Remarks at the Professional Fellows Congress

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Marriott Wardman Park Hotel
Washington, DC
May 3, 2012

Good Morning. On behalf of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, welcome to Washington. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

You have traveled a long way to be here today, from nearly fifty countries on almost every continent. You speak different languages, practice different faiths, and come from different professions.

But you have many things in common. You are committed to public service. You are skilled professionals who are eager to share your knowledge. And you’re here to learn, both about others working in your field and about the United States -- the place, its people, and our desire to partner with you.

The need for people-to-people exchanges, like the Professional Fellows Congress, is more compelling than ever today. We live in an age of unprecedented virtual communication among countries and the people within them. But as you have learned, nothing substitutes for spending time in a different culture, learning to communicate in another’s language, understanding the institutions and traditions that define each of our nations.

Exchanges also help build bridges between sectors and encourage innovation. What I know from my career -- and I suspect many of you know the same -- is that innovation occurs at the intersection of worlds that are newly connected. When you bring people together, tapping new expertise and resources from every corner, and think outside of your respective box, perspectives shift and challenges break down.

So I’d like to thank all of our partners that have helped make this exchange possible. These experiences are life-changing for participants and can pay important dividends for years to come.

In my current position, as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, I oversee U.S. foreign relations on the spectrum of civilian security issues across the globe, including democracy, human rights, population, refugees, trafficking in persons, rule of law, counter-narcotics, crisis prevention and response, global criminal justice, and countering violent extremism. The basis of all these issues is the fundamental idea that national security depends first on the stability and prosperity of individuals.

Young people are at the core of many of these issues. Whether as civil society activists, bloggers, victims of conflict, or entrepreneurs, young people are playing an increasing role in their societies.

That is why whenever I travel, I make it a point to meet with young people like you. In many places, youth under the age of 25 make up a large part, even a majority, of the population. In some countries, more than 60-70% of the population is under 30.

Today, more than ever before, the global landscape is shifting. We see a landscape defined by challenges shared by all nations, developing and developed alike. And we see that young leaders, like all of you, are our greatest hope for change and progress. Your energy, ideas, and creativity are critical to finding new solutions to our toughest problems, from terrorism to climate change. And with today’s technology and global connections, you are empowered with access to knowledge and resources unlike any generation before. So if we’re going to tackle these challenges together, we will have to tap into your talents and passions. And around the world young people are doing just that.

In Nigeria, I met young leaders who were working to ensure free, fair and credible elections for their country. One young woman spoke about her Vote or Quench project -- a youth driven, social media-enabled organization that is shedding light on Nigeria’s complex political arena, giving young people an entry point into political engagement. She called for presidential candidates to hold a first ever debate based on youth questions and used social media to help get out the vote.

The young people of Central America and Mexico are particularly faced with a difficult challenge of violence and organized crime. In the municipality of Mixco in Guatemala City, I met with young men and women who are involved in their communities and refuse to be recruited by local gangs. Young men have chosen to stand up against a life of drugs and gangs, and instead put their energy into break dancing and mentoring other young men. I met with a young Nicaraguan teenager whose family migrated to San Jose, Costa Rica where they live in a makeshift home with no electricity and no running water. She is saying no to teen pregnancy by staying in school and organizing other young women in her neighborhood to practice safe sex and abstinence.

These are just a few examples that illustrate the energy, creativity and commitment of your generation. Clearly, you are the leaders not just of the future but of today. I hope this program has helped you gain additional skills and connections to continue to lead.

So as you finish on your visit to the United States, I encourage you to embrace your role as change agents. Take inspiration from your peers and use your new ideas and connections from this exchange to continue to build a better future for yourselves and your families, your communities, and your countries.

Thank you