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Letters to Young People Who Inspire Us, by Madeleine Albright, Michelle Bachelet, Tim Berners-Lee and More

15 minute read

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20. As well as soliciting letters from young people to their elders for our annual Davos issue, TIME asked a group of six prominent people to write to a young person or people of their own choosing. The authors have decades of experience in the fields of statecraft, human-rights work and innovation—and together their open letters reflect a feeling of hope that, despite the challenges young people face, they also hold the power to improve the planet.

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Madeleine K. Albright

A letter to my students

One of my favorite quotations these days is from Robert Frost, “now that I am old, my teachers are the young.” Although there is not a lot to relish about aging, I am grateful it has given me the opportunity to learn from you.

I have been inspired by how your generation has already spoken out forcefully about protecting the environment, pursuing racial justice, respecting the rights and dignity of women, ending gun violence, and treating immigrants and refugees fairly. Your voices will need to grow even louder in the future, because the boundless opportunities of the twenty-first century will be accompanied by unprecedented dangers.

The world is facing a daunting array of challenges – from climate change to terrorism to weapons proliferation to migration – that cannot be addressed without cooperation among countries. Globalization’s potential benefits can only be realized if economic growth is more broadly shared than it has been in the past. We must also grapple with the promise and peril of new technologies, which have brought the world closer together but caused dislocation and helped fuel new divisions.

You and your peers are well-equipped to meet these challenges, because you have been raised with a truly global perspective and pursued a global education. But what concerns me about the future is the risk that we might forget our past.

The passage of time has meant that the lessons my generation learned during World War II about the benefits of multilateral cooperation and the dangers of unbridled jingoism are no longer top of mind. The majority of people around the world do not remember the Cold War, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction linked to a dangerous ideology.

Having only experienced a world where freedom appeared triumphant, many people cannot imagine a system worse than their own flawed democracies. This makes them easy prey for political leaders who promise simple answers, who exploit social divisions for their own purposes, and who distort reality with every breath.

You and your peers will be engaged in a battle of ideas with the false prophets of nationalism. I have no nostalgia for the past, but it carries lessons we should heed –aggressors must be resisted; the truth must be defended; and intolerance cannot be allowed to hide behind the mask of national pride.

I trust you will bear these lessons in mind, while realizing that democratic principles and values have not lost their power to protect and enrich people’s lives. Yes, many are dissatisfied, but the goal of most is to make democracy work better, not to abandon the framework of freedom. We cherish democracy because it is the one road all people can walk down together, and it is the only system that contains within itself the capacity, through open debate, to heal itself.

Freedom’s saga has just begun, and I put my faith in you to write the next chapter of that story. Keep speaking out, keep marching, keep participating. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Albright was the U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001. She teaches at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

Read more of TIME’s Davos 2020 coverage

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

A letter to Mmonbeydo Nadine Joah, a Liberian law student and women’s rights activist

Dear Mmonbeydo,

I write to you not only as your former President, but as a grandmother and a fellow Liberian woman.

Your passion to fight for women’s rights, your desire to stand up for others and your determination to become a lawyer are qualities that I admire.

The world may seem a dark and challenging place. Every day we hear stories from our women and women across the world of rape, abuse, discrimination. We fear the climate crisis and see its destructive reality across the globe. We see the rule of law under attack from those meant to uphold it.

But there is so much to be hopeful about and young women like you give me hope. When I was your age, it was uncommon for a woman to be a lawyer let alone a President. I remember how proud I felt when Angie Brooks became the first female lawyer in Liberia in 1953 and then later the first female judge to be admitted to the Supreme Court.

We need more women in the justice sector. Not only as lawyers and judges but as police officers, prison staff and as paralegals. Justice is the thread that binds all of the Sustainable Development Goals and we will not be able to achieve our goals for gender equality, education or health without it.

We need to mentor and support girls and to listen to their voices and dreams. Our women’s movements must not only represent the interests and views of the elite. We need to make sure all women are included, especially those on the margins such as women with disabilities or women from rural areas. We need to stop working in silos and come together. This year, the world will mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – a seminal moment in the fight for gender equality across the world. I hope that young women like you can draw strength and solidary from the spirit of that declaration and continue the fight for justice.

It may seem like a time of push back for women’s rights. A time when we need to make sure the rights women won over many generations are not diluted or destroyed. But it is also a time when our collective voice is strong – just look at the #WeAreUnprotected campaign in Liberia, and global movements such as #MeToo #Nopiwouma and #NiUnaMenos. It is a time when fearless young women, such as Malala, Greta and yourself, speak truth to power and shame leaders for their inaction.

Do not feel weak or discouraged when opposition comes. Don’t be afraid to dream boldly. To dream what seems impossible. As the feminist writer Audre Lorde reminds us, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Johnson Sirleaf is a former President of Liberia, a Nobel Peace laureate and a member of the Elders

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Winnie Byanyima

A letter to Lucy, a young HIV positive domestic worker in Kenya

I was thinking about you today Lucy and wondering how you were doing. You still don’t have a contract or earn anywhere near the minimum wage even though a landmark 2012 ruling granted Kenyan domestic workers the same basic labour rights as other workers. You must continue to fight. You can’t afford not to.

Use that fire I saw in you when you fought for access to HIV medicines — because it works! Treatment coverage in Kenya has risen from 29% in 2010 to 68% in 2018, thanks in large part to collective demands for access. So call on the network of people living with HIV to stand up for change. I’m so glad you’ve now joined the workers movement too, and by uniting we can be stronger together. You can be the glue that unites these groups to demand change. You are strong, you are respected, you are powerful and working together you can make a real difference.

