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Students at WE Day UN in New York.

VIPs, from Justin Trudeau to performer Jessie Reyez, join forces to promote social action among youth in New York as thousands of people come together to celebrate WE Day UN

As world leaders discussed the flight of refugees, drug trafficking and human-rights violations at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, thousands of young people gathered at the Theater at Madison Square Garden with an optimistic view of the future.

An estimated 6,000 young people from the tri-state area of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey attended WE Day UN, billed as a "change-maker bonanza."

The event, founded by Canadian brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger to encourage young people to participate in social action, featured a varied lineup of high-profile speakers including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his mother, Margaret Trudeau, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women.

The speakers' list also included performers, such as Toronto singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez, comedian Whoopi Goldberg and actress Skai Jackson, as well as Chelsea Clinton, vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation and daughter of Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Princess Beatrice Elizabeth Mary of York.

On the agenda was the topic of what young people can do to support the UN's sustainable development goals, which include ending poverty, helping vulnerable regions adapt to climate change and promoting gender equality. As the UN Development Programme explains, ending discrimination against women and girls is crucial to accelerating sustainable development. Empowering women and girls, it states, helps drive economic growth and development.

"We need to allow spaces that say, you are your truth, you are good enough, you are all that you dream to be and more," said Nompumelelo Nobiva, known as Mpumi, a global empowerment and motivational speaker who was invited to speak to the audience. "WE has a lot of keys that could help us better understand and navigate our society, the first of which is just allowing our girls and our youth to channel their truth and be who they are, and make their own choices about [their] own cause."

WE Day events are held throughout year across the United States, Canada, Britain and the Caribbean. Audience members are selected to attend the events based on their participation through the WE Charity's WE Schools program.

The Globe spoke with speakers of WE Day UN about how to empower women and girls.

Mary Robinson

Robinson was Ireland's first female president from 1990 to 1997, and served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. She is president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and chair of its board of trustees.

How does climate change impact women and men differently?

There is a huge gender dimension to climate change. It's understandable because what climate change is doing is undermining poor livelihoods, with long periods of drought and flash flooding and the fact that the weather is unpredictable, and people don't know when to sow and when to harvest. When you undermine livelihoods, you still have to put food on the table, you still have to go farther for water and farther for firewood. I find that it's women who are trying to cope more and more, and they're grouping together and becoming agents of building resilience in their communities, but they're getting very little support.

Can you give an example of how women's participation in climate action can bring about better outcomes?

My foundation has brought a grassroots woman from Kenya, a pasturalist, and she has formed an organization of women pasturalists because they are so affected by the long period of drought now in Kenya. Pasturalists, who drive their animals over a large area of land to let them graze, have to go farther and farther because of the drought and the fact that it's affecting the vegetation. Her organization is supporting women in this context because a lot of the pasturalists are men. They go far distances and they have to leave their wives and women and children behind, so women have to become more and more resilient. They have to learn to grow alternative crops, try to grow vegetables, try to go hunting. And that needs training and support, and that is what she's leading other women to do.

What message do you hope young women in the audience take away from WE Day UN?

To be honest, I hope that in talking about gender, the boys will be just as interested as the girls because we can't get away from the idea that gender is a woman's problem and a woman's challenge. It is not. It is all about relationships, so I would be appealing as much to the idealistic boys who have done enough to qualify to come to a WE event as the girls. But I do see an additional need to encourage young girls to be more confident.

There is a difference, very often, between a young boy and a young girl. The young girl will feel, "Maybe I'm not good enough," whereas a young boy will say, "Of course I'm good enough to do that," whatever it is. There's, I think, an inner sense of doubt that girls can have more sometimes, and I would like to reach out to that and encourage young girls to be at least as confident as young boys and to work very much now for the world that they will live in.

For yourself personally, how have you dealt with such inner sense of doubt?

I was lucky, actually. My parents were both doctors. I was the only person to become involved in politics in my family, to their astonishment. I was the only girl wedged between four brothers. My parents constantly reminded me and made it clear that I was equally important to my brothers, that I had the same opportunities, that they would support me with the same education, the same start in life, and I must believe in myself in the way that they did. That was not what I saw around me in the Ireland of that time. The Constitution said the place of the woman is in the home, and my choices after leaving boarding school were either to possibly marry young or become a nun. Being a nun was somehow more exciting. I actually gave it serious thought. And then my parents sent me to Paris for a year and that changed everything. I came back and I studied law.

What is your strategy for dealing with gender inequality when you encounter it in your own life?

I think it's important to always think about it. When there's an all-male panel, I will challenge it. Even a panel with only one woman and it's got five men, that's not tolerable any more. We have to have gender parity, gender equality. I think it's always challenging the imbalance when you see it. Especially now that I am a grandmother, and a certain age and a former president, you know, I make my voice heard on these things.

Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin

As executive director of school and community relations at Inglewood Unified School District in Inglewood, Ca., Sanderlin has spent many years working with children in underserved communities in the Los Angeles area. She was previously a teacher, assistant principal, principal and community engagement leader for the Compton Unified School District.

You often speak about adopting a "why not" mindset. Can you explain what that means?

The "why not" mindset is a mindset of possibilities for almost anything, for community partnerships, for the ability to do more than what we are expected to do. As a principal, I was tired of just getting things that we needed. I wanted to have things that our scholars – I refer to our students as scholars – wanted, and also that they deserved. In other words, why should not we deserve the best? That type of thinking changed our attitude of what we deserved. My perspective is for us not to just think big, but to think even bigger.

