Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield during the Summit for Democracy Youth Town Hall

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Washington, D.C.
December 10, 2021

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Welcome, everyone, to the Youth Town Hall at the first Summit for Democracy. My, you guys look so great out there on the screen.

It is a privilege to discuss democracy with such an inspiring and diverse group of young leaders.

You’re from 60 different countries. You’re journalists, politicos, academics, and business leaders. You’re activists and advocates, humanitarians and human rights defenders.

Most important of all, you are leaders. You are one of our greatest untapped resources for revitalizing democracy, human rights, and governance, not only in the future, but, more importantly, today, all around the world.

Which is why, whenever I travel and represent America around the world, I seek out young leaders. Your unique perspectives, inspiring stories, and innovative approaches are always worth hearing.

You know better than anyone where the world is headed. And you are the ones who will inherit it. So we have a serious obligation to ensure you have a seat at the table.

That’s what this town hall is about: giving young people a prominent place in this Summit for Democracy. As we strive for a more inclusive democracy, it is crucial to hear young voices like yours.

Far too often, young people are sidelined, your perspectives ignored. That’s unacceptable at a moment when so many of the biggest challenges democracies face today affect young people most acutely.

From threats such as climate – the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, or on issues such as the shifting economy, racial justice, and inclusion, the decisions we make now will reverberate for the rest of your lives. So your voices need to be heard.

Perhaps most importantly, you are coming of age at a moment when democracy is under threat around the world – including in the United States.

Rampant inequality, poisonous rhetoric, and emboldened authoritarians are fomenting divisions and distrust. Disinformation, foreign interference, and fear mongering are straining our democracies.

When it comes to our democracy – when it comes to protecting a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – failure is not an option.

Which is why we need to hear from you. Because not only do you have a stake in this fight – you are our most powerful resource.

Your communities, your countries, your democracies, and the whole world need your talents, your insights, your wisdom, and your passion.

So let’s hear your perspectives, get to your questions, and push for new ways to bring young people into the democratic process.

Thank you.

We will begin with a question from Obaida Farjallah from Jordan. Obaida, the floor is yours.

MR. FARJALLAH: (Via interpreter) Thank you, Your Excellency, for this invitation and welcoming us to be part of the summit. To be part of this town hall, I asked myself before coming here on how we can evaluate democracy after facing many challenges committed by the current COVID pandemic. This changed the government priorities, and the impact of this pandemic on the economic situation, because currently we’re facing a grave collapse that we will – that is not calculated; at the same, impacted liberties, the freedom of expression that turned the tide towards democracy faced by many countries. And especially those countries that have been least democratic, let alone that are – those that are tyrannical.

Let’s talk about the decline in political development, reforms. While the civil society entirely is occupied with humanitarian emergencies, this lets us address an important question: What is the true role that – impacted by the current pandemic to turn the tide to the – to these steps and advancements towards democracy? Maybe our summit today is just a start. It’s a very important summit. It could be the only summit that will start raising the banner to champion the causes of democracy and save democracy today, and therefore it’s very important what we do next after this summit.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for your question, Obaida. You’re exactly right – the pandemic is one issue that is so much more than a health crisis. It’s also a crisis in governance, as many governments around the world mismanaged the crisis or used the crisis as a pretext for extending emergency powers, stepping up digital surveillance, and silencing dissent. The pandemic has had serious effects on the global economy – holding back growth and increasing poverty rates, disrupting service provisions, and exacerbating inequality, with the poorest countries likely to face the longest-lasting repercussions. The pandemic has also led to significant setbacks in terms of many of the development gains from the past two decades.

It has strained all of our institutions and led to countries around the world putting in place restrictions to contain the pandemic.

And in some countries, containing the virus became a means to constrain people by limiting fundamental freedoms. Controlling misinformation became a pretext for blocking citizens’ access to free, timely, and accurate information. And limiting people’s movements left many with no escape from abusive domestic violence, exacerbated by loss of whatever public services might have been available but now are not.

So what do we need to do?

First and foremost, we need to end the pandemic. That means getting vaccines distributed and administered around the world and saving lives. This is a global pandemic and no one is safe until all of us are safe. And that is why the U.S. has committed to donating 1.2 billion vaccine doses worldwide.

Ending the pandemic also means building back better. Part of building back better is redoubling our efforts to fight for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. There is a difference between putting in place necessary pandemic restrictions and abusing human rights, and we have to stand up for that difference.

Building back better also means investing in programs focused on global health, education, food security, economic opportunities, and good governance – so that we not only regain lost ground, but ensure our democracies are delivering even better concrete results for people.

We can do that right here at the Summit for Democracy.

