Remarks to Students at Viqarunnisa School and College
Special AdvisorOffice of Global Youth Issues
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MR. FARROW: As-Salaam Alaykum.
AUDIENCE: As-Salaam Alaykum.
MR. FARROW: It’s a great pleasure to be here. I spend a great deal of time in my job, and as I survey leadership in my country and around the world with old people – some old people are wonderful. It’s an important part of the engagement we do. But it’s inspiring and also just a good time for me getting to spend some time with vibrant young people here in Bangladesh.
And I know that you all, each of you in this group, have had that same experience of looking at your leadership, looking out across your communities, and seeing a whole lot of old people in positions of power. And I’m here to say that I am also seeing another Bangladesh. I have seen a young and vibrant and creative Bangladesh. I have seen it in the last few days that I have spent in this country, and I have seen it in this room, right now, right here, with each of you. (Applause.)
I don’t think there is a single country in the world that I have visited that has a greater spirit of volunteerism and service than Bangladesh. (Applause.) And I have seen that service in action, talking to young leaders in communities around Dhaka, talking with young leaders who have joined with the United States Embassy here to create projects and programs that bring services to young people and help young people find a voice. I spent some time yesterday with the JAAGO Foundation’s Volunteer for Bangladesh program. Maybe some of you know it. And that program has brought together 10,000 young volunteers from across Bangladesh to create hundreds of projects that bring services to almost half a million people. (Applause.)
I have seen it in groups of young leaders like the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, like the Community Action Foundation, which was founded by a young woman leader herself, not unlike the young women I see before me right now. So I’ve been very inspired by stories of young Bangladeshis that I’ve met. And those stories have given me great optimism both for the future of this country and for the future of all of our shared problems around the world, because solutions to our current times of challenge will be in the hands of young people like you and me. Around the world, we are seeing 60 percent of the population under the age of 30. We’re seeing young people as a tremendous positive change force. We’re seeing young people transform their political realities on the ground, revolutionize our technologies and our ways of communicating and connecting with one another.
But we’re also seeing young people as a potentially destabilizing force, something dangerous and chaotic. That tremendous energy and vibrancy when youth cannot find jobs, cannot make their voices heard peacefully in their communities, can fuel conflicts. None of these realities have been lost on both – our allies around the world, like Bangladesh, democracies that strive to create spaces for young people to make their voices heard, and to attract the best and brightest young thinkers to their job markets and universities. But it also hasn’t been lost on our adversaries, on agents of violence and extremism that have constructed sophisticated youth recruitment campaigns around the world to capitalize on young people’s feelings of voicelessness, to give them a purpose. So it’s in all of our plans to ensure that the tremendous force of youth around the world is used for good, and seeing the spirit of service here in Bangladesh has given me great hope in that respect.
The United States also sought this local landscape and it’s been a privilege for me to be a part of our response over the last year. We constructed a task force at the United States Department of State to look at how you can change the game on talking to, and more importantly, listening to young people. And the result of that task force is a new policy focused on responding directly to young people’s feelings of voicelessness and young people’s lack of access to opportunities.
There are two key pledges that we’ve made. Everywhere that the United States is present around the world, we have committed to focusing on building opportunities for young people, to engage in markets to find jobs, to start their own businesses and initiatives. And I know we have some young entrepreneurs in the room today. Those are exactly the young people that we are trying to stand by.
Second, we have committed to focusing on fostering young voices all around, everywhere in the world – young leaders in their communities. In Bangladesh’s pivotal 2008 election, as you all know, close to 25 percent of the vote comprised of first-time voters, young voters. And that number is expected to increase in 2014. So you all have a pivotal role to play in making your voices heard and steering the future of your country. And the United States, for its small part, wants to stand by you as you make your voices heard.
I mentioned some of the programs and collaborations that I’ve seen on this trip. I was also excited to launch our new Council of Youth Advisors to the United States Embassy here in Dhaka, a body of vibrant young leaders, men and women not unlike yourselves, that will have a direct role in making their voices heard in our policies and programs, and in telling us what the challenges are – what we can be doing more of and better, what we’re doing wrong. And that’s a conversation I hope to have with all of you today as well.
