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Guest opinion: In building sustainable and inclusive communities, Utah’s youth will lead the way

The United Nations chose Salt Lake City to host its 68th Civil Society Conference next month for many of the same reasons scores of people are choosing to build families in Utah: our strong economy, vibrant communities, pathways for upward mobility, one of the lowest education costs in the nation and beautiful environment. Salt Lake City is the first U.S. city outside of New York to host the conference and Utah’s young people are playing a central role in organizing the conference’s youth-centered events.

Students from Utah Valley University, University of Utah, Weber State, Utah State, Westminster College, Salt Lake Community College and elsewhere have been working with the U.N. to help plan the event and develop programming for the conference’s theme of building inclusive and sustainable communities. Through this commitment by Utah’s young people to help underserved communities, and UVU’s role as the only U.N.-accredited institution in Utah, we face an unprecedented opportunity to engage with leaders from across the world as well as with youth from across the state.

In March, a group of Utah students, including the co-author of this piece, were invited to the U.N. in New York as members of the 68th Civil Society Conference Youth Committee to help formulate conference programming for building an inclusive and sustainable future. Meeting with members of the U.N. and a New York youth subcommittee, the students began developing community events and engagement programs for the Civil Society Conference, and addressed challenging issues — such as refugee settlement, climate change and religious tolerance — that will be core to the conference’s focus and mission.

Nearly 50% of those registered for the event are young people, and several sessions and workshops will be run by youth. For example, UVU’s student-led Utah International Mountain Forum will present a workshop on UVU’s student engaged learning model and its impact on all learners, including nontraditional students. They will present models for advocacy of women in mountain communities under the U.N. 2030 Development Agenda, as well as address issues of sustainable development within their own communities. And students from UVU’s Interfaith Student Council will demonstrate ways societies can create dialogue and understanding between various faith groups.

A youth declaration working group is developing a post-conference outcome document that outlines young people’s goals and commitment to pursuing the sustainability solutions discussed at the conference. The declaration, which has the potential to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, also incorporates the voices of local youth who are not a part of the U.N. committees.

The Civil Society Conference’s themes of sustainability and inclusivity are deeply intertwined. When we think of sustainability, we tend to envision recycled materials, green energy and protecting the natural environment. But sustainability also means addressing inequality, while promoting economic growth and employment for every single Utahn.

Utah has never been more diverse. Minority groups have accounted for 28.3% of the state’s population growth since 2000. Many Utahns — certainly the students who have worked behind the scenes of the U.N. conference — understand that without the involvement and representation of Utahns of every race, ethnicity, age, wealth bracket, gender and sexual orientation, it is certain that economic inequality will persist and worsen.

Many of Utah’s institutions are already strengthening inclusivity and economic mobility. The state’s dual-mission model of higher education — which incorporates a robust community college program and a rigorous four-year teaching university under one roof and is central to the mission of UVU, Dixie State and Weber State universities — coupled with its open enrollment policies provide access to education for more citizens than ever before.

And Utah’s emergence as a technology innovation hub — thanks to Silicon Slopes — has had a tremendous impact on our economic growth and booming job market. But there is more work to be done. We can learn much by listening to the many diverse groups of people who will travel from all over the world to attend the conference and building connections that will live beyond the conference.

Next month in Salt Lake City, the youth of Utah will play a pivotal role in demonstrating our understanding of the many challenges facing our community and our planet in the coming decades. We will better understand how to build a sustainable future in a way that includes everyone. All Utahns are invited to register for the conference, share their stories and hear stories from fellow citizens of Utah and the world.

Just as Utah volunteers and spectators came together at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games for the benefit of global understanding and sport, we can join together in August with civil organizations and people from around the world to make a real difference. With the world watching, all Utahns can match the enthusiasm of our youth leaders and prove that we are committed to not just sustaining Utah, but the entire planet.