O-M-G. Right back at you. You actually have no idea what it’s like to be up here looking out at you. I had a hunch—because I know Ben, and Jed, and Jason, and I know Invisible Children—I had a hunch that this would be inspiring, but this is something else.
So as you heard, I just began serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Just last week? Last week. And I thought, “Where could I give my first speech? Where should I go? Where should I go public for the first time and engage with real people for the first time?” And there was only one answer—one obvious answer—and that was to spend this time with the people who are determined to promote human rights and human dignity, the next generation, who are going to make a profound difference. I was determined to spend my first official weekend with you.
Now, as you know, you’re not just any group of young people. You are young people who take very seriously the charge to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Young people with a moral imagination. Young people on a mission. Young people who are determined to leave this world kinder than the world you found.
A good number of years ago, folks from around the world gathered just like you’re doing this weekend for a conference here in California that was on the surface very different from this one. But the attendees then were also united by a shared vision for a kinder and more peaceful world. Like you, they sat together, they discussed, they debated, and they committed to channeling their individual energy into something bigger, more potent, into something more united.
Not long ago, my husband, Cass Sunstein—an acclaimed author and professor, who’s here—my wonderful husband came across—this was really not long ago, a couple of months ago—came across a letter written at the beginning of this Conference that I’m describing by his dad Dick Sunstein, who was a Navy lieutenant. Dick had stopped briefly in San Francisco after two years fighting in the Pacific, and he wrote to his family on April 25th, 1945. And I quote, “Conference starts today, and the town is going wild with excitement…Let’s pray that they accomplish something.” Let’s pray that they accomplish something. Dick Sunstein was bearing witness to the gathering of the nations of the world who assembled in San Francisco to establish the new United Nations. He knew that this effort was something that mattered.
That was 68 years ago. Memories fade. Bureaucracies are built. Positions become entrenched. And while the UN has done tremendous good in the world, there are times when the Organization has lost its way, when politics and ideology get in the way of impact. Sometimes that sense of urgency and determination that existed at the start goes missing. That’s why when I heard that you were gathered here in California this weekend to take up some of the world’s most critical challenges, I wanted to join you.
Each of you has a story about how you ended up here today. Some of you heard about the Fourth Estate in your school or your place of worship. Some of you became engaged after you watched Invisible Children’s Kony 2012. Some of you may not have known why you were here when you got here a couple of days ago. But I bet you know now.
Let me tell you a very, very short version of how I got here. Around the time I graduated from college, I opened the newspaper and saw something horrific: emaciated men herded up into concentration camps in Bosnia simply because they were Muslim. I learned that what was happening was being described by the perpetrators, proudly, as ethnic cleansing. A half-century, then, after the Holocaust, genocide was being carried out in the heart of Europe. I wondered what I could do to help. I had been a part-time sports reporter in college, so I thought maybe I could become a journalist and help raise awareness. It wasn’t terribly obvious that covering the Yale women’s volleyball team prepared me perfectly to become a war correspondent, but sometimes—as many of you know—you have to take a leap of faith.
Now I wish I could say that the rest is history, but life doesn’t quite work that way. There are lots of bumps along the way, lots of trying and failing, and a few bouts of failing to try. Nonetheless, the most important moment for me—and I dare say the most important moment for you—is the first one: the moment you decide that, though the odds are against you, you’re going to offer whatever you have—your voice, your time, your creativity, your skills, your determination—to try to help people.
When I worked as a journalist overseas, I spent a lot of time thinking about the people in Washington who might be reading my articles. I hoped that readers—and especially those in positions of power—would be moved by the stories of Bosnian kids being shot at while they jumped rope or of Rwandan mothers huddled into churches trying to protect their families. I imagined important decisions being made behind closed doors and policy-makers springing magically into action. I thought that they had all the power. Later, after I had the opportunity to meet and hear from Washington decision-makers, I came to understand not only the role of journalists, but also the role of citizens, the role of civil society, the role of your voice. I heard their perspective—it turns out YOU have the power.
And that rings even more true today. Today ordinary citizens don’t just advocate for change and action, they force change and they take action themselves. Invisible Children doesn’t just lobby policymakers to go after the LRA—they do that and they do it well—but they also design fliers that tell LRA fighters how they might defect, and they distribute them—more than 400,000 fliers so far—into LRA-affected areas in DRC and the Central African Republic. Invisible Children has also built six locally-run FM radio stations in areas of high LRA activity. These stations now reach an audience covering more than 29,000 square miles.
And if you’ve ever doubted your activism matters, just think that the Kony video you made go viral, was sent by high school kids in Massachusetts to their Senator who joined with his colleagues to write a law that President Obama signed to create a rewards program to apprehend Kony and his thugs. And a few months ago that Senator from Massachusetts, now Secretary of State John Kerry, announced that thanks to that law—thanks to you—the State Department was offering the first cash rewards to bring the LRA killers to justice. That’s you. You.
This new kind of activism is visible so many places, on so many of today’s most critical issues. An army of citizen activists police the conduct of the recent Kenyan elections, using the tools of the web to monitor hate speech and document fraud in an effort to prevent a repeat of the significant violence that we’ve seen there. In a region—the Arab world—that barely knew democracy as recently as three years ago, we see tens of millions of people moving governments, and, at times, removing them, driven by that universal desire to have their voices heard. At a time of economic uncertainty, we see tens of thousands taking to the streets in Russia and beyond, because they are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to corruption or to accept the growing inequalities in their own societies.
