A conversation with 2014 Youth Representative, Laura John

By · 03 July, 2020 · Interviews, Youth Representative

Laura John is a human rights lawyer and has worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and with advocacy organisations across the globe,

Laura was our 2014 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations and is currently the National President of the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) Youth Professionals Network.

UN Youth caught up with Laura to talk about her work as your 2014 Youth Rep and her work since then.

What inspired you to apply for the Youth Representative position back in 2014? 

I was inspired to apply for the Youth Representative role to have the opportunity to represent and amplify the diverse views of young people nationally and internationally. Drawing on the last words of scholar François Rabelais (‘I go to seek a Great Perhaps’), my vision was to encourage young people to articulate their hopes and dreams for Australia’s future: their Great Perhaps. The idea was inspired by the book I was reading at the time, ‘Looking for Alaska’ authored by John Green.

In my application for the role, I said: I have complete faith in the ability of young Australians to imagine and create a better future for ourselves and for our communities. I continue to firmly believe in the power of young Australians to create positive social change.

During your year as the youth representative, what issue raised by young people resonated with you the most? 

The issue that resonated the most with me was mental health, which was one of the top issues raised nationally. In particular, young Australians from across the country identified stigma and a lack of youth mental health services as key issues of concern. It’s also an issue that doesn’t discriminate, although the response definitely can and response. That’s why I decided to speak about mental health at the UN General Assembly in New York, in the culmination of my Youth Representative term. As I said in my speech: We need to ensure that all young people are taught about mental health, resilience and well-being as a fundamental part of their health education.

Since being the youth rep, you are now President of the UNAA Young Professionals Network and a UN Alumni, what advice would you give to young Australians looking to become involved in the work of UNHCR or the United Nations? 

Volunteering – both domestically and internationally – is a great way to gain new skills and build your network with connections that could lead to opportunities with the United Nations. If you are able to volunteer or intern in Australia, check out opportunities with UN Youth and the UNAA Young Professionals. There are also a few UN agencies, including UNHCR and UNIC, that have offices in Australia and generally have some internship opportunities.

More broadly, I would also encourage young Australians to develop their particular area of expertise in their desired field and look for opportunities to use those skills to improve the lives of others at home and abroad. There are many different ways that we can create positive social change!

What are some of the biggest problems young people are facing during covid19?

There is a real sense of uncertainty caused by COVID-19 that is permeating all aspects of life. While young Australians are resilient and perhaps more adaptable than other generations, this has rapidly changed the way we study, work and live. I think this sense of uncertainty is a real challenge for young people who are already navigating an increasingly complex world. And unfortunately, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be felt long after the virus is controlled – something with which young people will need to continue to grapple.

How is UNAA supporting the community of young people during this crisis?

The UNAA is continuing to work with our partners to support young Australians and the broader community during this public health emergency. The UNAA Young Professionals are exploring options to roll-out online training so that we can continue to deliver professional development opportunities. We’re also working hard to keep our network of members and volunteers engaged and connected during these difficult and changing times.

What can we as an Australian society do to raise awareness on issues young people are facing during this global pandemic?

There is an important role for the Australian society in amplifying the voices of young people, rather than diluting or dominating those voices. Young people don’t need others speaking for them, but what is needed is a space in which young people can speak for themselves about the issues they are facing. That’s what makes the work of organisations like UN Youth so important – they are run by young people for young people. My volunteer experiences with youth organisations such as the Oaktree Foundation and UN Youth, have been some of the most rewarding and challenging.

So, what can the Australian society do? Be a supporter. Be an ally. Be an amplifier. That’s what I am aiming to be now that I am not quite so young! 

What is your advice to young Australians in COVID-19?

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to stay connected with our community. And that’s not easy in a world of physical distancing and social restrictions. While we’re living in a world of Facebook, Zoom and Tik Tok – it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected. There are also some influences in our lives that are less than positive and that negativity has a way of spreading in difficult circumstances.

So, I would encourage young Australians to continue to build and invest in their tribe. Your tribe is your support network. It’s the people who have your back no matter what – who will shelter you from life’s storms or pandemics! Make the effort to stay connected, even if it’s while we are all 1.5m apart.

Some young people have used their creative talents to support the COVID-19 response. In your opinion, do you believe young Australians have been given the opportunity to be creative and had their voices heard during isolation?

While I was in New York, I remember a fellow Youth Representative telling me about a cartoon she had seen. In the cartoon, there is a room filled with important decision-makers discussing how best to address youth unemployment. And the decision-makers are pondering how to understand the needs of young people. The room of the door is shut. And outside the door, there is a group of young people desperately trying to get into the room. In the cartoon, one young person is saying, “Just open the door!”

As Youth Representatives, we talked about how frustrating it is to be locked out of these decisions. There is obviously a role for those who are involved in decision-making to open the door for young Australians. But there is also a role for young people to seek to generate these opportunities. In the current context, there is space for young people to utilise the online environment to be creative and have their voices heard during isolation. If the door is closed, look for a window! 

Listening to children in the context of COVID-19 is part of how UN Youth is meeting their commitment to place children and young people at the centre of our work, focus on their empowerment, and amplify their voices from local to global levels. UN Youth will continually seek children and young people’s perspectives to understand their realities and inform decision-making processes based on their input. How is UNAA currently doing this?

We are proud in the UNAA to support the work of our youth affiliate organisation, UN Youth. As some readers may know, UN Youth was born from the UNAA and continues to be an important part of the UNAA family. Within the UNAA, we continue to explore opportunities to engage with and support young Australians including through online training, networking and professional development.

To young people all across the nation, what is your words of advice to them all in regards to hope for their future?

There is reason to be hopeful! I have always been impressed with the ability of young people to adapt and innovate, particularly during periods of crisis. I hope that young Australians feel ready to meet life’s challenges and if not, I hope you feel able to reach out and seek support.

There are two people whose words of wisdom have guided me through some difficult times.

The first is the great wizard, Albus Dumbledore: Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

The second is Taylor Swift:

The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,

Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake

I shake it off, I shake it off.

I hope they bring you some hope (and a laugh) too!

Any additional comments? 

After my trip to the UN General Assembly back in 2014, I returned to Australia and embarked on a report‑back tour through the capital cities to share my key findings and highlight the great work of young people across the country. I concluded these presentations with a Native American proverb that I had heard in New York: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. It’s a quote that I like to come back to because it instils a sense of collective responsibility not only for our present world but for its future as well. It’s a good reminder that there were many before us, and there will be many after us. Our job is to make sure that the world we leave behind is a better one than the world we entered.

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