For example, the United States is committing to intensifying its efforts to combat and prevent corruption, and to expand our support for independent media and civil society organizations.

The more corruption we eliminate, the more likely people are to trust their institutions, whether it’s medical institutions providing safety guidelines or the judicial institutions that enforce the integrity of our democratic society.

Similarly, media and civil society organizations around the world are working to shine a light on corruption, advocate for justice, and demand greater transparency and accountability.

They are essential to a healthy democracy. When these organizations are strong, they can trade on one of our most powerful tools: open information.

From sharing best health practices to exposing human rights violations, a vibrant media ecosystem and an empowered civil society sector can ensure that the global pandemic doesn’t further undermine support for democracy.

Thank you again.

Now let me read a question from Pampha Purkoti from Nepal: “What are some of the best practices in strong democratic countries for political participation of women with disabilities and members of marginalized populations, including representation in the democratic process, and state governing structures that can be replicated in developing countries like Nepal?”

Pampha, thank you for that question. The participation of all people in political life and decision-making is a critical component of democracy. And the participation of youth, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQI+ individuals, indigenous people, and other minority groups ensures democracy is representative and that it is inclusive.

And we need to start by making sure we protect the rights of everyone eligible to vote – because we know it is often these groups whose votes are unfairly targeted. One way to protect this right is by pairing voter registration drives with coordinated community campaigns. This ensures everyone is on the voter rolls and everyone has help getting to polling stations, particularly older people and people with disabilities who may require assistance.

But, Pampha, the truth is, challenges abound for these groups.

The only answer is to keep fighting – to elevate the voices of women and youth with particular attention to girls, in their diversity, in civil and political leadership roles.

It’s tougher for us. And that’s not fair. But the more we insist on our rights, on our presence, and on our seats at the table, the more we can make it normal to include all kinds of people in the decision-making process and public life.

You asked for some examples of best practices: governments, particularly at the local level, can start by talking to ordinary people, and ensuring that they are talking to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Asking their opinions – and listening to them. Engaging civil society as partners. And these simple steps – from these simple steps, I think governments will see the value of engaging, the value of serving – not just the elite – but all of the people.

Thank you for the question.

Next, let’s hear from Avikesh Kumar, a youth leader in Fiji. Avikesh, the floor is yours.

MR. KUMAR: Bula vinaka and warm Pacific greetings. I just wanted to ask, there has been an increased frequency of protests globally, a sign that ordinary citizens are unhappy with the decision-making processes, as well as unjust treatment for some groups of people. What can governments do and how can the United States of America influence their allies in doing better for their citizens and allowing peaceful protest without intimidations and threat?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for asking that timely question. Now, indeed, over the past year, we’ve seen government crackdowns on peaceful protests around the world.

For example, in Sudan, people have been marching in streets, waving flags, chanting protests, demanding to be heard – even despite security forces using violence against these peaceful protesters.

In Nicaragua, the Ortega government’s wave of arrests and repression against those peacefully protesting the crackdowns on civil society and on political opponents is similarly alarming.

Following the coup and the continued unrest in Burma, we have seen the military cracking down on the people of Burma for making their voices heard. And recently as this past – as this past Sunday, we received reports of the military driving a truck through protestors and firing indiscriminately.

Likewise, this past July, the Cuban Government responded with a wave of violence and repression after thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest the lack of respect for fundamental freedoms.

The violence from these regimes is worrying, to say the – to say the least.

And I have to say that the United States has a critical role to play in protecting fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of assembly and of expression. And we are committed to making our voice heard, but I would also stress that other governments around the world also have an important role to play in protecting and promoting these fundamental freedoms.

So you ask, what can we do?

We can take a three-pronged approach.

First, the United States needs to lead by example. We can and must hold ourselves to an even higher standard when it comes to supporting peaceful assembly and fundamental freedoms. We need to show we mean it when we say that protesting is patriotic. That includes providing refuge to those who face fear of reprisals for making their voices heard and supporting civil society actors who are often on the front lines in the fight for fundamental freedoms.

Second, we need to call out and highlight cases where human rights and fundamental freedoms are violated, like the ones I mentioned and many others that you all know of. We need to be consistent about this, no matter where it happens.

And third, we need to use our bilateral and our multilateral tools to build a strong coalition of likeminded partners that will not only call countries out, but also hold them accountable. That is exactly what we intend to do in our new role as members of the UN Human Rights Council.

Our next question comes from Shreya Sen from India. Shreya, the floor is yours.

MS. SEN: Thank you, Ambassador. My question is: What steps can the U.S. Government take to safeguard and champion human rights defenders in their own country and across the world?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for your question, Shreya – I think this is a fitting question on International Human Rights Day.