And then there is Malala, a name that will be forever synonymous with dignity and bravery. Now 16, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on her way home from school in Pakistan, where she’d advocated for the rights of girls to have the same education as boys and advocated to stand up against extremism. “Let us pick up our books and pens,” she argued last month at the UN. “They are our most powerful weapons.” What Malala didn’t say—because she’s so modest—is that the most powerful weapon of all is HER. It’s YOU. It’s the next generation that is unencumbered by 68 years of doing things a certain way, but that still feels deeply connected to the same urgency, the same vision, the same belief that drove the creation of the UN. Peace.
But the new tools that make progress possible, as you know, can also be used to hold it back. Those who seek to repress their own people and to export hate and fear, are as savvy as this next generation of human rights activists. Since 2002, twenty countries have introduced new restrictions on the freedom of civil society groups to operate, learning from one another in a global marketplace of ideas that shares the bad as well as the good. That’s why we need your positive moral vision more than ever. We need your vision of justice to win over those who fear it. We need your vision of freedom to overwhelm those who rely on repression. We need your vision of equality and tolerance to overcome those who propagate division and terror. And we need you to act so that that vision—your vision—prevails.
You’re not just activists. You’re leaders. You’re diplomats. And we who have the privilege to serve in government can learn a lot from watching you. I take three lessons from you back to Washington about what matters.
First, what matters are results—everything else is just noise. Invisible Children could have gotten self-satisfied that 2 million people watched its Kony 2012 video and that they were thrust into the limelight, globally. But this new generation understands that the video is not what matters; the number of Twitter followers is not what matters. These are just means to an end; indeed Invisible Children is just a means to an end. It’s just an organization with a cause. What matters is the real world scoreboard.
And the scoreboard doesn’t measure hits or tweets any more than it measures the number of times the Security Council meets on an issue. The scoreboard measures whether more LRA soldiers are defecting and whether fewer people are dying. You just heard that the Ugandan-led, U.S.-supported operations, and Invisible Children’s efforts, have helped reduce the LRA’s killings of civilians by more than 90%. That’s what counts. This focus on results, this clarity of conviction about why we do what we do every day—it’s needed at the UN, and it’s needed as a benchmark for our diplomacy.
Second, what matters to us in government is our partnership with you. We need your voices and energy. We need your ideas and your sense of mission. We need your activism and your action. And since the most sustainable and effective policies are those with public support, your activism enables us to do more.
Often when President Obama meets with activists—even with those who are his critics—he thanks them for expanding the base of political support for a just foreign policy. After all, without you, it’s not at all obvious that there’d be such strong bi-partisan support for sending U.S. military advisors to central Africa to help defeat a warlord. That’s not obvious. It’s not obvious that the United States would be the world’s most generous supporter of life-saving medications for people living with HIV/AIDS. It’s not obvious. But for all of the polarization and disagreements in Washington, people largely agree on the importance of promoting human rights and human dignity around the world. This shared commitment, reinforced and strengthened by your engagement, gives us diplomats the kind of political capital that we need. It enables us to push back against those who would have us disengage or look the other way.
Third, what matters are individuals. We need a people-centered foreign policy. We have to escape the bubbles that we create and that we inhabit, and find ways to hear from the individuals whose lives our policies touch. The refugee who flees the violence in Syria as the Security Council fails to respond. The villager in Eastern DRC who depends on the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission for protection in a country suffering from a decades-long conflict. The parents who lose a baby boy or girl to a preventable disease.
When you become the Ambassador to the United Nations, experts set to work preparing you for your new job. There are consultations with diplomats, government officials, and issue experts. This week, I added a few new kinds of consultations.
In my first day on the job, I went down the street to meet with young refugees from Tibet, Ivory Coast, and Benin, among other countries. They shared their stories of fleeing home and arriving wide-eyed in the United States of America. I also took advantage of the technologies that you all use every day and I convened a Google Hangout with activists from Cambodia, Egypt, Mexico, and Uganda, who gave me their ideas for how the United States can stand with them. These individual voices, these voices, are the voices that should be heard in the halls of power, whether in the Security Council of the United Nations or in the Situation Room of the White House. These are voices I will carry with me every day as I go to work.
When I first embarked upon a life of advocacy, I had no idea where it would take me. I didn’t know whether I could make a difference, and I’m sure many of you are having the same thought here this weekend, as excited as you are, wondering what your voice, in all of this is. There were bright spots along the way that kept me going, gave me a little confidence: a thoughtful response from a reader of something that I had written, the opportunity to press a policymaker directly on an important cause. But like many, I also had to fight the urge to become overwhelmed by the grim news that we read every day. The weight of the task—the weight of your task—can just feel too large, sometimes.
But this week, as I take up my new job, I am the very grateful beneficiary of your energy and your optimism. And I am committed to working together on what matters: real results for real individuals in the real world. Individuals who look to the United States and look to the United Nations for the elusive peace and security, prosperity, and dignity that drove the creation of the UN and my father-in-law’s handwritten prayer on April 25, 1945.
The work the founders of the UN began is yours now. It is your time, and your turn to breathe new life into the issues that inspired them, and into the institution they created: to demand more of it, to make it work better, to build the world that we envision.
I want to hear from you about what matters. The issues that ignite your passion. Your efforts to deliver the impact that we all crave. What you need and want the United States to stand for in the world. So tweet me, Facebook me, Instagram me. These are all totally new concepts to me, by the way, just for the record. Let me know what you think really matters, and use the hashtag #WhatMatters so I see it. It is the courage and creativity of those in this room and young people everywhere that gives me hope, that we too can accomplish great things, united.
Thank you so much.
This site is managed by U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City and the Bureau of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.