Ten years ago this week, four fellow students, two brave teachers, and I took a bus trip to the Big Apple to take part in the United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights. Sure, we spent time buying cheezy souvenirs and I love NY t-shirts, but we also spent hours in the United Nations council rooms, speaking with students from around the world about issues at the heart of children’s rights–clean water, landmines, and freedom of religion. This trip, which I actually agreed to go on only days before our bus headed to New York, was an important and formative aspect of my journey into social justice issues. Not only was it the last time I would ever see the NYC skyline dominated by the twin towers, but it was also the time when I really began my quest to understand the complex issues surrounding social injustice, oppression, and children’s rights.
I am incredibly thankful that my parents allowed me to take this journey to the Big Apple. In fact, if it weren’t for their encouragement and support, I probably wouldn’t have gone. So, today, 10 years after signing the United Nations Human Rights Declaration of the 2000 Student Conference, I have taken some time to reflect about those people who had a hand in helping me have this formative experience: like-minded justice-oriented friends who helped me feel safe going on this trip to the UN; creative and encouraging teachers who thought outside the box and taught me to do likewise; and supportive parents who had a hunch that this trip would help shape me into who I am today.
Now, I’m well-aware that not every friend/teacher/family member has the means or opportunity to send students on trips like the one I took a decade ago. But I do believe that many have the power and ability to help young people have formative experiences with social justice. For example, instead of watching the news about a drug bust in the inner city, what would happen if parents educated an adolescent child about the complext nature of drugs, crime, poverty, and oppression? How might a child’s stance towards justice and peace be formed if they were introduced to refugees living in their own cities? What could happen if young people go on hunger strikes with their families? And think about the power of simply saying hello as we give a five to the homeless person that’s always on the corner of Yonge and Bloor.
Clearly, my trip to the United Nations was a formative experience in my life. But teachers/parents/pastors don’t need to send young people to New York City to help shape them into people who hunger and thirst for justice and peace. There are countless ways we can help children and adolescents become justice-loving individuals right in our own homes, towns, and cities. But without the support of friends, parents, pastors, and teachers, young people might never have these experiences that have the power to infect them with a relentless quest for justice and peace.