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5 Young Leaders Who Made Me a Believer in the SDGs

Lisa Jones | August 11, 2016

How do you feel when you read through the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals? When I see them, I must admit—it’s overwhelming. They certainly paint a portrait of the equitable, ethical, green world we all want to live in and pass down to our children. But when we turn on the news, flip through our social media feeds, or even look outside our windows, we are confronted by the chasm between where we are today and where the goals ask us to be in a little over a decade. 

While it’s easy to scoff at the enormity of the work involved and the systems that must be changed in order to meet these goals, many of today’s young people are doing just the opposite.

Youth are developing creative solutions to urgent community challenges—while they may not set out with the SDGs in mind, they have made measurable impact in acheiving them in sustainable, locally-rooted ways. They are serving as an example to others, igniting a generation of leaders who connect across languages, cultures, and time zones, emphasizing learning from failure and replicating what works well. They are proof that the most effective SDG solutions can be built from the bottom up, developed in and with the communities who stand to benefit most, and led by the individuals who will live with them the longest.

In honor of International Youth Day, focused this year on “The Road to 2030,” I want to share the stories of five young people whose work changes the way I see the SDGs. While achieving these critical goals will ultimately require the backing of the world’s largest and most powerful institutions and governments, it is the grassroots initiatives led by young people that help me see the SDGs through a lens of optimism.

1. Carolina Zuheill Candelario Rosales, Mexico

Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all

In Mexico, more than 53 million people live in isolated indigenous communities with no access to medical care. As a young doctor who witnessed patients dying from preventable causes, Carolina founded GUIMEDIC, a mobile medical clinic that delivers care in the most remote regions of Mexico—often requiring boats or airplanes to access villages. To form its mobile medical teams, GUIMEDIC recruits medical student volunteers, preparing them as advocates for society’s most vulnerable. In 2015 alone, Carolina and her team of 300 student volunteers reached more than 40,000 patients—each of whom lives more than 24 hours walking distance from the nearest medical facility. Always ready to tackle the next challenge, Carolina is currently working to develop natural repellents based on Mayan medicine to help protect indigenous communities from the dangers of the Zika virus.

What can young people do to contribute to SDG Goal 3? “Learn what diseases and health problems you are most at risk for in your community and learn how to prevent them” advises Carolina. “Then, share what you’ve learned with friends and family—the key to improved health is awareness.”

2. Nafula Wafula, Kenya

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Nafula founded the SEMA Initiative to help Kenyan youth recognize their power to combat gender-based violence (GBV) and enact behavior and policy changes toward gender equality. Nafula witnessed the reality of GBV from an early age. Her mother ran a children’s home where she took in girls who were survivors of sexual abuse, and in high school, many of Nafula’s friends experienced female genital mutilation. To fight the staggering GBV statistics, she began training youth from secondary schools and universities to become mobilizers for the prevention of GBV in their communities. SEMA’s mobilizers are equipped to host informative workshops, events, and ‘gender desks’ in communities ranging from slums to universities, where victims can report abuse and get the help they need. The SEMA Initiative has engaged more than 5,000 Kenyan youth so far, and expanded its reach virtually in 2015 through the launch of Kenya’s first cell phone app for GBV prevention.

“Young people can contribute to ending gender inequality by speaking out!” says Nafula. “Being silent is accepting and playing a role in the narrative. A bystander is equal to a perpetrator.”

3. Daniel Hill, United States

Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Noticing that energy saving services are designed for large industries and household consumers, but not the small businesses in between, Daniel co-founded Green Impact Campaign, The venture provides cloud-based tools and training to university students to conduct free energy assessments for local small businesses in the US. Students use a custom app to perform the assessments in roughly 20 minutes, providing business owners with recommendations on how to save energy. Green Impact Campaign is not only reducing the environmental impact of small business but is empowering a new generation of climate leaders through real-world, hands-on experience. Since 2011, students at 100 universities have completed energy assessments for 300+ small businesses, identifying over six million kWh of annual energy savings.

“Young people can influence the future of how we talk about and act on climate change” says Daniel. “Instead of relying only on classrooms, young people today can use opportunities available in the real world to not only learn, but to make a real impact now and in their future careers.”

4. Teresa Boullón, Peru

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education

An estimated 60 percent of Peruvian students lack basic reading abilities, and only a small fraction of the nation’s schools have libraries. Recognizing the importance of literacy not only for education but active citizenship, Teresa founded Un Millón de Niños Lectores (One Million Readers). Its goal: to equip one million Peruvians with reading resources by 2021. Central to its approach is mobilizing the school community—parents, principals, teachers, and students—in efforts to create school libraries. Community members not only build libraries out of recycled materials but advocate for the role of books and improved literacy within the school system. To date, the organization has impacted nearly 10,000 students, 5,000 parents, and 2,000 teachers nationally. For Teresa, providing greater access to books isn’t just about improving literacy rates, it’s about nurturing confidence among children in their abilities and empowering them to 'dream big' by discovering new possibilities.

5. Mene Blessing Orits, Nigeria

Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment for all

Born into a family of farmers in rural Nigeria, Mene grew up witnessing the agriculture industry’s overreliance on soybeans and corn—high-cost feeds that make earning a profit from poultry farming difficult. In Nigeria, smallholder farmers produce over 70% of poultry and livestock, yet 80% live below $2 per day. To solve this challenge, Mene developed a sustainable feed blend using agricultural byproducts such as mango seed kernels and cassava waste. The formula is highly nutritious and costs about half the price of traditional feeds. To get the new product into the hands of farmers, Mene co-founded UNFIRE, a social enterprise that uses a community-based model to produce and market the low-cost feed. By reimagining the traditional approach to animal feed, UNFIRE increases the income and productivity of smallholder farmers while making protein-rich food more available and affordable in rural Nigeria.


The SDGs are lofty. They encourage us to aim high with our vision for the world we want to build. When I remember the progress that’s been made by youth-led grassroots organizations, I realize: I am a believer in the SDGs because they call us to dream big, even if that means starting small.