The Biden Administration puts human rights at the center of our foreign policy. That is one reason why the protection of human rights is one of the three pillars that underpin the Summit for Democracy. We know we haven’t always gotten it right, but we are committed to continuing to fight for the protection of human rights around the world and to supporting human rights defenders.

We are actively working to enhance respect for human rights, accountability, access to justice, and strong democratic institutions. Throughout the summit, the United States has made a number of concrete commitments to make sure we are standing by our commitments to safeguard human rights and we hope that other countries will join us, including in this Year of Action to come.

So let me give you an example: We plan to provide funding for the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a proven-effective organization that focuses on investigative journalists and civil society who on – who work to root out corruption.

The increased funding will deepen and expand geographic and topical coverage and help to launch a new outreach plan to enhance sustainable financial support.

In addition, the United States also plans to bolster support to Lifeline: Embattled CSO Assistance Fund. The fund provides emergency grants to civil society organizations facing threats due to their human rights work, in real time and when they need it the most.

Investigative journalists, media workers, and human rights defenders are vital to democracy, and all these efforts will help create a thriving civil space, where human rights activists and those with various points of view can be heard.

I’d like to turn the time to Filip Kulakov, who is joining us from North Macedonia. Filip, the floor is yours.

MR. KULAKOV: Thank you for the invitation and for including youth in the conversation on global democracy. My question is: How can youth affirm themselves as relevant stakeholders on issues that are not traditionally considered to be “youth issues”? Corruption, human rights, peace and security, even EU accession are especially relevant to us from North Macedonia and the Western Balkans. These are all topics where the participation of youth is often overlooked and ignored. How can governments ensure meaningful participation of young people in decision-making processes and create environments where young people are empowered to assume decision-making positions?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Filip, thank you for that question. And thank you for your work in North Macedonia on addressing youth needs and promoting young people’s participation in civil society and politics.

Your question is spot-on. Too often, the youth voices are overlooked, even in matters that affect them directly, or young people are dissatisfied with the pace of action. I think that’s why – especially on issues that matter most to young people’s futures, like climate change – we’re seeing so many young leaders speak up and demand change.

But as I noted earlier, we’re also seeing a lot of young people throw up their hands in frustration and just refuse to engage. It’s similar to the sense that many young people in my generation faced during the 1960s – give up and drop out. Instead of working to change a system they don’t see working for them, they are disengaging – and that’s exactly the wrong answer.

The issues that might bring you to the table – to be part of your democracy – will be different in each of your countries. But the passion you feel, the passion you bring, is the same.

For me, it was the Civil Rights Movement in the United States that first got me engaged in civic life. And 60 years later, we still don’t have it perfect. The work is far from finished – but we’ve made enormous progress – and it’s the spirit and passion of young people in the United States today that continues to drive progress on this core issue for the strength and health of our democracy.

So my advice to you, to all the young people who aren’t sure how to channel their energy and ideas toward the change they want to see, is to get involved. Get organized. Don’t let your friends disengage or stay home. Make your voices loud enough that you cannot be dismissed or ignored.

If we can increase participation and representation of young people in decision-making processes, we’re going to have a better outcome across the board. I know that’s true in my experience – listening to the voices and the passions of young people in the United States, and around the world during my travel as a member of the Cabinet, makes me a better leader.

So I urge you to make some “good trouble” as our friend, the American civil rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis, liked to say. Your ideas today can help your countries achieve a better future tomorrow.

And part of why this Summit for Democracy is so important is to encourage new voices to take part in democracy, and to remind those of us occupying leadership positions of how important your voices are – and to protect your right to speak out and even criticize or push governments when you don’t agree with certain policies or decisions.

We now have a question submitted via Snapchat. The question comes from Jennika from Florida, who asks: “I have children. Why should they care about democracy? What can I say to them to care more as they grow?”

Jennika, I’m glad you asked this question. I have children and grandchildren of my own, so I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

And first, I would tell them that they are our future. It is essential that children, including your children, care about our democracy. The future of our democracy, of our country, will shape not only your lives, but also their lives and the lives of every American citizen. And you and your children have the power to help shape that future.


Here is what I tell young people whenever I engage them around the world: democracy is the best way to make progress on the most significant issues of our time. If you believe that your LGBTQI+ brother or sister deserves the same rights that you do – then you need to care about your democracy.

If you want the next generation to inherit a planet with clean water to drink and air to breathe – then you need to care about your democracy.

If you want to see every person have equal access to the ballot box so that every voice is counted equally – then you need to care about your democracy.

