Changing the World Before Reaching Adulthood

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Shelby O'Neil didn't hesitate when asked what adults in positions of power could do to help young people create change.

“We want you to listen to us,” said the National Gold Award Girl Scout. "To enact change, youth have to be part of the process."

O’Neil was a featured speaker — and one of two Gold Award Girl Scouts — at an event yesterday at the United Nations, one that brought together four major organizations devoted to developing the next generation of leaders in the social good space.

O’Neil, a member of the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast, founded the nonprofit Jr. Ocean Guardians to combat waste and defend the environment. Initiating a movement called No Straw November, she encouraged people who don’t medically need a straw to reject unnecessary plastic straws during November, because they’re a main source of ocean pollution. As a result of her advocacy, O'Neil's resolution proclaiming November to be “No Straw November” in California was approved by the state legislature.

"Set your goals high and don't be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the journey. Just pick yourself up and keep going."

Yesterday’s event, titled Empowering Youth Change-Makers, was a “virtual dialogue” featuring, among others, leaders from GSUSA, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Microsoft, and the UN Office for Partnerships.

“Listen to us and amplify our voices,” said Megan Loh, a second National Gold Award Girl Scout, when asked the same question. “People usually trust professionals with years and decades of experience. But youth have innovative ideas that can revolutionize.” Loh, a member of the Girl Scouts of Orange County, addressed the underrepresentation of women in technology careers by forming GEARup4Youth, a nonprofit that supports girls’ interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) while encouraging them to pursue related career paths. She also published a book, Easy STEM Activities You Can Do at Home!, which reached a broad audience and stimulated more girls’ interests in STEM. 


Megan Loh

Empowering Youth Change-Makers was part of the UN’s annual UN General Assembly Week, aka UNGA, an annual tradition that — when there isn’t a global pandemic — sees thousands of global leaders from all over the world descend upon New York for meaningful dialogue and diplomacy. The convening has become a magnet for the world’s foremost leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the nonprofit space, celebrities, and so many others trying to help shape a positive future for the planet.

Ordinarily, this program would have taken place in New York with live attendees. But because of the pandemic, Empowering Youth Change-Makers was held virtually, hosted on event co-host Microsoft's Teams platform.
Virtual viewers were first greeted by Judith Batty, Interim CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA. Batty grew up in Girl Scouts as a Brownie through Senior. Girl Scouting gave Judith confidence while teaching her about different perspectives and the value of teamwork. Batty also serves as the co-chair of the governance committee on the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).
"Set your goals high and don't be afraid to fail," counseled Batty. "Failure is part of the journey. Just pick yourself up and keep going."

"Never let your zip code define your dreams, or your hopes. Never let your area define your capabilities."

Her remarks were followed by a keynote speech from Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. “It is clear that young people want a peaceful and sustainable world," noted Wickramanayake, who is from Sri Lanka and who was appointed to her current position by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in June 2017 at the age of 26. “One thing is clear: the power of youth-led movements is driving change all around the globe.” 

Wickramanayake also noted that Girl Scouts, in particular, are catalyzing change and demonstrating leadership. "The stories of Girl Scout Gold, Silver, and Bronze Award winners not only highlight their work, but also show that young people are not passively waiting for change to happen. We have to make room for more seats for women and young people at the decision-making table."
Goals for the Day, Goals for the Future

The goals for the event were to bring together young people, industry leaders, and UN personnel to discuss how to partner with young people who are mobilizing toward change, with an eye on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aka the 2030 Agenda. The SDGs are a global blueprint to save the planet by measuring and improving on sustainability in 17 different areas, each representing a Goal (Poverty, Education, Climate, Gender Equality, etc.). The discussions yesterday included identifying concrete forms of partnership, support, and capacity building — whatever they might be — to aid young people to be successful in their efforts.

“Never let your zip code define your dreams, or your hopes,” said O’Neil, who is from an inland community in California but who nevertheless developed a passion for protecting oceans. "Never let your area define your capabilities."

Shelby O'Neil

O'Neil and Loh helped articulate the youthful perspective. Today there are almost 2 billion young people in the world (15 to 25 years old.). Of that demographic, 70% want to find a career that changes the world for the better, whereas 84% of millennials consider it their duty to improve the world. They are facing a precarious future, replete with a climate crisis; growing income inequality; polarization of people and countries; and, in many parts of the world, a youth unemployment crisis. Many of these young people are taking the present and the future in their own hands by taking action to create sustainable change to make the world they want to see. The Girl Scouts Gold Award projects are an answer: the sustainability of their projects qualifies them for Gold Awards.

One question yesterday’s event attempted to answer was what could private sector entities learn, specifically, from young people, to better aid them?

From the private sector perspective, teaching and technology are key tools to help young people effect change. “Our mission at Microsoft is to help everyone on the planet achieve more, and technology is one way to do that,” said Kelly Soligon, General Manager, Microsoft Stores. "We want to give young girls the opportunity to create projects like the ones Megan and Shelby have created. With our partnership with Girl Scouts, we need to give them the support they need, which they may not get in schools. Our investment with Girl Scouts has been very beneficial to Microsoft. There's a major STEM gap, and girls who participate in STEM programs are more likely to get involved in technology down the line. There's a virtuous cycle there, and the more women we can get involved with technology, the better for all of us."

"There's a major STEM gap, and girls who participate in STEM programs are more likely to get involved in technology down the line. There's a virtuous cycle there, and the more women we can get involved with technology, the better for all of us."

"We have to keep breaking the glass ceiling in any way we can," added Florencia Spangaro, another panelist who is Director of Programs at Citi Foundation. Spangaro also noted that Citi just named its very first — and a major Wall Street bank's first — woman CEO, Jane Fraser, who will take over Citigroup in February.
"This is your moment," added Nicole Small, CEO of LH Capital/Lyda Hill Philanthropies (and herself a former Girl Scout). "You don't have to wait until you grow up to change the world."
Small is responsible for overseeing the strategic direction of both entities, including investment and philanthropic activities. She also co-founded the If/Then Initiative, which seeks to further advance women in STEM by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers. “We have to let girls know that there are people who look like them doing amazing things,” added Small.

Batty had the last word, noting how impressed she was with all of the speakers, and predicting that, "With your incredible visionary work, with your passion and commitment, I have no doubt that real change can happen."

Girl Scouts of the USA is one of the 150 member organizations of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). There are 2.5 million Girl Scouts in the United States.

Tags: Courage

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Written By

Faye Williams

Faye Williams is a cat lover based in New Jersey who enjoys traveling and spending time in nature whenever possible.  See Full Bio

CircleAround will make financial distributions to benefit current Girl Scouts: the next generation of trailblazers who will CircleAround after us. So CircleAround for inspiration, and CircleAround the leaders of tomorrow. CircleAround is owned by One GS Media, a subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA.

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