For my part, it’s been a privilege on a personal level to be involved in this initiative, partly because the challenges are ones that I have felt so acutely from an early age myself. I grew up in a family of 14. I know families are big here in Bangladesh. Mine was particularly big in the United States. Ten of my siblings were adopted, and adopted from every corner of the earth with special needs and disabilities, often from corners of their societies that usually aren’t heard, that are disenfranchised or oppressed or discriminated against.
So I saw firsthand at an early age the power of young men and women brought together and given voice where they might otherwise not have had any. I have a brother adopted from South Asia, from India, who is paraplegic with polio, who had never been spoken to in any language for the first 10 years of his life. He was abandoned at an orphanage, had no space to make himself heard. And it was inspiring seeing him grow from being someone who was afraid to speak to being someone who was the most forceful and creative problem-solver at my family dinner table growing up. That’s an example – (applause) – that I see mirrored in the powerful young men and women that are living in communities across Bangladesh.
And I call specific attention to the role of young women. I had the privilege of spending some time with some madrassa students yesterday in one of our English Access programs. And although young women sometimes took more time to speak up, when they did, they were the most powerful voices imaginable. And I look across this room and I see the same strength. And I hope that you’ll carry that forward as you all step into leadership roles. One of my new friends here today, Sanya (ph), who painted my extraordinary painting there – by the way, the best birthday present I have ever gotten – (applause) – said, “We are not girls; we are tigers.” And I love that spirit. (Applause.)
We want to stand by you as you remain tigers, as you remain strong and forceful leaders in all of your communities. The challenges that face Bangladesh’s young people are great. I know that there is often limited space to make all of your voices heard. I myself in the United States have also had challenges making my voice heard. It requires tenacity, it requires persistence. America is not perfect and I am not perfect, and it’s a process every day of trying to get to a place where we give people of every age equal opportunity to make their voices heard.
But it is in your hands that your voices ultimately are heard. It’s up to you. And I have great belief that if you continue to be organized and persistent and peaceful participants, and if you refuse to fall silent, you will ultimately steer the fate of this country.
I would say to you also that you have extraordinary opportunities that many, both Bangladesh and around the world, do not. You are one of the most storied institutions in Bangladesh, one of the most prestigious and unique schools. You have been given extraordinary tools. So I would urge you to pay that forward, as I know many of you already are in community service projects that you’ve been involved with as students. Don’t lose that commitment.
I was asked by a young person earlier this year what are my three pieces of advice would be for other young people trying to assume peaceful leadership roles. And I would say three things. First, to stay principled. I had incredible conversations while here with young people who have firmed their commitments to openness and transparency of government, to equal access to opportunities for young and old, rich and poor, young women and young men. And I would call on all of you to not lose that commitment. Very often, when young people step into leadership roles and join existing establishments, they lose sight of the original commitments that drove them. And I know, from my conversations with you so far, that that won’t happen. I would also say to believe in yourselves and your own voices. Remember that you’re not girls; you’re tigers, that girls are tigers. (Applause.)
I mentioned that I grew up in a large family. Seven of my siblings were sisters, so I spent a long time being bossed around by girls. (Laughter.) I wouldn’t want to take any of you in a fight. And I have the privilege right now of working for an institution where all of my bosses are women. It’s been a great honor to work for one of the most committed and one of the most principled women, I think, leading the world right now, for Secretary Clinton. And our commitment to young people around the world and to young Bangladeshis comes directly from her and from her long career of service for young women and young people under her.
I would also say, finally, to be a united front. Too often, young people with shared principles and aspirations are divided by infighting, by petty competition. I know that there are a large number of competing plaque awards for community service and volunteerism here in Bangladesh and in Dhaka, and I would hope that all of you, as you pursue leadership roles, can join together and work jointly towards your shared causes.
As I said, I leave this country with great optimism, and I hope that before I leave this school today, I get to hear from you what your challenges are, what your aspirations are, and what more the United States can be doing to stand by you as you pursue those. We’re listening, and I look forward to continuing that conversation. Thank you so much. (Applause.)