ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Good morning everyone! Welcome to the State Department. It is an honor to host you all here today at the inaugural Emerging Young Leaders awards ceremony. I would like to acknowledge in particular the presence of the ambassadors from Malta, Georgia, Tunisia, and Afghanistan who are here with us today. Thank you for joining us. (Applause.)
My name is Evan Ryan and I’m the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Our goal is to promote greater understanding between the people of the United States and people all over the world. We do this by engaging students, professionals, scholars, and emerging leaders from more than 150 countries in a wide range of academic, cultural, and professional exchange programs.
I am glad to see so many students here with us today. I know we have students from several schools, high schools, and universities. I’m also glad to see teachers, policymakers, exchange alumni, and partners. We are thrilled to welcome these 10 young leaders to Washington and to highlight the work they have done to achieve this honor.
So first, let me congratulate you, our awardees, for being selected for this inaugural award. The 10 of you were selected for your efforts to create positive social change in your communities.
The Emerging Young Leaders Award and Exchange Program is about more than just highlighting successful youth-led community initiatives. We hope that this program will help you strengthen your own determination to continue to foster positive change in your communities. The intensive exchange program that you are on has been specially tailored to strengthen your knowledge, your abilities, and your networks. It will provide you with additional skills and tools for continued success. I should add that your program does not end when you leave the United States. When you return home, it will continue through mentoring and other support.
These 10 young leaders embody the essence of why we invest in exchange programs in the first place. They are already proving that they can make our communities – both local and global – better places in which to live and in which to work. And their example will give other committed and courageous young people – hopefully some here today – the inspiration to likewise make a difference in the lives of others.
First Lady Michelle Obama was not able to join us today, but in the back of your program, you will see that she sent a letter to honor the awardees. The First Lady emphasized what an exceptional group of young people this is and added that all of our award winners, whatever their backgrounds and worldviews, will have the opportunity to collaborate on important issues affecting our shared future.
The inspiration for this award in part was the enormous impact that Malala Yousafzai had on people around the world, most especially young people. So we wanted to create a way to recognize and celebrate the work of other young people who demonstrate the dedication and bravery to move forward with positive agendas even under very challenging circumstances.
So here we have 10 young leaders doing just that. They have dedicated themselves in the same spirit as Malala to making a difference, to creating that positive momentum. They represent the power of young people to launch grassroots initiatives to improve their communities. Whether they’re working to promote interfaith dialogue, entrepreneurship, social justice, civic engagement, these young leaders are jumpstarting the change the world needs now.
It has been great to learn about their personal stories and to engage with them on social media, but meeting them in person this morning has likewise been a real privilege and a real inspiration, so thank you.
It is now my great honor to introduce the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel. He has served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs since February of 2014. In this role, he provides global strategic leadership of all Department of State public diplomacy and public affairs engagement and oversees the bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, International Information Programs, and Public Affairs and the Global Engagement Center.
Prior to assuming this position, Under Secretary Stengel was the managing editor of Time magazine and was president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center. He also worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and later served as an associate producer of the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary “Mandela.”
Under Secretary Stengel has received an Emmy award and has written for many publications and is the author of several books, and he has two teenagers at home who I think have already heard some of these stories. (Laughter.) Under Secretary Stengel. (Applause.)
UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. So are some folks here from Evan’s school that she went to in Washington? Who is that? Yes. And is the head of the school here too, the same --
PARTICIPANT: It’s the dean of students.
UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Yes, dean of students, hi. Did Evan show leadership when she was that age?
PARTICIPANT: Hi. (Off-mike.)
UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Okay, good. I told Evan I would embarrass her. (Laughter.) No, I always say what – I do what I’m going to say. So – and actually I do want to thank Evan first of all, because you’ve shown tremendous leadership in creating this award, and I’m so honored to be here for what I hope will become an annual award that is extremely important.
Now, yes, I’m an under secretary, as Evan said. And one of the terrible mistakes that was made today was that they actually gave me a little time to think about what I was going to say here today. So I started thinking, why do we give awards for leadership? They’re all over the place, right? There’s the Nobels, the – you name them, right? The Fulbrights – of course, Fulbright’s something else. The Pulitzers the other day – so I was thinking, why do we give awards for leadership?
And there’s no objective answer, but I’m going to tell you what occurred to me, which is this – which is that leadership is rare, right? If it was common, we wouldn’t be giving awards for it, and giving the award recognizes the fact that these 10 young people are unusual. Abraham Lincoln once said that moral courage is much rarer than physical courage, and it takes moral courage to be a leader. And for many of you, by the way, and the places that you come from – because the idea of this award is to come from difficult places, it also takes physical courage. And that’s something that we don’t always think about here in the U.S., but it’s a tremendous, tremendous achievement.
