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Connected, aware and committed to change

I forgot to tell you earlier why I gave this series of stories about the Millennials its title:

Connected to change.

Maybe it’s obvious, but the first point here is that this generation, also known as Generation Y (though I’m told they don’t like that designation … too close to Generation X), is connected. The impact of the web and other information technologies on this generation is no small thing.

“Our phones are always ringing or sending text messages,” said Autumn Lerner, a Millennial who is vice-president for Seatte’s World Affairs Council. “Most of us don’t know what it’s like not to be this connected.”

And this connection is not trivial. Some experts say the current turmoil in the Middle East likely would not have been able to take off, grow so fast and maintain its momentum without the web, phones, Facebook and other instantaneous means of communicating.

But just being connected via Facebook or Twitter doesn’t make you necessarily aware of the most important (or mostly correct) information. It doesn’t necessarily make you care. It doesn’t necessarily bring with it social change. But if you do care and want change, it doesn’t hurt.

Here are some of the local Millennials working to connect and change:

1) Beth Carter and Nick Hall are Millennials, and members of a World Affairs Council spin-off called the Young Professionals International Network (YPIN). I went to a recent YPIN dinner with Carter and Hall in which the head of the Basel Action Network, Jim Puckett, talked about the international issues surrounding the trade in toxic waste.

YPIN dinner with Jim Puckett

Many, if not all, of those at the YPIN dinner had their smart phones or iPads out. This is a generation almost defined by such technology. Puckett was there to educate them about the downside of these technologies — the high-tech waste that sickens workers in China, the conflict minerals that fuel civil war in the Congo.

I talked to Beth Carter, president of YPIN, and Nick Hall (seated in the photo at far left above, next to Puckett,) about the organization, and the Millennials.

“Our goal is to use these social events to foster a community that is globally engaged,” said Carter, who squeaks in as a Millennial at 32 years old. She taught English in China for many years before taking the helm at YPIN.

We are defined by interconnectivity,” said Hall, 27 and, of course, an employee of a software company. “We can share a piece of information, or find out about something on the other side of the planet, almost instantaneously. And many developing nations have sufficient web access to get their stories out today.”

Yes, but being informed of all, being aware, doesn’t necessarily translate into global engagement.

“No, but it’s a necessary first step,” said Carter. The YPIN board is comprised of Seattle residents who’ve come from all around the world, who speak many different languages, she noted, so even simple event planning meetings can lead to fascinating discussions about world affairs and global issues.

“There’s also a lot more of us,” said Hall. Many people don’t seem to realize it, he said, but the Millennial generation now represents America’s largest generation. He added that people in their 20s and 30s do see themselves, and the world around them, as more connected globally than most other (I think he meant older) people.

“We’re going to make a difference whether people want us to or not,” Hall said with a laugh.

Emilia Sternberg, UW student and activist

2) Emilia Sternberg, 21, is a senior at the UW who wants to someday work for the International Criminal Court or some other NGO focused on victims’ rights and advocacy. I met her a few weeks ago when she was campaigning to get the UW to end its Husky concessions contract with the global food corporation Sodexo due to its record of poor labor practices.

I noticed that most of the members of her group, UW United Students Against Sweatshops, were young women. In fact, I’ve gotten the impression that, at least in Seattle, the majority of young people active in global health and development issues are women. I asked her why this might be the case.

“My grandmother was a social activist in Sweden, basically a communist,” Sternberg said. “So maybe it’s in the family for me. But maybe it’s because girls still have to fight for things.

“There’s still a big income disparity between men and women, in this country but especially globally. There are still a lot of weird cultural expectations for women. We’re not there yet and we recognize it when others are similarly disenfranchised.”

Sternberg said she has particular interest in women as victims of sexual violence, having done a lot of research about rape as a tool of the war in Bosnia and its use currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She noted that rape outside of military circles has gone up in Congo because rape has become “normalized” there.

“All this talk about charity, about philanthropy, around these problems seem more like a band-aid to me than a real solution,” Sternberg said. “I mean, we have enough food on the planet to feed everyone but we don’t. The problem here is inequality, repression. We need to get to the root of these problems.”

Anja Thompson, at SPU's Bottom Billions meeting

3) I ran into Anja Thompson, 22, at Seattle Pacific University’s Bottom Billions Conference, a meeting focused on finding business and market-based solutions to problems of poverty and inequity. Thompson, who grew up in the Netherlands before her family moved to Bainbridge Island, is majoring in global development.

Originally, Thompson said she had intended to go into fashion and design but then noticed something.

“All these clothing companies make their clothes in the developing world,” she said. The more she learned, the more it became clear to her that her interest would be in working to reduce the kinds of inequities the global economy, to some extent, depends upon.

In 2009, Thompson was able to study in Geneva and get a close look at some of the big players in the “making the world a better place” industry — the United Nations and especially the World Health Organization.

“On health issues, everywhere I went in Geneva people were talking about Seattle organizations,” she said. The Gates Foundation was a constant topic, she said, as was PATH. “I had no idea before going there how big Seattle was in global health issues.”

Thompson said she will graduate with her major in global development, even though she recognizes that it’s not at all clear what she will be doing — or even exactly what is meant by “development.” At the Bottom Billions conference, she noted that most of the organizations represented there were non-profit groups like PATH, Global Partnerships and the like.

“I think it’s very possible that business may be able to do a lot to reduce global poverty,” Thompson said. “But looking around here, it’s clear that those doing the most now are still the non-profit organizations — those organizations who are not focused on the bottom line. That’s the kind of focus I have.”


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.