On Jan. 15, 15-year-olds around the world took a stand. Their goal was to make the world a better place 15 years from now by getting rid of poverty and disease. They shared their worries and their dreams with leaders around the world as part of the newly launched “action/2015” effort, supported by the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit group that the rock star Bono founded.
Here in the U.S., the adolescent activists came to the State Department in Washington, D.C., to speak with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom.
We interviewed three of these lobbyists to learn about the issues they care about and to get a little insight into what it’s like to be a 21st-century teen.
Sleepless In Lagos
Tolu does not like to be unplugged.
Her full name is Toluwanimi Sola-Adeyemi. She’s from Nigeria, where the power can blink off for days. And her family’s home generator doesn’t always work.
Here’s what it means to be powerless, according to Tolu (who is currently a student at the Oneida Baptist Institute, a boarding school in Kentucky):
- Sleepless nights. “We’re sleeping in heat, hoping they’ll bring electricity,” she says. “We’re going to sweat the whole night.”
- School troubles. Once she couldn’t complete a school project because the electricity was out for days. All she had was candles. The teacher failed her. Yes, failed her! “I tried to explain to my teacher. She wouldn’t listen to any of my excuses. She said that wasn’t her problem, that was the government’s problem.”
- No running water. The machine that pumps water into her home relies on electricity.
And all these woes are in the giant city of Lagos, where she lives with her parents, both of whom are lawyers. “The rural part [of Nigeria] is 100 times worse,” she says.
A reliable source of electricity “would open up so many advantages that may now be closed off,” she says.
Tolu likes the U.S. — not just because she can charge her phone any time she wants. “In Nigeria teachers care more about the money they’re making” than about the well-being of their students, she says. She can’t get over how caring American teachers are.
She also likes U.S. teens. “In Nigeria, I wouldn’t say we’re not emotional,” Tolu says. “But everybody is so closed off. Here, they’re open. They want to know what you’re doing, and how it went. American teenagers are really nice!”
She does admit that American movies gave her a false impression of high school life in the U.S. – “like it’s this place where everybody is always in the hallways 24/7, the whole school day.”
It turns out students do spend some time in classrooms, too, Tolu jokes.
Despite the differences between the U.S. and Nigeria, teens in both places are bound together by pop culture. Tolu is a fan of the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, about a cancer-stricken teen. “There’s love and happiness,” she says, “and even though one of the characters dies, you get this feeling of sadness but also of completeness.”
And Tolu’s favorite TV show? Gossip Girl. “There’s really nothing to not like about it!”
Outspoken in Seattle
Chloe McGill wants Americans to know that getting an education is far from easy in Africa.
“Some girls drop out of school because they don’t have access to sanitary products,” she says. Others can’t continue because they have to walk miles to fetch water for their family and don’t have time for classes.
So the 15-year-old speaks out about the need for education in Africa, has raise funds for the Rwanda Girls Initiative, which her mother co-founded — and does volunteer work at Rwanda’s Gashora Girls Academy, which was established by the Initiative.
The girls at the Gashora academy, a boarding school, have impressed McGill with their “drive for education.”
“For me, when I get up in the morning, if it’s really early, I don’t want to get out of bed and go to school,” she says. “But the girls at Gashora are excited for the opportunity. They get up at 5:30 in the morning without complaining for study hour. They take advantage of all opportunities.”
But they’re also typical teenagers. “We all listen to Justin Bieber and Chris Brown, and they know all the words to their songs,” says McGill. “They have access to Facebook. They want to play and have fun.”
McGill is glad she came to Washington, D.C. — even though it came right in the middle of finals week. “The fact that [government officials] were sitting there listening was remarkable. They seemed to care about what we were saying,” she says. “It might be a long road until we eradicate extreme poverty, but you can only move forward if you believe that you can.”
McGill is definitely a believer in moving forward. A book that has helped shape her views is We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, a chronicle of the genocide. “That event was horrendous and terrifying to think about,” she says. “But there’s a hopeful side to see how the country has come so far.”
Changemaker In Chapel Hill
Travel abroad has also inspired high school sophomore Emine Arcasoy to help people in Rwanda.
Arcasoy, 16, is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “But both sets of my grandparents live in Turkey, so each summer we visit them,” she tells Goats and Soda.
While in Turkey, Arcasoy and her family have limited access to clean water. They stick to bottled water and can’t eat certain types of fruits and vegetables, she says. “When you’re in that situation, you have to be careful everywhere,” Arcasoy says.
That experience made her want to help people who don’t have the basics they need, such as clean water, food and shelter. “What if people aren’t as lucky as I am?” she says. “Their lives don’t matter any less than mine does.”
Arcasoy is a busy teen. She swims, plays tennis and loves to read. She devours dystopian novels, such as The Hunger Games, the Divergent series and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But she found time to join the global health club at her school last year, as a freshman. The team raised more than $40,000 for the nonprofit Partners in Health and its work in Rwanda.
This year the club set their goal even higher. “We raised over $50,000 for the Ebola response in Liberia and Sierra Leone,” she says.
Arcasoy says she has heard other kids at her school call the club’s efforts “cheesy.” But that doesn’t stop her from asking them to join the group. “The more people who get involved, the greater the impact,” she says. “We’re really the generation where I think there’s going to be big changes to come.”