot be questioned. Personal connection. Everyone in the room was truly touched by the personal stories from a place so far away and being able to talk to young people directly gave us a unique insight. What we tend to forget is that we as a generation are not that different from each other although our living conditions vary- so let us create more spaces where we can look each other directly in the eyes.

In many ways, it sums up UNYA’s mission. To work together and spread the word of the younger generation- throughout the halls of the UN city, through Denmark and the rest of the world, to listen and to learn from each other. And lastly… to claim a seat at the table, speak up, and be heard.