In a changing global story that is perforated with major health calamities, human rights abuses, and important socio-political issues, it seems impossible to find hope in the figures of authority in front of us. Change can feel glacial, and campaigning for it - even slower. However, by utilising the powerful tool of social media, we are able to build a productive platform that champions inclusion, more than just diversity. We have also recently felt a growing amount of collective urgency in the environmental and political spheres, with the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and installation of a new ‘Climate Clock’ in New York City’s Union Square respectively. RBG, (legal titan and champion of equality movements) left behind a colossal legacy, as well as a message of principle and perseverance, attributes we must exhibit to progress to a better future. It’s necessary to point out that this sort of change stems from all parts of societies, with a top percent being held the most accountable.
It’s clear that a tremendous effort is needed, but can this be spearheaded by today’s youth? How can we successfully involve young adults; how can we get our classmates to care? In regard to this greater question of outreach and inclusion (and why it’s more important than ever), inspiration lies in in social activists like Harjas Grewal, ambassador for the Youth Assembly and United Nation’s GA delegate. I spoke with the 22-year-old from Canada who has always had a passion for empowering young people globally to fight for social justice and gain better opportunities in education. Alongside a strong presence in the Youth Assembly, Harjas is the founder of United Womxn (@unitedwomxn on Instagram), a platform built for connecting underrepresented youth to key mentorship opportunities. In the run-up to its launch, United Womxn already established its base by entering the League of Innovators, an accelerator programme for innovative entrepreneurs. United Womxn aims to curate sustainable solutions for the various sustainable development goals, whilst amplifying BIPOC voices globally. We talked about her work with the Youth Assembly and her ambitions to inspire change with this new project.
Q: Starting out, could you tell me about your role at the Youth Assembly?
Harjas: So, with the Youth Assembly, I have been a ‘Youth Ambassador’ for the past two years. I am the Canadian ambassador, where I basically recruit young delegates from Canada to represent at the Youth Assembly and different engagements at the United Nations. Last year we went to Washington.
I really, really focus on bringing more women into delegation with the ambition of gender equality. I do this because I feel as though it is something that is really lacking in these international spaces. I also focus on disadvantaged youth, to encourage them to use their voices to incite change. It’s not just recruiting. I go to annual UN conferences and lead delegations of young people, so they get the opportunity to attend these international conferences.
Q: What made you get involved with the United Nations as a delegate?
H: The Youth Assembly really kickstarted my journey into the United Nations. I was super interested in how I could elevate my involvement and so I had spoken to a contact of mine that attended the UN NGO conference. He kind of helped me set up a delegation to that conference, which was really successful! I was able to bring six women from very diverse backgrounds to this conference. From there, it just snowballed. I went to Harvard for a small programme about humanitarian emergencies, and it was really through networking with local organisations to then global organisations, that gained me recognition. I was able to make it to the United Nations’ General Assembly and go to the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in 2018. That was amazing! Last year, I was invited for a full week to the Climate Action Summit. It was just incredible. Every time I go to conferences, I feel so honoured and lucky, and I recognise it’s a space to amplify voices. However, I don’t think it’s a space solely for change, because I strongly believe that the most change starts at local levels, in your communities. I think a lot of people get misguided about the UN being a huge amazing organisation, exclusively where ‘change’ happens. No, look in your own communities, recognise the problems there first. Once you make that local connection, then you can make that global connection and impact, then eventually, funnelling your voice to global organisations like the UN.
Q: Why are platforms like the Youth Assembly so important in how they can cultivate young people’s interest in social activism?
H: I think global platforms such as these, cultivate relationships of youth coming together for solutions. If young leaders aren’t collaborating, we aren’t moving towards the right solutions. I think that’s why platforms like the Youth Assembly are so important, because at the essence it’s all about connections, relationships, and fostering new ideas through innovative collaborations. We need people from all different walks of life; we need people from all different countries, who all have different experiences, to come together for common sustainable goals.
Q: Do you think collaboration is the main driving force for change?