What's the best advice you've received for making your voice heard?

The best advice I've received is to go out and knock on doors, not write letters – people don't read really read any more, or as much as they should. To go out and tell your own story, to make cold calls and let people know you're in the community and are there to make an impact. And to listen and learn from the community.

The best way to effectively get your word out is to tell your own story, and to make relationships and build those relationships with CEOs, executives all the way down to just people walking around the community. You'd be surprised how many love the personal touch. And the personal touch, beyond sending things by social media and putting things on Facebook, is a much more effective tool.

You've mentioned previously that young people may not lack talent or ambition but what's often lacking is the access and opportunity to pursue their goals. How can they get that access and opportunity?

First is changing the mindset that there's a school-to-prison pipeline. What I subscribe to is finding and identifying opportunities and access for students to do job shadowing, to go on field trips. I believe in building bridges for students and schools to the community and, to me, that's giving them access.

What we've worked on here in Inglewood is we've found companies that allow students to hear from what I like to refer to as real models, not just role models. So real models are people who are actually CEOs, business leaders and managers, not just the top, but people in different roles in business. What that does is it makes what we're doing in school much more relevant and meaningful. For example, we're working with the Los Angeles Rams to work on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project, where they teach the science of football to our youth and the students are also going to learn about all the different jobs. It's not just about the players on the field and the cheerleaders, it's also about the ticket-takers and the business behind the sport.

What needs to be done to encourage more young women to pursue education in STEM?

We need to see exemplars of women who are already doing that and we need to highlight them. What would be good, beyond what we've been doing for years, is bringing these companies, like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman that work in the STEM field, and actually have them here on site. Make them a partnership, make them an after-school program, make them a day program and integrate that with our regular classrooms, so that our teachers of math and science have that partnership with them in their regular core curriculum.

Doing that and hearing from women who work in that field will begin that process of bridge-building and opening access for our female students. We want them to know that they are needed in that field and there are women already working in that field. But we don't always hear about their story.

What message would you like the young women in the audience to take home from WE Day UN?

I want the message to be that they count. I want the message to be, "Why not you?" That means, first of all, you have to know who you are. I want our young women to know who they are, to know what capabilities and skills they have, and I want them to know that they can apply them, and that they're wanted and needed. But they need to first know who they are. And if they don't market who they are, if they don't market their skills and abilities, it's not necessary that someone will find them or chose them.

Waiting around for someone to recognize us as women? I think that day is over. We have to say, "Why not me?" and put ourselves in those positions, put ourselves in those roles. Why not make an impact in your community? Why not you make the difference? For years, we've looked for someone to find us and to recognize us and to validate us. Why not validate ourselves?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In 2005, Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia, becoming the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Sirleaf is wrapping up her second and final term of presidency, as Liberia prepares for its election next month. According to UN Women, women remain underrepresented in the country's decision-making and governance processes, making up about 12 per cent of members of parliament. Liberia's maternal mortality rate ranks among the highest in the world.

Of your 12 years of presidency, what do you think you will be remembered for?

Undoubtedly, I think it's going to be peace – the peace that we brought to the country and maintained for now close to 15 years. Without that, we wouldn't have been able to do many of the other things that we've done, in terms of economic recovery, getting the development processes and institutions functioning again. So peace. Definitely peace.

What has been your role in encouraging women to participate in politics?

I think, first of all, setting the example. Becoming a role model for women and then, of course, promoting them. I have women serving in high positions of government at all levels. And also meeting with women. And I think perhaps one of the greatest areas has to do with the informal sector, our market women and our rural women, whom we've been able to gain better working conditions through new markets, leadership training to enable them to have the basics in managing their markets and, of course, skills training for many of the young women who have not had the opportunity for education during our years of conflict. So all of those have really empowered them.

And today, when I go around the country, they say, "Thank you for giving us a voice. Thank you for enabling us to participate." Those are the things that didn't happen in our country before.

What are the barriers that need to be lifted to achieve gender parity in politics?

Financing. Women just have not been in politics before, so being able to raise resources, given that they do not control the financing in the home and the society, so enabling them to do that. And then training. The lack of experience in politicking because politics have been male-dominated over the many years.

But let me say that we've been seeing great improvement. The fact that we now have, in our country, 152 women vying to compete in our legislative elections says tons. It tells you that there's been a game change in the country when it comes to the participation of women, particularly in politics. Even if they don't win, they're competing. They're letting themselves be known, they're taking a stand and that's a great thing because that prepares them for a win and a greater role in the future.

How do you think your government has fared in terms of improving the day-to-day lives of women?

I will come back to what I said before. Improving the lives of rural women, the farmers, the marketeers, the people who really are the sustenance providers of our nation. They are the ones today. Today, we have women that are superintendents, who are like governors in your state, mayors, chiefs – something that is really, historically, traditionally male-dominated.

And you know the beautiful part? The men have accepted it. There's always a fear that now that you're president, they accept it. When you're no longer president, they'll reverse it. But I don't think that can happen. I think it's irreversible. Those women are strong, they have a voice, they're participating, they take positions and the country is just better off because now we have, if you may say it, both hands on deck.

What is your message to the young women at WE Day?

Follow your dreams, stick with it, be determined what you want to be. Don't be deterred by the obstacles and constraints, keep on moving, focus, go after it, and even if you stumble, rise again. And for sure, that persistence, that determination will get you there.

As told to Wency Leung

Interviews have been condensed and edited