As the new decade begins, TIME asked young activists to write open letters to their elders expressing their vision of a world where young people can survive and thrive. From gun violence to refugee rights, gender equality to climate change, their letters are a snapshot of what matters not just to the authors but to everyone coming of age in an era of global turmoil.
Stop sacrificing our futures
The youth of this world are watching you destroy our lives before they have begun. We are losing our futures, our sanity and our lives, all because you want more money and more power.
Everyone I know has depression or anxiety or worse. Almost none of us can deal with these illnesses because we can’t afford the treatment, and our society has such a stigma against talking about mental health that most of us can’t even recognize the symptoms. I watch my friends turn to substance abuse to deal with their problems, and engage in risky behavior because they don’t care about living past 25. This is our reality, and it’s your fault.
If you are in a position of power, you need to aim to make the world a better place for every-one living here, not just yourself and your donors. That means fewer guns, less plastic, more therapy, more education. Stop investing in nonrenewable resources and police institutions and private prisons, and start investing in health care and education. Stop allowing violence to persist and being shocked when the youth are softer and gentler than you. Stop utilizing the abusive and manipulative systems that were created for you. Instead, help people of color, women, LGBT+ people, young people, disabled and differently abled people, and immigrants obtain an education, food, clean water, safe housing, jobs, health care and political power.
If you really want to change the way we live our lives, ask us what problems we face and how we think we should solve them, and maybe listen this time. We need positive change, and if you don’t make it happen, we will. We would much rather do it together.
González, 20, is a Parkland survivor and gun-violence-prevention advocate
Make us a Green New Deal
Dear world leaders,
My generation is called Generation Z, the last letter of the English alphabet. If we humans continue with our fossil-fuel addiction and putting profits over the rights of children to breathe and live, then that terminal name will be fitting.
Our Earth is close to reaching the breaking point for irreversible climate disaster. We don’t have a month of business as usual to spare, let alone a whole year. But our leaders are making the same old excuses.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In order to save everything that matters, it’s time to say goodbye to the habits of the past. We are calling on our leaders to enact Green New Deals in their home countries. No more “cap and trade,” no more buying and selling your way out of a problem caused by buying and selling.
Climate change is not the problem. Rather, it is a symptom of the problems that we as a society have had for centuries, most notably colonialism and capitalism. Right now, world leaders are trying to solve the climate crisis — a problem caused by colonialism and capitalism — with more colonialism and capitalism. That is insanity.
COP25, the recent climate conference in Madrid, was partially funded by the same corporations that are fuelling the climate crisis. And guess what? Nothing changed. The global leaders who even bothered to turn up did nothing for the planet and nothing for my generation. Instead, they showed themselves to be more concerned with pleasing the wealthy few who are well on their way to destroying all life on planet Earth with their greed.
As an 18 year-old with no power to change the world except for my limited voice, I am forced to have faith that you, my elders, can and will change — fast.
We the youth are calling upon you to restore our faith in you to be able to put our lives first. We hear you say that you love us, but this time we need you to act on the climate crisis in a way that will make us actually believe it.
So get to it. Time is not on our side.
Margolin, 18, is a Colombian-American activist and the founder of Zero Hour
Help us stamp out genocide
In 2014, my life changed forever when ISIS invaded my home region of Sinjar and began ethnically cleansing Iraq of all Yezidis. They killed approximately 5,000 of us and took over 6,400, mostly women and children, into captivity, many as sexual slaves.
After I escaped captivity, I knew I must fight to end the genocide against the Yezidis. I began to tell the world about what happened to my people and to advocate for female survivors of sexual violence globally. Five years later, I am disheartened by the lack of progress. Hundreds of thousands of Yezidis remain displaced, ISIS perpetrators have not been publicly tried for their crimes, and over 3,000 of our women and children are still missing. If the global community cannot unite to aid survivors of sexual slavery and terrorism in Iraq, what does it say about our ability to create change globally?
While survivors like me can bring public awareness to issues affecting communities in crisis, for there to be tangible change the international community must act swiftly. My organization, Nadia’s Initiative, works to leave a safer, more just world for future generations. However, we cannot do it on our own. States need to recognize the Yezidi genocide and hold perpetrators of mass atrocities like ISIS publicly accountable in court, sending a clear global message.
International leaders have the power to influence change and shift conversations about global crises. I ask them to work with survivors to prevent mass atrocities from happening. Together, let’s make “Never again” a reality.
Murad, 27, is an Iraqi Yezidi 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Help clean up the oceans
Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve been obsessed with ridding our oceans of plastic. Seven years ago, I founded The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit that designs technologies to make this dream come true.
Plastic pollution damages ecosystems, risks human health, and is costing the global economy $19 billion annually. To solve this epidemic, we must prevent more plastic from reaching the ocean and clean up the legacy which has already accumulated in the oceans.
After several challenging years, just last month, we were able to welcome to shore the first shipping containers filled with plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of trash in the world.
Looking at the source, we found that 1% of rivers are responsible for 80% of plastic emissions. For this, we developed the Interceptor; a solar-powered device that, when placed in river mouths, catches the plastic before it reaches the oceans. The first Interceptors are now active in Indonesia and Malaysia and we aim to scale this to the heaviest-polluting rivers in coming years. Now that humanity has the tools to solve it, there is no excuse for the plastic pollution problem to continue existing.