Now, in thinking about leadership, too – which is something I have thought about, and Evan mentioned I worked with Nelson Mandela, who – one of the greatest leaders in human history. And he said that there’s one thing that unites all leaders – and by the way, that’s kind of an amazing thing, right? I mean, leaders in different places, different colors, different shapes, different sizes, different sexes, different eras in history – he says there’s one thing that unites all leaders, and that is something very simple but very profound, and that’s the willingness to lead – the willingness to step up and say, “Hey, this is on me. I’ve got this. I’m going to do this.” That is what takes moral courage. That’s not easy. It’s not easy to step out from the crowd and say, “I’m going to take responsibility for this, and I could fail.” And that’s why leadership is so important. And, in fact, that’s why we have these awards: to encourage what you’ve done already and to say that we support you, we’re behind you.
Now, the U.S. is a little different. I’m an American exceptionalist, and this to me is part of the idea of American exceptionalism, which is we’re giving you this award, but we’re not telling you what to do. We’re – we want to support you. We want to recognize your effort and we want to encourage you to do what you do, but you don’t get any direction from us. You might actually start complaining, like, “Well, hey, you’re not telling me anything.” Well, we’re not. We’re recognizing the courage, the vision, the leadership.
I met all of these – I’ve read about them and I’ve met all of them backstage. I mean, from what Sam is doing in France to what Basel is doing in Palestine to what you’re doing in Tunisia and Burma, it’s really kind of extraordinary stuff. And it’s not something, in fact, that we helped create, but it’s something that we want to support.
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish philosopher, had a famous, famous kind of axiom. He said, “Does history make the man or the woman, or does the woman or the man make history?” Right – it’s kind of a conundrum. What’s the answer? The answer, of course, is both. And so what – your circumstances help make you the leaders that you are, but the fact that you stepped out and said, “I’m willing to do something. I’m willing to fight violent extremism. I’m willing to fight prejudice. I’m willing to fight repressive governments” – that makes you make history, and that is what we want to do. We want to enable you to make history.
Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” You already are the change. We want to help you do that, and we’re so – you’ve all thanked me for this award. We thank you for what you’re doing, so tribute to you. (Applause.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: So now we have the awards. I will read each award winner’s name, and the under secretary will present them with their award.
First, we have Ahmad Shakib Mohsanyar from Afghanistan. (Applause.) We are awarding Ahmad for your dedication to making Afghanistan a better place. Your popular campaign called “Afghanistan Needs You” shows creativity and has engaged thousands. Your work to build a narrative that youth can have successful and fulfilling lives in Afghanistan is actively helping lead the country towards prosperity. Congratulations, Ahmad. (Applause.)
Next, we have Thinzar Shunlei Yi from Burma. Thinzar, for your work on youth development and dialogue and dedication to positive change. Your diversity campaign, #myfriend, has reached thousands as it seeks to combat intolerance and extremism in Burma. It brings young people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds together in support of peace and diversity. Congratulations, Thinzar. (Applause.)
Next, we have Samuel Grzybowski from France, for creating the leading youth interfaith organization in France, Coexister, with its innovative slate of outreach of programs; and for advocating for a more egalitarian and tolerant Europe. Your mastery of communications enables your impact as an opinion leader to be shared by people of all ages in all countries. Your hashtag, NousSommesUnis, inspires us all. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Next, we have Nino Nanitashvili. Nino, for your efforts to foster peace-building and professional development through technology and your skill in organizing over 400 events, meetups, conferences, and workshops. Your service as a mentor for tech startups and social entrepreneurs in Georgia demonstrates how much you’ve given back to your society and to everyone’s future. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Next, we have Jessel Recinos Fernandez from Honduras, for your work with at-risk youth. Your dedication to keeping young people away from gangs, and your belief in positive solutions, your passion for your country and your creative efforts to keep youth in school and away from violence is inspiring. Congratulations, Jessel. (Applause.)
Zulfirman Rahyantel from Indonesia, for your work initiating dialogue within communities to resolve issues involving grief, resentment, and hatred. These community dialogues encourage mutual respect, open-mindedness, and a safe space to communicate. Your work facilitating these projects allows Indonesians to learn about each other’s religions and perspectives and shows all of us the power of mutual respect. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Next, we have Asha Hassan from Kenya, for your dedication to developing youth-led units for dialogue and reconciliation among ethnic clans in your home region. Your work to mobilize Somali girls to be change agents in their communities, teaching children the value of life and warning them against joining extremist groups is proof of the positive change and courage that one young woman can bring to the global community. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Hillary Briffa from Malta, for your role in raising the profile of young people in international affairs on the global stage. Your work on youth issues to gain broader access to health care and education, to combat discrimination and online hate speech, and to lead a campaign against violent extremism shows young people around the world how they can become part of the solution. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Basel Almadhoun from the Palestinian territories, for your energetic, positive contributions to benefit people of all ages in Gaza and beyond through debate. You are helping spread the culture of the other opinion, engaging young people to understand other perspectives. Thank you for your leadership, Basel. Congratulations. (Applause.)
And lastly, Ahlem Nasraoui from Tunisia, for your work to empower women and youth in Tunisia through entrepreneurship, hackathons, boot camps, and startups, and your steadfast support of the democratic transition in Tunisia. Your work to confront terrorism and extremism and to coach youngsters in leadership, arts, and mediation is a great example to us all. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Now we will hear from two of our awardees – first from Ahlem Nasraoui from Tunisia, and then from Jessel Recinos Fernandez from Honduras.
