The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of strong health systems and support for health workers at the frontlines. It has also significantly impacted the daily lives of many Canadians as people adapt to new physically-distanced realities that accommodate public health and safety measures. On International Youth Day, we spoke with Aditi Sivakumar about being a young leader in the midst of a pandemic and what she thinks is needed for a just, equitable global recovery from COVID-19.
The theme for International Youth Day 2020 was Youth Engagement for Global Action, what does youth engagement mean to you?
At times, youth engagement can be seen as a buzzword. It’s about more than having a youth representative at the decision-making table. It’s making sure that youth are not only present at the table, but that they have a voice that is actively listened to and acted upon.
Youth consultations are becoming more and more popular, but sometimes what tends to happen after the consultation phase is over, is that youth are not continuously engaged. That can lead to frustration because you can wonder if the ideas or concerns that you expressed were addressed and put into action.
For me, when we talk about youth engagement for global action, it means engaging youth at every step of the process while making sure that youth are treated as equal partners.
You are very actively engaged in the community in Ottawa, but how did you learn about SheDecides, a more global movement? How did you connect this opportunity to the work that you do here at home in Canada?
SheDecides is a global movement that advocates for women’s rights. Its mission is to promote and protect every woman and girl’s right to decide about her body, her life and her future. Last November, they had a call for applications for SheDecides Champions as well as 25x25 Young Leaders.
The Young Leaders program has 25 leaders from 25 different countries who were all born in 1995 which was when the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was first concepted. This group of young leaders is so diverse in terms of the focus of their advocacy efforts. My focus is ending gender-based violence. For me personally, SheDecides was a great bridge for moving from local to global spaces. It gave me the opportunity to bring my advocacy work to an international level.
Our goal is to bring voices of underserved populations to global forums. One way that this is done is through Open Mics. This is when we have different consultations with youth and underserved populations about issues that fall into our area of expertise. This is a space to hear their different calls to action and what they want global leaders to act upon. Then, we bring these different calls to action to global forums. For example, we’re going to the Generation Equality Forum in Paris in 2021 where we will be bringing our call to action for what this new normal should look like.
How have you been amidst the global pandemic? How has your work shifted?
Prior to COVID-19, most of my work was on the ground where I used to go into shelters. I used to run programs in-person and create wellness kits, but because of social and physical distancing guidelines, those activities had to stop. I needed to come up with creative ideas for how to continuously advocate and aid underserved populations, like women and girls facing violence, while also abiding by the COVID-19 restrictions. So, during the pandemic, I created three initiatives.
The first initiative is Survive and Soar where I took resource booklets that I had created earlier and put them online where women and youth facing violence in the Ottawa region can log-on to find information about different services being offered locally.
I also created the My Empowerment Platform which is a web-application for women and girls living across Canada who face violence. It has three different components: 1) educational information, 2) safety and medical resources, and 3) COVID-19 resources. This includes Canadian campaigns, such as the Signal for Help campaign by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
The last initiative I created was the Everyday Essentials Express which is a contactless delivery service for different domestic violence shelters within the Ottawa Region using Instacart.
There is a mental health component to a lot of this work. What do you do for self-care? Or to just unwind?
Self-care is something that I’m still working on. I try to change up my self-care plan every now and then. Something that I’ve been doing recently is reading nice texts, WhatsApp messages, or emails from people in my personal support system when I’m feeling a little bit down. It helps to know that even if one person really believes in me, then I should be able to believe in myself.
I think it’s really important to put yourself front and centre. You can’t put an oxygen mask on someone else unless you have put one on yourself. You need to make sure that you’re physically, emotionally and mentally well. Once all of these components are taken care of, then you’re in a much better place to be advocating something else.
A lot of times, young people can just feel kind of stuck and don’t know how to get started on something. What advice would you have for people who are passionate about something but aren’t sure where to start, how to start, or what to do?
I always say “just go for it”. Most of the time it’s our own insecurities and self-doubt holding us back. We’re all capable of possessing great ideas for how to engage our communities, engage my country or work on an international scale. If you have an idea, you can partner with an organization or if you want to create your own initiative in Canada, there are different organizations, like TakingITGlobal, that have small grants for youth-led initiatives. The Duke of Edinburgh Awards also has grants available. A big one globally right now is One Young World where you can apply for up to $10,000 in funding. There are a lot of different options out there, so if you ever have an idea, I would say to stick with it and find the best support - is it with an organization? Is it applying for youth grants or is it doing it with your own group? Don’t let your own self-doubt ever hold you back.
Did you feel like you had to overcome a bit of imposter syndrome when you first started?
I definitely had a sense of imposter syndrome, especially when you are going to high-level dialogues or you are talking to some individuals who are really high-caliber like Ministers, Parliamentarians or Senators. The way that I approached it was that I may be well versed in gender-based violence, but I’m always ready to learn. Any individual, no matter where you are in your career, is a full-on expert that knows everything. People want to learn as much from you as you want to learn from them. Go into an experience with an open-mind to be able to converse with them - share what you know, ask what you don’t, and really have an open dialogue.
As a student, how did you get involved on campus? Do you have any tips for undergraduate students for how to make a difference outside of the classroom?
During your university career, there are different opportunities with student clubs and sometimes those clubs can lead to other opportunities. Find a club that matches your own values and interests. Don’t be afraid to look outside of your school as well. A lot of the global opportunities that I have experienced have not been related to my academics.
What about for youth who want to get involved in their local community?
I started volunteering at a domestic violence shelter through a community centre. There are different types of websites. For example, if you live in Ottawa, then Volunteer Ottawa is a good place to start. The CanWaCH website also has different volunteer and job opportunities listed. I would look at nonprofit organizations, community centres or just central websites. You can also just contact somewhere where you want to volunteer directly - there’s usually an email that you can contact to see if they need volunteers.
Do you have any advice for networking at receptions and events? Or online right now because of COVID-19?
My best advice for networking is just to have fun. I think sometimes we go in there and we have this speech in our heads or we’re told to have an elevator pitch ready. At a networking event, people are there because they want to get to know you. You were invited to that event for a reason or you’re attending that event because it’s something that you’re interested in. Go in there with an open mind. Go up to whoever you feel comfortable with, introduce yourself, have a good time.
What do you think is needed for a just and equitable recovery from COVID-19?
I think there are many ways that we can go about a national or global recovery plan, but I would like to see three things incorporated: 1) youth engagement at the local, national and international level as a key component, 2) women at the front and centre, and 3) this plan needs to be diverse, if everyone around the decision-making table is the same age, the same race, the same sexual orientation or gender, then that action plan is not going to be holistic and it’s not going to be adaptable to the wider population as a whole.
We have a really cool opportunity to take a shift in how we advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The deadline for achieving the SDGs is 2030. If we continue working at the same pace that we were working prior to the pandemic we may not meet those goals. Now we have the chance to hit that reset button and assess what works and what doesn’t.
We need to utilize this time during the pandemic to know that we can really make a shift in this world. That starts with you. Find an issue within your community, within your country, within the international realm, and go and make that difference.