In many respects, the world has never been better than today. But for progress to continue, we must also clean up after ourselves. With leadership we can do so — not by fighting against a past that we don’t agree on, but by building towards a future that we do.
Slat, 25, is a Dutch inventor and entrepreneur
Rethink laws on refugees
Dear world leaders,
I am a refugee. For me and my family, simple things like taking the bus to the nearest town or filling out an application form for school or a job trigger an identity crisis. When I get asked what my nationality is, or to give my passport number, I feel shame and guilt. These are routine questions for the citizens of your countries. But for us, any situation requiring identification becomes a dehumanizing process. The system is not working.
Today, the number of people displaced around the world is 70 million and rising. That’s more people than the combined population of the 125 largest cities in the U.S.
But the systems we have in place to deal with the crisis are broken. Refugee policies hardly help people on the ground. We need to move away from trying to improve refugee camps and start trying to close them. Refugees contribute to the economies, cultures and communities of nearly every nation in the world. Keeping us cooped up, refusing us even the right to get a job and earn a decent living as a full citizen, is condemning millions of us to unnecessary misery.
We need legal structures to give basic human rights to refugees: work permits, freedom of movement and pathways to citizenship for those of us born in camps. We need a path out of the indefinite desperation of statelessness; one that recognizes our humanity.
We need to find ways to let refugees leave these camps with dignity, hope, citizenship and a future. Agencies should be judged on how many camps they close; not how many they create or sustain.
And lastly, we need to stop blaming refugees. We are a people who have escaped our homes under threat of war and violence and most often can’t return home. We are children who have been born and raised in camps. These circumstances are beyond our control. We need empathy and honesty, not suspicion and hostility.
For this, we ask your help.
Mohamud, 29, is a Somalian refugee and a 2019 Davos co-chair
Give us back our childhoods
When I was 6, all of the kids in my community of Flint, Mich. had to learn to not use the water that flowed from our tap. The water that we drunk, cooked with and bathed in was poisoning us. A decision made by state politicians had caused a deadly crisis (which still isn’t over).
I have since learned that clean water, a basic human right, is something that politicians love to gamble with. What is happening in Flint is not unique; in fact it is just one community in the United States dealing with toxic water. And it’s not the only issue where leaders are failing to act. On gun violence, climate change, child poverty, education, we are being let down by those responsible for protecting us.
Adults always say that children are the most precious thing in the world, and that we should be protected and to enjoy our childhood. But in that same breath those same adults continue to fail the kids of the world, time and time again. We have no choice but to step up and demand action.
But we shouldn’t have to be fighting for our future. It’s time for those in charge to start caring about the kids, and give us a seat at the table — especially when our lives are at stake. Take care of our futures, so we can focus on being kids just a little more.
Copeny, 13, is an American youth activist
Invest in our creativity
I started cooking when I was 10, as a creative escape while my parents were going through a divorce. It quickly became my passion. With tremendous support and sacrifice from my family, and mentoring from others in my profession, I worked my way through kitchens in L.A. and New York. I opened my first pop-up restaurant at age 13.
Beginning to develop a craft, especially at a young age, is a fragile process. If I hadn’t been encouraged by mentors and partners, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to learn more. We are in an era so focused on immediacy that it is difficult for any talent to be given the chance to develop or the opportunity to stand out. Lack of support for young artists creates resentment where there could be beauty, originality and change.
Young artists need support and mentors, so they continue to be motivated to create. Support can come in many ways. It could be as simple as respecting the growth of an artist, instead of only being interested in the final project. For a young chef, it could be as direct as tasting their creations, or as broad as working to fight climate change.
When we don’t invest in young people or we push them to conform, we end up with a lack of genuine creativity. I owe my success to the artistic freedom I was given. It inspired me to work hard and, most importantly, think in the abstract, which can impact any industry in need of fresh ideas.
McGarry, 21, is an American chef; his restaurant, Gem, is in New York
Empower women to save the Earth
Before turning 16, I skied to the North Pole, crossed the Greenland ice cap and became one of the few women in history to set a new route to the South Pole from the coast of Antarctica. Traveling 1,300 km on ice confirmed for me that global warming is an undeniable truth, but I desperately want to be optimistic. The long-term fix is available: ensure young women globally are encouraged to be more rather than less.
The world is severely out of balance, thanks to the historic suppression of feminine power. For too long, women were merely childbearers and men’s property, while the male ego dominated. In many cultures that remains the case today. Gender balance will only be restored when young women globally have access to education, programs and resources to grow in the directions of their dreams. I’m lucky enough to be one of the relatively privileged ones, but every young woman, including the 130 million girls around the world not attending school, deserves the opportunity to take charge of their lives.
It staggers me that no one is focused on the exponential growth in the human population as the biggest threat to our environment. It seems to be taboo for our leaders to talk about. The most sensible way to address our exploding population is by educating and empowering young women, ensuring they make their own decisions over how many children they have and when. Only through your actions today will this dream be possible.
Hameister, 18, is an Australian explorer
TIME’s Davos 2020 issue was produced in partnership with the World Economic Forum.