H: Collaboration is definitely one of the most important fractures of leadership. I think another ‘aspect’ is finding your voice. I think when you go to international conferences or you’re talking to other youth, you get opportunities to speak at different tables and express your opinions to leaders in these different spaces: big figures from these large institutions. I think, through this, you can find your individual voice and confidence. I often push my delegates to speak up, ask questions, and be curious.
Q: I want to also congratulate you on receiving the Diana Award for all your efforts. What was that experience like?
H: The Diana Award has definitely motivated me to do ‘better’, I think, and just keep committing myself to the central core of being, which is social entrepreneurship and social impact. I think it’s also a testament to all the work I’ve been doing, which has been good thus far, but I need to do more, and keep including other young people in this journey of social impact. I need to also continue to create more avenues for other people – I think that’s the kind of responsibility the Diana Award has indirectly given me.
Q: What inspired you to start United Womxn, and what message do you hope it will encourage?
H: It was actually inspired by my previous beauty-tech start-up, which was a mobile app. I kind of moved on from that idea because I had to do a lot of self-reflection and think, where am I going to make the most impact? And that’s where the idea of United Womxn came because I looked at my own life experiences; I looked at the experiences of other youth and I realised that there’s no one platform that’s really inclusive of disadvantaged youth communities. I saw other mentorship schemes which required a whole extensive process of filling out forms and submitting documents. It seemed very inaccessible. It felt as though you almost had to be someone of ‘advantage’ to receive mentorship. That’s where I wanted to do something different. With United Womxn, I’ll be releasing educational pieces so people can read up on different issues. Beyond that, we’re also launching a mentorship programme to really create agency in these communities. I hate to use the word empowerment – because I think a lot of people throw around buzzwords like sustainable or empowerment – so with United Womxn I want to switch that narrative. Instead of talking about empowerment, we want to talk about agency. We need to talk about the agency of youth – and what resources are required to go to the next step of empowerment. This is influenced from my own conversations with youth, and the different platforms I’ve seen growing up, so I’m so excited to take it to the next level.
The website will be launched first week of August. Mid-September will be the first phase of the mentorship programme. We are actively looking for contributors to join the team! Please email us if you are interested.
Q: In light of recent events – a global pandemic, political uncertainty, etc. – what relationship do you think social media has with social activism? Or is there a danger of being performative?
H: I think social media can definitely be a platform for good impact – we’ve seen this in recent times with the #BLM movement, which seems to have finally got the world to pay more attention and speak up against the injustices and crimes the Black community have been facing for many many years - even though this attention will never be enough. We are seeing it translate into actions like policies and collectives coming together. I hope the conversation will continue. If social media wasn’t there, I don’t think young people would have easy access to educational toolkits or being able to rally together. I think that’s how social media can be used powerfully, and it goes back to my earlier point of collaboration. There is power in numbers, so when we come together against issues like racism, or social inequities, we can really make a change. However, there are some fractures of social media that we have to be wary of, like misinformation.
Q: What is your advice to young people who want to get involved with social movements and activism?
H: Reflect on what matters to you, and what is affecting your community. Once you see those gaps, see how you can make a difference, by contacting local organisations or even creating your own organisations. There are so many toolkits online which are accessible by a simple google search. However, I will say: build up a year or two of experience with NGO’s or other organisations before you plan to start your own. Do your research and do not get involved with something just because it’s a hot topic, because social issues are never trends, they are actual problems that affect real people. Activism is not a trend. Advocacy is not a trend. We are working towards the dignity, and equality wellbeing of other people.
Educate yourself! Make sure you’re unlearning and relearning. Make sure you’re talking to people in your community about problems. Make sure you’re doing your due diligence, I always say that to people, but it is so important. Before you start preaching about issues, make sure you are fully educated on them.
Photos of Harjas K. Grewal, Edited by Ella-Mae Earnshaw
Check out Harjas and United Womxn on Instragram at @harjaskgrewal and @unitedwomxn respectively.
Read and get involved with United Womxn!