MS NASRAOUI: Dear ladies and gentlemen, I’m deeply humbled and honored to have been selected among other nine standing young leaders from France, Burma, Palestine, Georgia, Malta, Indonesia, Honduras, and Tunisia. I stand here to express my joy and pride to accept the Emerging Leaders 2016 Award. Being one of the ten selected peace-builders, change-makers, and activists who have made their marks in their respective communities acknowledge an unprecedented step in engaging youth as peace-builders in countering terrorism, bridging understanding among a diverse group of people and religions, ending conflicts, and strengthening peace values. On behalf of the emerging leaders group, I’m sincerely grateful for the recognition and the resourceful exchange program sponsored by the State Department and implemented by Legacy International.
My name is Ahlem, which means in Arabic “dreams.” I have been dreaming since my childhood to become a change-maker and impact others’ lives locally and globally. I come from Carthage, the land of the very first Mediterranean democracy, the land of exceptionalism, of rebels, and revolution. I come from those who sacrificed their lives to gain freedom and create the first democracy in the region. The revolution was an indication of the Tunisian strength to realize their rights and lay bare their aspirations, to free themselves from oppression.
Today Tunisia faces many challenges, especially with the appearance of terrorism, which represents a new threat to the country’s stability. Terrorism is trying to destroy not only my country but anything related to democracy and human rights. Young people are being targeted and brainwashed to join the terrorism (inaudible). Innocent people are being targeted and killed. All of these problems are challenges for any startup democracy which is transitioning from the era of dictatorship to the era of lights and democracy. I was one of those who were searching for a sustainable solution that can dissolve perhaps the most destructive force in the world, which is terrorism.
The first step to removing terrorism is to let go of the idea that anything has to do with Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion that’s unfortunately misunderstood and thought of as the culprit instead of terrorism itself. Islam, like any other religion, counsels people to keep their ethics and deeds in check and not harm others.
This is why I was spreading awareness among youth to be the key factor to eradicate terrorism. Young people are considered to represent the future as they bring new ideas and energy to add to the pool of knowledge that currently exists. I’m working through capacity-building programs, campaigns, events, national lobbying, and local actions to bring enthusiasm and vitality which can lead to new discoveries and developments that can benefit society or even the world at large.
Although not the only drivers of social change, young people are seen to be the drivers of social change and also the key drivers that engender change, whether this is inherent in the beliefs of young people or the hope for the future which is placed upon them.
In this context, the Emerging Leaders Award will reveal the U.S. engagement to pledge a vow to youth who are fighting against violence, bridging strength of humanity beyond race, religion, and human-made divisions in order to spread the word of peace and love. As a young Tunisian woman, this award was an opportunity to speak up and outvoice my country’s aspirations. We Tunisians won’t be defeated by terrorism. We wake up every day to rejoice over life, enjoy every moment, attend theaters, smell jasmines – we Tunisians love life.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion, I want again to be – to express how grateful we are to receive this award, especially knowing that we work every day with large group of youth who are equally deserving. However, I’m even more grateful for the opportunity to be a youth activist. I consider it an honor to walk into a vulnerable community, trying to create a safe space for them and critically think about the world they live in.
I consider it a privilege to learn also from these amazing nine leaders. While awards are also wonderful to receive, just knowing that you have helped a young person in his or her journey is truly rewarding enough. I’m one of these fortunate people who go home knowing that we make a difference in our communities just by being a youth activist. Our greatest reward is being a youth activist.
Again, thank you. (Applause.)
MR FERNANDEZ: (Via interpreter) Good morning to all. My name is Jessel Recinos and I am proudly representing my country, Honduras. And I feel very lucky to be here, part of this group of 10 incredible young leaders, and in front of people as beautiful as all of you.
To begin, I’d like to tell you a bit about my life and what I do today. I was born in a city called Cofradia near San Pedro Sula, and when I was 16, I became a part of one of the gangs that today are really harming my country. Something happened that made me reflect about what I was doing. I was shot and wounded. The bullet went right above my heart, through my thorax and right above my heart. When I got to the hospital, the doctors couldn’t believe it because they thought I should have been dead.
And then I realized that perhaps life was giving me another chance to do something else with it. And for that reason, I created a club – or we created a club called Skate Brothers in Cofradia. And so in that way, we were helping youth and preventing them from joining these gangs and doing all these illegal activities.
And so before, I was part of violence; now I prevent violence by doing sports. I’m very happy to see that there are students from this country here also. Please value the great effort your parents are making to provide you with a quality education. And when you are older, don’t just think of yourselves. Think of others that might need your help.
The world would not change by the sword or by armies. It’ll be through the love that we show each other that will help us create a world of peace. God bless you and I thank you very much. (Applause.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RYAN: Wonderful to hear from Ahlem and Jessel. Thank you so much for those inspiring words. And thank you all for joining us here today. I think you’ll agree that these are just amazing change-makers who are making the world a better place, and we’re all tremendously grateful for that and for you joining us here today.
And we hope that you all can stay and meet our young leaders and ask questions and learn more, and we want to thank everybody for joining us. Thank you. (Applause.)