In October 2000, I am 8 years old. I’m walking through the crowded, dusty streets of Dhaka, clutching my father’s hand, my wide eyes taking in frail women begging and luxury apartments neighboring dilapidated slums. This was my first trip to Bangladesh since my birth and I had never seen injustice like it before. It even followed me to my grandmother’s house where my family ate at the table while our 14-year-old maid, Vanesa, ate on the floor. Vanesa, who had a big, toothy smile and questioned me incessantly about America, quickly became my friend. As I watched Vanesa eat below me, I knew that I could not, in good conscience, sit at my throne at the dinner table and abandon her. So I sat on the floor with her.
But something still didn’t feel right. My small stance of resistance didn’t actually change anything. Vanesa still ate on the floor and outside our window, countless people were in even worse conditions. I felt powerless.
Fast forward four years later and my friend calls me up about a community event to learn about the girls' education crisis. "Bangladesh is apparently one of the worst countries for girls' education, so I thought you'd be interested in coming," she said. She was right. I thought about Vanesa and wondered if she ever had the opportunity to go to school.
The event takes place at my friend's mom's café, in the heart our quaint suburban town just northwest of Washington, DC. With the comforting smell of buttery croissants wafting through the air, light jazz playing in the background, my 12-year-old self learns that over 100 million girls in the world are denied an education. My friends mirror my shocked reaction, as we sit around a wooden table, our eyes fixed on Wendy, the woman who brought us all there that day. With expressive hands and bright eyes framed by a pair of eccentric neon orange glasses, Wendy asked us a question that I will never forget: “Do you want to be architects of a movement to address this issue?”
So here's the thing: if Wendy hadn't ended her session with a call to action, my life would have undoubtedly gone in an extremely different direction. I would have left that café a bit more savvy, sure, about the state of global affairs, but I would have gone back to my life as I knew it. It never would have occurred to me that me — a tiny brown Muslim girl growing up in post-9/11 America — could have the ability to influence anyone in power.
When Wendy asked if we wanted to join her as architects, addressing me in a way an adult had never addressed me before – like I was her equal – I no longer felt powerless. I said yes because Wendy’s belief in me filled me with my own belief that I can change the injustice I first saw in my homeland.
After this meeting, my friends and I partnered with girls in Mali to champion our cause through community organizing and policy advocacy. One of my proudest accomplishments was walking through the shiny halls of Congress in my red Converse sneakers and being part of the groundswell of young people that successfully advocated for a $200 million increase in foreign aid for education. To this day, engaging in policy advocacy as a minor is the most impactful experience of my life.
I have decided to dedicate my life to empowering youth for two reasons:
One, it is important for society to hear what they have to say. Too often, however, their voices are systematically devalued. This lack of youth agency manifests itself, at best, in low confidence, and at worst, in self-harm, in which suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 29 year olds worldwide. Yet history has shown time and time again that young people have always been a force for social change. We have a duty to honor and build on that history.
Two, by investing in the civic potential of young people, we are investing in a pipeline of civic leaders committed to defending democracy for life. Generation Z has never been more primed to correct the course of our future. Nearly 9 in 10 adolescents have taken some sort of civic action like volunteering or raising money for a social cause. By investing in their power today, youth will be the key to challenging the status quo, combating these attacks to our democracy, and strengthening civil society for generations.