Jennika, you and your children may feel like the choices that get made in Washington don’t affect your lives – but it touches every aspect of the world you live in.

And that’s why the Biden Administration is working so hard to show young Americans just how democracy can deliver for you, whether it’s funds from the American Rescue Plan cutting child poverty by more than 40 percent this year, or by expanding broadband access to every part of the country through the infrastructure bill.

Soon, we will hopefully pass the Build Back Better Act, which includes historic investments to tackle the climate crisis, provide equitable and sustainable opportunity for young Americans, and support community violence intervention programs.

Let’s be clear: getting things done in a democracy is not always easy. Democracy is messy. Democracy is hard. Democracy requires compromise – and that means that no one is ever going to get 100 percent of what they want.

Now, that doesn’t mean we compromise on every core value – things like protecting the equal human rights of every individual – but it does mean that we have to engage with people we disagree with and strive to find areas where our interests overlap and where we can move the ball forward for the good of all of the American people.

On these issues where it just seems like our positions are in total opposition – then you have to get out and organize and fight like hell to beat them at the ballot box. That’s the great strength of democracy – if you don’t like your leadership, you can change it.

But we can’t let cynicism get the best of us. America needs its next generation to care about the democratic process, get involved, and to make their voices heard. I am committed to working with you and your children, and all Americans, and I hope you will work with me and your communities to get things done.

Now I will turn to Javonni Ayers from South Carolina State University. Hi, Javonni. The floor is yours.

MS. AYERS: Hi, and thank you, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, for this amazing opportunity. As the SGA president of South Carolina State University, it is my goal to ensure that the student experience at my Historically Black College and University is at its best. Recognizing the role HBCUs play in strengthening democracy, what are your plans to ensure that HBCUs continue to provide quality education to the Black community and also continue to receive proper and – proper education and funding?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Nice to see you, Javonni. This is an important question, and one of the reasons I wanted to meet with you and the HBCU Scholars last week.

I am firmly committed to ensuring that HBCUs thrive. They are essential institutions – critical engines of opportunity for generations of Black Americans – and incubators of excellence.

HBCUs continue to play a vital role in ensuring Black Americans are able to fully participate in our democracy and have a fair shot at the American dream. And we should always celebrate the role HBCUs play in moving our nation closer to achieving its full potential.

They produce leaders in every field imaginable, including public service. Vice President Harris is a proud graduate of Howard University. Senior Advisor Cedric Richmond and head of EPA Michael Regan are also HBCU grads.

The Biden Administration has already delivered a historic $5.8 billion in support and investments to HBCUs. And strengthening HBCUs will continue to be a priority for the Administration. Imagine how much more creative and innovative our nation would be if HBCUs had the same funding and endowments as other institutions – if they could compete against universities with bigger labs and incubators for government contracts on issues like cybersecurity.

We need to tap into all that talent. And that’s why the Build Back Better Act will provide an additional $2 billion directly to HBCUs and allow them to compete with similar schools for an additional $4 billion in research and development grants. And Build Back Better will also significantly increase Pell grants to help millions of Black students in lower-income families attend community colleges and four-year schools. And that’s particularly important for HBCUs, where 75 percent of students rely on Pell grants.

We’ll now hear the question from Lala Youray, a youth and women’s advocate from The Gambia. Na nga def, Lala. The floor is yours.

MS. YOURAY: Maa ngi fi. Thank you very much, Madam Ambassador. It’s such an honor to be on this platform with you and all the other global youth leaders on here with us. As we all know, Africa has the youngest population in the world and it is clear that African youth are the key to democratic reform. Now, my question is: How will the United States partner with African nations to tap into the potential of young people on the continent?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Lala, thank you so much for that question. It’s extraordinarily inspiring, and your leadership in The Gambia promoting women’s rights, justice for human rights abuses, and environmental advocacy is truly important.

The African continent is alive with the energy and the talents of incredible young people. And by 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be under age 25. The potential is truly unlimited.

And already, as you note, young people are driving entrepreneurship and innovation that has spurred impressive economic growth across the continent. You have led movements to demand freedom, democracy, and human rights. And I am absolutely confident that your passion and technical skills will bring a green energy revolution to Africa.

When we look around the world at some the most pressing shared challenges that we face, Africa has a key role to play, from beating the COVID-19 pandemic, to halting the climate crisis, to advancing support for human rights for all people.

The United States understands the possibilities that exist within such a young, dynamic continent – and that’s why, going back to the Obama-Biden Administration, we have focused on engaging and partnering with African youth. President Obama launched both the Young African Leaders Initiative and the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which are still going strong and building networks of leaders across Africa to support one another.

