14.06.2011 - UNESCOPRESS

"Young people in the world, so different and so alike", interview with Monique Coleman

© UNESCO/Ania Freindorf - American singer and actress Monique Coleman at UNESCO

As “Youth Champion” of the United Nations, American singer and actress Monique Coleman, 31, has the mission of bringing to life the themes of the International Year of Youth (August 2010-August 2011), which are dialogue and mutual understanding. On June 14th she visited UNESCO headquarters. To coincide with the visit we are giving you a sneak preview of Monique Coleman’s interview with Katerina Markelova, which will be published in the next issue (July-September 2011) of The UNESCO Courier.

You were appointed Youth Champion by the UN in November 2010. Three months later you were off on a world tour. What was your goal?

This trip is as much personal as it is for the advancement of the Year. At some point in life it is important to get out of your own comfort zone, the things you are familiar with, and to see something new through the eyes of someone else. Living in America I felt that I had a limited view of the rest of the world. As the Youth Champion and as a human I couldn’t ever talk about poverty if I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes. I couldn’t talk about young people’s amazing achievements if I hadn’t met young people doing exceptional things.

The role of youth in Arab uprisings is huge. Did it change your vision of your mission?

The first stop on the tour was initially intended to be Tunisia. And the day I was intending to leave was the day the unrest started to break out. But for security reasons we had to modify the itinerary. One of my missions while I am on this trip is to try to give voice to issues before they exacerbate and become an uprising. One thing that I can do right now while traveling is get a sense of what these issues are, bubbling underneath the surface, to bring some light and awareness.

These young people are reacting not only to their lifetime of pain but their families’ and their parents’ lifetime of pain, war and torment. I don’t think they are being destructive. They can’t be blamed for reacting in the way that they know how, but I would like to look for new peaceful ways. I’d like to remind us all of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

I was in the Philippines last February on the day that they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution (that ended the Marcos dictatorship). They were able to have a revolution with women, pregnant women and children, who were all standing up for the same thing, and nobody got killed. These are the kind of revolutions I want to start.

In your on-line talk show “Gimme MO”, you emphasize the power of the internet to give young people a voice.

“Gimme MO” is indeed a platform for youth. It’s a place where I talk about things that people don’t bring much attention to and try to give a different angle. I also interview celebrities, experts, people that I meet out in the world.

The main purpose of this show is to help young people see that even the people you look up to share similar interests and are basically the same, and to break stereotypes. When I was in Australia I interviewed a young Muslim refugee who is living in public housing in Melbourne. She is 21, she wears a veil, and she completely rejects the stereotype according to which Muslim females are oppressed and don’t have their own voices.

Are the young people you meet on your trip all the same, or are they different from one country to another?

Young people are actually very similar. (laughs) The biggest difference is that in developing countries the young people are extremely aware of world issues. They have to be, because those issues live on their doorstep, they approach them on their way to school.

Whereas in developed countries sometimes we can be less aware of the global issues. We sometimes tend to be bogged down in our own personal things.

What are the most pressing issues young people have raised?

In places like Australia the big thing is self-esteem, to help young people feel better about themselves. Suicide is a huge issue.

In Bangladesh, it was almost the opposite. I had a student saying: “How do you expect to bring awareness to the people in developed countries who are willing to take their own life while we are struggling here just to survive.” And that was really powerful. That said it all.

The thing that remains the same is that every young person is looking for a place in the world. I try to explain to them how limitless the possibilities are, to convince each of them they have so much value and potential, regardless of their state, their social-economic class, their religious background, their level of privilege or disadvantage. We all have obstacles that we have to overcome. It’s up to us to overcome those things. And once we have overcome them, it’s so important that we liberate our global brothers and sisters.

Our focus doesn’t have to be on changing the whole world, our focus can just actually be on changing our world. Because if every person focused on their community or village, then collectively we would change the whole world.

Once the Year is over, do you want to continue to support young people throughout the world?

Absolutely, this is simply the beginning! I intend to put much of my focus in “Gimme MO”. I would like to see it move into a television platform, as well as an interactive internet place employing new technologies.
In my acting career I would like to play roles that help enhance and move this movement forward. I think that entertainment and art is an incredible way to deepen any message. Often, when I talk to people about why they decide to make a difference, why they become a part of an organization, why did they became passionate about something, they tend to trace it back to a book or a song or a movie. So, I would like to continue to create such artistic opportunities for inspiration.

Monique Coleman was interviewed by Katerina Markelova

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