Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Interview with Monique Coleman, United Nations Youth Champion

Many people remember Monique Coleman for the remarkable role she played in the movie- High School Musicals (she was the brainy girl called Taylor McKenzie). Today, the 31 year- old American actress and philanthropist is serving as the United Nations Youth Champion, with the mission of projecting “dialogue and mutual understanding,” the themes of the International Year of Youth (August 2010-August 2011). She recently launched a project called “Letters of Hope,” with the aim of giving young people the opportunity in changing the world.

 Read the excerpts below:

Tell us a bit more about Letters of Hope
 Basically…we want young people to write letters- what is it they want to see in the world, what their aspirations are, what their dreams are for the world and also to share what it is they are doing about that or what it is they want to do. I really want to see something that is heart centered. I’m not giving too much guardian on how to go about it…My hope for the letters of hope is that it becomes this viral movement where people are sharing their hope for the world and our leaders take these letters and apply action to them.

From the forum themes (Citizens in action: youth in political and public life; Countering youth exclusion, vulnerability and violence; and Breaking through employment barriers.), which are you most passionate about?
I think they all work hand-in-hand. Unemployment is something that is on the forefront of everyone’s state of mind. But it is not the one I’m most passionate about, to be honest, because I feel young people have so much potential. If we could pave the path instead of following the system they way they’ve been created and recognise our potential of not only having jobs but to create jobs. There are so many jobs that can be created, jobs that can solve social problems. So I’m excited about some of the things that are happening in the job market because I think it is an opportunity to shift our perspective completely and say, “Now that there are so many people in the same situation, we can all relate to one another in a way that we couldn’t relate before.” There isn’t the same disparity between those who have and those who don’t. There are more and more people that are losing their jobs. There are more and more people that are having to say to themselves, “Am I doing what I’m passionate about in the world…if I’m not, now that I don’t have a job maybe I can take this an opportunity to follow my real passion.” And that real passion could open up a world of opportunity to more people.

Taking about following one’s passion and following one’s dream, as a celebrity did you have to give up a part of your life to become a change maker?
Oh no! Not at all. I had to use my life. A lot of people feel like you have to choose and I felt I had to choose... I was so scared of the path because I thought I’d have to give up my career in order to do it. But the truth is, I had to continue to pursue my dream in order to encourage other people to pursue theirs. But my dreams are just changed. I don’t care about the same things anymore. Being out in the world and seeing everything that I’ve seen and experienced, at the end of the day it is like I love being an artist but I’m able to put that in perspective.  I’m able to see the opportunity that I have as an artist. I desire to play more roles and I will. But I don’t look at it and feel like it defines me anymore. I think it is a very positive place to be.

There are a lot of complaints from young people that policy makers don’t listen to them. From your experience, how do you think young people can get policy makers to listen to them?
That is a great question because it is an opinion that is shared by a lot of people.  My response to that may not be the one you want to hear. But my response is, do not worry about it. Because I think through experience and through doing more work you start to realize what the process is when it comes to making a decision. And the reality is the more time we spend wondering and worrying about what someone else is thinking or doing, the less time we are spending actually in the doing. What I experienced traveling around the world is that often I will meet with students and hear all their concern about everything they wanted, what is wrong with their education etc. And they were great concerns. And then I would go and meet with the government officials and they are talking about the same thing the young people are talking about. So unless you have a solution that is so powerful, I think we have to be a little less judgmental of the policy makers and realise they are actually in the position because they want to do good. Most of the time they are there because they want to make a difference as well. They are trying to do the right thing and maybe they are inexperienced in working with young people.
So instead of being judgmental and complaining about it, show them why they should look into youth. Show them how youth can be an asset by doing the work and then presenting it to them instead of waiting for them to give you the opportunity to do the work.

Economists say Africa is the next frontier for global economy. In your recent world tour, you visited many countries, including some African countries; from your interaction with the youth in there did you perceive this?
Wow! That is a great question. You know, I think we like to coin these ideas about Africa and India as well, on who the emerging economies are. For me I’ll say yes, there is so much opportunities everywhere.
But I also think it is important to look at whether or not this opportunities is also causing disadvantages for other people that are living in the same place. And so to me it is really about having a holistic perspective as to what growth actually is. Is growth in development for a few or does it benefit all? And so I can’t really speak on behalf of whether or not on the perception I have about Africa just by being there for a month… but I would say the entire world is a vast opportunity for so much development if we are able to see past the self-serving attitude of how can I be in that company or the cover of Vogue but actually how can we help the poorest of poor to be included inside that economy. The continent or country that is able to achieve that, no matter how small or great, they are is doing an incredible job towards what I consider true development.

