On February 22, the Georgia Institute of Technology Serve-Learn-Sustain Center convened the UN RCE (United Nations Regional Center for Expertise) of Greater Atlanta for the very first event of their Youth Network. The event, the Liam’s Legacy Symposium for UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals, featured Trisha Shetty and Rainier Mallol, the UN SDGs Young Leaders for SDGs 5 and 3, respectively. Trisha Shetty is the founder and CEO of SheSays India, an organization which provides rehabilitative counseling and legal services to victims of sexual assault and discrimination while educating and advocating for gender equality reforms. Rainier Mallol is the President of AIME, an epidemiology and tech company that uses AI to track and prevent tropical diseases while revolutionizing the boundaries of public health.
Trisha and Rainier come from very different backgrounds with unique outlooks on the SDGs and youth action. Having the opportunity to hear both of them speak and share their ideas on the same stage was a rare and invaluable chance for me, as an SDG Coordinator for SDSN Youth, to reassess my views on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs action. The inspiration and guidance that they have shared with audiences at universities around Atlanta are just too powerful not to share. Thus, I have shared below some of the most eye-opening and uplifting advice that I learned from Trisha and Rainier.
From Trisha we learned that we must not back down from difficult conversations, that gender equality requires more than the presence of women in leadership positions, and that our solutions must meet the needs of our local communities. As Trisha explained in her powerful testimony, the SDGs were adopted by 193 governments in September 2015 and demonstrate that intersectional action must be taken to achieve any of the SDGs, let alone all of them. By extension, the adoption of the SDGs Agenda was a promise by 193 governments to “leave no one behind” - although statistics and realities show that this promise is often not upheld. Trisha shared gruesome stories about children in India, some younger than one year old, who have been raped, assaulted, mutilated, and otherwise violated in a sexual manner. She noted that while many speakers would choose to leave out the repulsive details of these crimes, young people must engage in these difficult conversations if we are to overcome discrimination, open society to a discourse that inspires change at every level, and force our leaders to include all members of society as we progress forward.
Trisha also touched on the taboo issues that gender equality challenges, many of which have been justified by cultural and religious norms purported by men who sought power through these historical vehicles of influence. In this context, it is much harder to gain popular support for gender equality than it is for more widely and universally accepted “social goods” such as a quality education and a strong economy. Outside observers have recorded an improvement in gender equality in India by looking at the rising number of women who have gained positions in senior government positions. However, Trisha pointed out that many of the women who gain influence in senior positions fail to use their power to advance women’s rights and gender equality, a leadership failure which only further stagnates the gender equality movement.
In an era where youth are increasingly inspired to change the world and have access to online tools which can help them to launch their own initiatives, Trisha encouraged the audience and all youth listening to develop solutions that work to serve their communities instead of nominally addressing an issue of concern. She warned that while many platforms may gain social media attention for their good intentions, it takes a real focus on the needs of your local community and an innovative, evidence-based approach to implementing truly meaningful change.
From Rainier, we learned the value of caring and that you should not give credence to those who doubt you. As Rainier related in his inspiring speech, it takes individuals who care deeply about their community, local needs, and what they see on the news to change the world. And while invoking a deep desire to help your community is the first and most important step in making a change for the better, caring for yourself will drive you to take your initiative to the next level. Rainier conceded that his involvement with AIME stems from a care for his home country, the Dominican Republic, and the public health challenges the Caribbean faces, but that his consideration for himself motivates him to make AIME and their AI technology as good as they can be, so that the initiative and his work get the recognition they deserve. The results have been astounding, with 43 outbreaks prevented just since AIME’s conception in 2016.
Rainier also discusses how he and his business partner confronted skepticism and doubt, when they first decided to create AIME. He recounted that there were many times that officials would laugh in his face at his ideas, but Rainier said that he likewise laughed at them, because he knew that one day he would be right and his ideas would be saving lives. Rainier declared that the reason he could have this confidence at such an early stage in his venture with AIME was the sheer amount of research he did, finding the evidence that supported his ideas, and possessed the work ethic to tie it all together and continue to persevere. This is a good lesson for all innovative youth; you can have confidence, you can have ideas, and you have research that supports your platform, but each of these parts retain more value together than they do apart. Indeed, Rainier would probably argue that your ideas need evidence-backed research, as well as strong communication, in order to become tangible, transformative solutions.
Trisha Shetty and Rainier Mallol may be a part of the same cohort of UN SDGs Young Leaders, but their different experiences, initiatives, and platforms have uniquely shaped their message and hope for our world in 2030. Likewise, no two SDG advocates in the world will have the same outlook or perspective, yet our differences and unique platforms provide today’s youth an uncommon opportunity to learn from one another, partner with youth in different regions, disciplines, and fields, and energize their peers to create and shape their own cohort of stewards for change and action.
Sienna Nordquist is an SDG Coordinator with SDSN Youth at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, where she is a Robert W. Woodruff Scholar studying International Studies and Economics. Sienna also serves as the Vice President for Red Light Emory, a student-run organization which seeks to provide mental health resources to survivors of sex trafficking in the Atlanta area and educates the Emory community about the intersectionality of mental health and human/sex trafficking. In the past, she has been a strong and principled advocate for women’s empowerment, including her roles as a 2015 Global Community Champion for UN Women’s Empower Women Programme and a 2017 Mentor to other Empower Women Champions for Change.