Lessons from the UN Youth Dialogue

Building Partnerships through Quality Networking, and Identifying the Youth Avenues of the Future

UN 2 with the GA President

 

Sometimes, you find yourself at the right time, in the right place: for me, that was in the ECOSOC Chamber of the UN Headquarters in New York City, on the 30th of May 2018. It came at a time when I needed to be inspired, intellectually challenged, and to zoom out and see a global, panoramic view, of what young leaders around the world were doing to make the world a better place. It also came eight months after Miroslav Lajčák became President of the 72nd Session of the General Assembly, and, having defined his term’s priorities, decided to host a Youth Dialogue as part of a three-event agenda, to push forward the implementation of the SDGs. On the 12th of January 2018, he introduced it as follows:

“This will not be a dialogue about young people. Those kinds of events have been held in the past, with little impact. Rather, it shall be a dialogue with young people. It must focus on their experiences, their challenges and, importantly, their ideas. To facilitate this, our plans include interactive chats, an open mic session, and virtual reality zones. A wide range of topics will be covered – from education, employment and opportunities, to prevention of violent extremism and radicalization.” 

Finally, this occasion emerged as EDIW is more than ever extending its global reach. With the Youth for Dialogue project, tackling universal themes like inclusion, participation, democracy and peace across four continents, the need for representation and partnership with both the UN ecosystem and the civil society network worldwide is stronger than ever. While I will not delve into the details of the event, which many followed livestreaming it from UN Web TV, I will share the day’s agenda (https://www.un.org/pga/72/event-latest/youth-dialogue/) in case anyone missed a speaker they were interested in and wanted to know more, as well as some key takeaways that I brought back home as a result of this transformative experience. 

When you network, less is more 

It’s hard to underestimate the value of networking. In the end, everyone you meet knows something you don’t, and building a connection can lead to previously unknown opportunities down the line. Also, when your goal is to help others, how can you do that if you haven’t met those people yet?

While there are as many networking styles and techniques as there are people, one rule of thumb I did learn during the Youth Dialogue is that often when networking, less is more. As the New York sun faded away from the East River to sunset over the Hudson, we were asked to move out of the ECOSOC Chamber to a different venue on an upper floor, where a rich buffet and electronic music would set the mood for the social gathering. I was thrilled: while I usually prefer to be around familiar faces during these types of events, the eagerness of getting to know more about the sector I’m truly passionate about made me buzz from corner to corner of the buffet room trying to speak to as many people as possible. I was giving out dozens of business cards and making a couple minutes of chat at most with everyone I met, to make time for everyone I didn’t. At some point, however, I slowed down to think: will these people remember me? Am I building any meaningful connection at all this evening? 

The answer to these questions was probably not. Sometimes, your circle decreases in size, but increases in value. Try and think back of when you met someone on a networking occasion: chances are you spent more time with them than most other people that day, and that is one of the main reasons that person gained a special place in your mnemonic retention. This matters because the value of a connection depends on the assumption that the other person will remember you in the future.

This brings me to my next conclusion: when it comes to your networking audience, choose your targets wisely. While some people lightheartedly flutter around between different social circles with enviable nonchalance, many tend to fall victims to a process of random allocation with their networking buddies. For example, you start talking to your neighbor in the buffet queue, and subsequently spend a large part of the evening with him out of politeness, even if both parties would be interested in meeting new people that night. To avoid this, you should aim to pass from a random to a purposeful selection of your network. For instance, instead of meeting people for the first time at the drinks reception, aim to briefly introduce yourself to as many people as possible before the main event itself. This way, you’ll have “mapped” the participants’ profiles and can be more focused on who you’ll speak to later. Other techniques include approaching groups of people rather than individuals, to see who strikes your attention, and then going for a one-to-one chat shortly afterwards; or observing people’s name tags, as sometimes additional information about them is present on them as well, such as the name of the organization they’re representing.

As these thoughts ran through my mind that night, I changed my approach, and after a month I am still in touch with some of the people I spent a longer time with that event. This goes to prove that when networking – and not only then – quality beats quantity.

Spot the tipping point

We all want to know the future, but it is no easy business. Winston Churchill once said “I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is much better to prophesy once the event has already taken place!” From astronomers to astrologists, thinkers from all fields and ages have formulated hypotheses, theories, and laws to spot patterns across different sets of events and behaviours, sought to find order in an apparently chaotic world, and ultimately tried to predict the future. 

Today I’ll focus on one intellectual who strove for this timeless feat: Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, and author of the bestseller “The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference”. In his book, he explains the dynamics by which a social trend crosses a threshold – the tipping point – and starts spreading exponentially. Several social phenomena, Gladwell argues, are subject to the “network effect”, which means that as the number of people adopting a trend goes up, the value of that trend increases with it. A clear example of this is telephone usage. Imagine being the first and only person to ever use a phone: since you can’t call anyone with it, it is fundamentally useless. However, as more and more people begin having a phone, it becomes increasingly useful. When the trend reaches a certain number of early adopters, called a “critical mass”, it starts becoming valuable also for the latecomers that were still not embracing it. At this point the trend “tips” and as Gladwell puts it, “spreads like wildfire”. 

The Youth Dialogue was organized by the President of the General Assembly to gain a better idea of youth issues around certain specific themes. He was interested in what we thought about the issues, what we felt was being done about them, and how we were contributing to personally tackling them. In his words, he wanted “to sit back and listen”, and the conference was intentionally organized to drive his SDG agenda in the last semester of his Presidency.We can, nevertheless, make educated guests about what could happen. While I won’t make speculations about the ripple effects of this event, I will share some rules that I think generally apply to identify ideas that could tip once you find yourself in a setting such as the Youth Dialogue. Firstly, one must identify the high value target(s) in the situation, which is that person or group with the power to tip ideas, by making decisions that influence others to change their behaviours – we will call these decision makers, or DMs in short. Secondly, comes the identification of the DMs’ intentions and interests in the given context: in the case of Mr. Lajčák and his team, this would be pinpointing youth perspectives on education, employment and radicalization for future policy purposes. Thirdly, one must detect what the main messages that came through to the DMs were: while this could seem hard, if you and the DMs were exposed to similar informational and data inputs, you’d probably find common grounds with them on some recurring themes. For the event I attended for example, these would be causes, effects and solutions to issues mentioned across the board by different young people, independently of country of origin or political affiliation. Fourthly, come the questions of how, where and when will the DMs enact their conclusions. Attentive monitoring of both official channels (like the news, organizational websites, or follow-up events organized by the DMs) and non-official ones (like a personal network that knows or interacts with the DMs) plays a crucial role to identify the outputs of the DMs’ verdicts, and consequently be responsive to them. Of course, this should come together with a thorough preparation on the ideas you think will tip: the power of anticipating trends is that once they come, you will be first in line. 

Mattia Barina
EDIW:  Youth Division