We will continue to look for new ways to empower young people across the continent. To give you an example, we need to promote greater internet access, particularly for disadvantaged youth, in order to close the digital divide and allow for greater access to information and resources that are available online. This will also help facilitate greater participation by young people in their democracies.

And we’ve seen the power of African youth to drive democratic progress. This year in Zambia, young people harnessed the power of their vote for the first time – turning out in record numbers to denounce corruption and chart a new path for their country.

Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said, “It’s the little things that citizens do. That’s what will make a difference.”

Your ideas will inspire others to renew and invest in democracy. And I can’t wait to see what you can accomplish. And I will do my part to encourage governments, civil society, and the private sector across Africa to ensure that young people like you have a seat at the table.

Next, we have a question from Ismael Ocampo from Colombia. Ismael, the floor is yours.

\MR. OCAMPO: (Via interpreter) Thank you. My greetings from the place where Colombia and Venezuela embrace each other. When young people have access to education, they have access to a future. In Colombia, this access to education is very limited, at least in areas where armed conflict has been an issue. How can we ensure that all young people have access to education? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for that question, Ismael. Access to education is key in helping young people learn and grow, and ultimately build a more hopeful and prosperous future for themselves, their families, communities and countries. Indeed, conflict and numerous other factors can limit access to quality education for young people and it’s imperative to expand educational opportunities for all.

The United States supports numerous education programs overseas focused on increasing access to quality education. In 2020 alone, USAID provided more than 24 million children and youth in over 50 countries with access to education. We assisted more than 93,000 public and private schools at the pre-primary, primary, and secondary levels and provided more than 580 higher education institutions with capacity development support. In Colombia specifically, we support the education system to provide sustainable and inclusive education that is responsive to the needs of all learners, including migrants.

And while these numbers are impressive, we should continue to do more. We should make sure refugees, internally displaced persons, and other migrants have access to education. I will mention to you, I was just at a refugee camp in Jordan. And what I heard from young people is the need for education. They stressed their high hopes and dreams for the future.

And as the pandemic laid bare, we have to address the digital divide and make sure technology is universally accessible, to ensure no child is left behind the next time we see school closures. There’s work to be done on this important issue, but I also believe that we’re working from an incredibly strong base. And I can promise you we will continue to focus on these issues.

Now let’s hear from our participant from Kenya, Willice Onyango. Willice, the floor is yours.

MR. ONYANGO: Thank you so much indeed, Ambassador Linda, for engaging us and inspiring us, and most importantly, your belief in the youthful audacity. Now, today, we find many young people want to engage in politics but they are disheartened by the negative image that is projected by the current political elite and their apparent inability to tackle multiple crises. Now, what do you think, Ambassador, about nontraditional paths to political leadership? And how effective are nonformal education approaches in developing democratic attitudes, particularly among youth? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a great question, Willice. I’ll take your last question first: Democratic attitudes can come from anywhere. The formal education system can certainly foster democratic values, but those who develop their opinions through less traditional education approaches can absolutely adopt democratic norms and values. And I will tell you, I saw people in Liberia – women in the marketplace – voting. They didn’t have formal education, but they had values and they had a commitment to education. And likewise, individuals who are raised in nondemocratic countries may embrace democracy as the way forward, even if formally educated to think otherwise. There is no one path.

The more we remember that, the more likely we are to end up with a diverse government that actually reflects a country’s population.

You also asked about nontraditional paths to political leadership. And my answer is similar: great leaders can come from anywhere. The more we encourage that, the more likely we are to have leaders that look like us and better reflect the community they serve.

Finally, we need to get and keep young people engaged in politics to break that “elite capture” you reference. The United States manages a range of youth leadership initiatives to help empower the next generation including, as I mentioned earlier, the Mandela Washington Fellowship under the Young African Leaders Initiative, the Young Southwest* Asian Leaders Initiative, the Young Pacific Leaders, the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, and the Young Transatlantic Innovative Leaders Initiative.

So we’re working on these issues, and we look forward to continuing to work with you.

And now let me take this opportunity to thank you for spending so much time together with me today – and for the extraordinary work that each of you is leading in your home countries.

Each of you has a role to play to help realize the promise of democracy in your countries and around the world – to ensure we are drawing on our full strengths, tapping the talents of all of our citizens, and delivering for our people.

I look forward to the future we’re going to build together – because all of you fill me with such hope. Young people around the world, you’re part of – you’re part of a generation that is the best educated, you’re the most engaged, you’re the most tolerant in all of our human history. It goes without saying: We need you. So please stay engaged. Please stay passionate about the issues you are working on. We’re counting on you. Thank you very much.