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SustainUS Gives American Youth a Voice

Who says young people don't care about international issues?

For years, policies affecting the future have been left for governments to determine without the input of youth, the group with the greatest stake in these decisions. Now, thanks to SustainUS, the U.S. youth network for sustainable development, young Americans have a permanent voice at the U.N. to advocate their views.

At the opening of the Youth Summit on Sustainable Development, SustainUS announced the official launch of its Agents of Change program, through which American youth ages 13-26 will participate in U.N. conferences.

In April 2004 the SustainUS delegation to the Commission on Sustainable Development consisted of 25 students and young professionals from around the country--representing the most diverse delegation of U.S. youth in history.

The Agents of Change program announcement and description was only one component of the weeklong series of educational events for young people at the Youth Summit on Sustainable Development. The Summit also included a sustainable careers fair, which brought together sustainable businesses, college students, and young professionals interested in making a positive difference through their professions.

Businesses represented at the fair included: Pop Sustainability, a group whose mission is to popularize sustainability through positive action-oriented campaigns; Costa Rican Adventures, an environmental tourism company; and Green Ground Zero, an organization dedicated to advocating for "green architecture" in Lower Manhattan.

Jay Golden of Costa Rican Adventures remarked, "It's really important that we get out and show the kids the thing that they imagine to be true: that it's possible to make a positive impact for future generations and make a living. The career fair was a chance for us to answer their call."

During breakout panel discussions young people learned that they could make money while working constructively for sustainable development. Michael Gale, a new SustainUS member and delegate through the Agents of Change program, observed, "Young people rarely get to network with so many sustainable development professionals from so many diverse sectors. The experience strengthened my intentions to pursue environmental advocacy as a career and helped me meet some amazing professionals that I will definitely stay in touch with."

SustainUS was founded in 2001 at an environmental conference in Borgholm, Sweden, where a group of American youth realized that there was not going to be a single organization representing American youth at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Thus, they formed SustainUS to attend the conference to give American youth a voice to lobby the U.S. government and show the world that the positions of the U.S. government do not necessarily represent youth.

In August 2002, SustainUS sent a five-member delegation of young people to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The author of this article was fortunate enough to be a part of this delegation to the WSSD, the largest U.N. conference in history. Leading up to the WSSD, SustainUS launched the "Bet" campaign, which had the goal of showing President Bush that American youth could conserve 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide by obtaining pledges from youth outside of the SustainUS group.

"The idea behind the Bet campaign was to show that young people in the United States understand the global impact of consumption,” says SustainUS Steering Committee Chairperson Scott Paul. “U.S. youth were telling the Bush Administration: 'we've taken responsibility, we're meeting the challenge; now what are you doing to make our future secure and sustainable?'"

This had many positive effects. First, it showed President Bush that American youth care about the environment. Second, we were able to inform youth that their actions impact the environment in a very real and concrete way. Third, it helped to publicize the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the largest United Nations conference to date. Because our campaign was particularly unique and engaging, it received substantial media coverage and helped publicize the WSSD. (Unfortunately, The WSSD received much less media attention in the U.S. than in other countries.)

Most surprising about SustainUS is that its members have executed these impressive projects without a budget, offices, or full-time volunteers—their work illustrates the power of a group of students committed to a vision of a world they hope to live in and leave to their children.

Although there is still a great deal of progress to be made on sustainable development issues, if SustainUS' work serves as an indication, young people are ready to step up to the challenge.

For more information, check out www.SustainUS.org


Stephan Schwartz serves on the Steering Committee of SustainUS and is the group's Media and University Outreach Coordinator. He may be reached via email at Steve(at)SustainUS.org

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