In some developing countries like Nepal, the corruption rate is very high, how do you think youth can contribute to the fight against corruption?
That one breaks my heart. Other things I can deal with but corruption is one that is very challenging…the one thing I can say is to try to shine the light on it as much as possible. To raise as much awareness as possible. That requires bravery. That requires putting yourself out there. In many places that is a huge risk…I wouldn’t do it alone. I would gather as many people as possible and not attach a name or a face to the movement of invading corruption…because one of the things that is attached to corruption is people disappear. So I would be mindful of your safety…
Your voice is the most powerful weapon you have, your voice, your mobile device, your access to technology is so powerful. Being that silent voice that writes a letter, that speaks up on behalf of other people is really powerful.

Some people get really frightened by the idea of Change. They feel they are okay and they don’t really want to change. How, in your opinion, can we make change more approvable and attractive? Especially for the elders, they lack sense of change.
The reason why I’m laughing is because I had the most horrible disturbing thoughts when you were saying people are afraid of change.
I was trying to put it into a context and I thought, we change our cloths right? We change our clothes pretty much every day. Imagine if you had to wear or sat in the same clothes all of the time. That will get old and it will get crunchy and not smell very good. Well, that is the same thing. Ultimately, we want to change. We want to change our clothes, we want to change our ideas, we want to change our policies and our thoughts. I think the reason why people could be afraid of change is because they are afraid they are going to lose something.
But I think if we could shift our whole way of thinking from focusing on what we are going to lose because of change and focus on what we are going to gain, what the possibilities are if we did change… I think it is a matter of taking a fear-based way of thinking and translating that into a more positive open ways of thinking.

What is your advice to youth? Those people who really get exclusion in career and workplace, and from participating in civil society?
I would say if you are awake and breathing, then you can be participating. You may not be participating at the level or in the context that you want to be, but you can participate. So I feel less time should be spent worrying and complaining about what you are not doing and more time should be spent actually doing what you can do.
You don’t have to wait for anybody. You don’t have to wait for the United Nations, you don’t have to wait for your government, you don’t have to wait for someone to tell you to do something. When you wake up in the morning, if you see a problem, there is likely a solution somewhere inside of you. If it is not, you can gather with other people and come up with a solution. I think sometimes we want to skip steps, we have these mobile devices, we have access to information all day and it feels so easy to get something done. I’m sitting in the front row and I’m participating- someone says something that is compelling and I tweet it and immediately it is all around the world.
But the reality of change is not that. The reality of actually making a difference is a process. You have to organize yourself, you have to be clear about what exactly you want… it doesn’t have to be bureaucracy … but it does have to be something that is spelt out because many of the issues that we are facing today are based on hasty decisions. Hasty decisions that were made at the time when people didn’t take their time to think things completely through and didn’t have the foresight to see what could happen.  We need to slow time and think things through.

How do you see yourself different from other people?
I see myself as the same. Nothing was given to me. Everything that I have and achieved, I have worked for.  To be honest, none of my ideas are my own. I really think the things that have happened…are divine…I think that there is a divinity that is working in our world…when I approach people or when I go through my life, I think: do I have fears? Absolutely. Do I have insecurity? Absolutely. Are there things that I think I cannot do? Absolutely. Do I have to work hard in order to be able to take steps in my life? Absolutely, every single day. So I don’t sit back and say…I was in High School musicals. Oh no! I had to let go of all of that stuff that make people feel important and recognize that I’m living on the same planet where there is bullying, where there are conflict all over the world, where people are hungry and don’t have access to drinking water. As long as I’m living in this planet we all need to get in the mud and make a difference.

Since we are sitting here together, from different race and religion, what do you think is the message of the 7th UNESCO Youth Forum?
I think this whole year and the Forum is really about dialogue. It is about breaking down these barriers of ideas and stereotypes and really getting into conversation. And then taking that conversation and translating it into action. It is not enough to sit all day and just talk about it, you have to put these words into action. It doesn’t have to be on a huge scale. You could do something so tiny and that small thing will continue to multiply and to grow and make a difference for someone.

Do you have any other comment?
I’m just so proud of all of you, for being here and for being selected. It is a wonderful opportunity, which you all know. But I just wanted to share that when I was a little bit younger, I had this issue where I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. The more problems are reported in the world, the more things I saw, the more I felt like I’m just not doing enough. I just want you to know you may face that. You may learn more and see more and become frustrated and feel like you are not just doing enough. I just want you to know that you are.  If you are doing everything that you can, if you waking up and it is on your heart. If you are being the best person that you can be every single day, if you are helping someone to cross the street, if you are sharing a positive message…you are doing enough. And it isn’t just about one person. It is about us inspiring other people to do the same thing. If we all did our own share of the job, it will all get done.

We would like to thank you Monique, for your time.
Thank you all!

Interview conducted by Youth Bloggers - Doudou (DRC), Hend (Egypt), Jennifer (Nigeria), Kounila (Cambodia) and Rajneesh (Nepal)-  during the 7th UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris

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