Young women like you in Kenya and across Africa shouldn’t have to work for a pittance. You shouldn’t have to worry about having no food on the table because you have to buy medicines for your children. You shouldn’t have to fear gender based violence. No, Lucy, no-one should be submitted to this – so continue to fight with me and to fight for your rights.

Byanyima is executive director of UNAIDS

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Michelle Bachelet

A letter to young activists

This is not an easy time to be young, but it is a great one: a time in which you, your ideas and your activism, can make a real difference to humanity.

Across the world, young people are becoming alive to the urgent need that they participate in decisions, to safeguard our human rights and save our world. I pay tribute to their brave and peaceful activism. Already, some governments have responded to mass protests with significant policy reforms. Others have not – not yet.

But I am confident that your demands for fulfilment of our economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights will prevail. As a young woman in Chile, I experienced dictatorship and a deeply polarised society. I saw what it does to a country when people are forced to live in deprivation and fear. But I was also fortunate to live among people who – even in the face of violence and poverty – manifested compassion and generosity. As a pediatrician for children whose parents had been tortured or disappeared, I saw many women and men who were able to transform their rage and pain into movements that sought to mend divisions and heal our lacerated society.

Among the many lessons I learned was this: hatred is not baked in to our human nature. And it can be healed. I also learned that, sooner or later, governments which try to rule through fear – instead of respect – will fail, because you, and others like you, will resist them.

In my lifetime, in country after country, broad movements to defend human rights have undone discriminatory barriers, forged tremendous advances in health and well-being, and made it possible for the most educated, most highly skilled generation of all time – your generation – to blossom.

We have also passed on to you many burdens. The world around us is jittery and fearful. The pace of technological change and environmental destruction is quickening. The climate emergency is undermining human rights and threatening the destiny of humanity.

We need you. In a very real sense, it is up to you now. And I am convinced that your brave and clear-sighted generation can achieve a great consensus to resolve these problems.

I encourage you to set aside anger or despair, and choose dialogue – to find a common ground of understanding in the face of the divisions which impede solutions and breed hate.

Remember this: no matter how grave and tangled the crisis, core values will steer you to the path of solutions.We are not alone. Other people matter. Justice matters. Violence, exploitation, discrimination and injustice must be opposed. By understanding others’ points of view; by acting with integrity, to advance justice; by seeking always to build on your respect for other people and all forms of life; by looking to construct, and advance – rather than to destroy — you will be able to advance towards greater human dignity and human rights.

Bachelet is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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Tim Berners-Lee

A letter to the girls at the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC) in Lagos, Nigeria.

Since inventing the World Wide Web I’ve seen it improve millions of lives, transforming how we communicate, collaborate and create. But today, almost half the world’s population remains unconnected and digital platforms don’t work equally well for everyone, with many women and girls particularly underserved.

When I visited you in Lagos during the 30th birthday of the web, you filled me with hope for the the web’s impact on our world because, as you bring new voices and experiences to the web, you will change it for the better.

The web becomes more powerful as each person contributes their particular part of it. And so as you and your peers become business people, policy makers and content creators, your skills and perspectives will help make the web richer for everyone.

You can already make a difference. When you go online, write about your experiences and hopes for the future. Share the issues you care about and tell your political leaders what you stand for. Make sure your culture, beliefs and local languages are represented on the web. And use your coding skills to solve challenges specific to Nigeria and West Africa.

When you do this you will make life better for yourself and others in Lagos. At the same time, you will improve the web as a whole.

We know that today’s web has challenges we all need to fix. That’s why I launched the Contract for the Web — a global plan that sets a vision for the web we want and provides a roadmap for the policies and actions we need to get there.

This Contract calls for action from those that currently have the power to shape the web — governments, companies and individual web users — so that future generations like you can continue to use it to learn, create, and fight for justice.

The Contract asks technology leaders to design systems that are safe, empowering and that protect your rights and promote democracy. And it calls on companies to think beyond short term revenue and user growth and to develop business practices that people trust and are sustainable in the long term.

As part of the solution, Inrupt, a company I cofounded, is helping build a technology called Solid, which is designed to make your experience on the web more personal and empowering and, most importantly, in your control. A Solid “Pod” provides a secure place to store all kinds of data about you, and allows you to share any combination of that data with whichever people, apps or organizations you choose — or no one.

Ambitious, coordinated action and new web technologies like Solid are vital to get the web we want — a web that you can use to build the world you want. With your leadership, the web’s next 30 years will be greater than the last. I can’t wait to explore the web that you all create.

Berners-Lee is co-founder of the World Wide Web Foundation and CTO of Inrupt

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Liz Shuler

A letter to American graduates

Congratulations, and welcome to the American workforce! Many years of work and school brought you to this new place of early mornings, long hours and way too much coffee. You’re probably a little worried, and that’s okay. Between impressing your boss and working through mountains of student debt, it can be a lot to think about.

Will you have to get a side hustle to make ends meet? Maybe you already have. Or maybe you’re already preparing how to ask for your first day off. Maybe you’ve noticed a leering coworker and catalogued a possible response in case things get worse. But if anything, you probably feel lucky that the paychecks are regular and that $1-wing nights are still a thing.

Yes, things need to change. But your generation has always known that you can’t wait for the change to happen. Instead, you’re sharing petitions on social media, organizing marches, making your voice heard, speaking out. You’re collaborative, civic-minded and the most technologically connected generation ever. That’s what makes you strong.

That collective action you’re witnessing and participating in? That’s the labor movement at its core. We’re teachers, welders, nurses, janitors, manufacturing workers, actors, electricians, computer programmers, NASA employees and so much more—and we’ve made it our mission to change every workplace for the better. In fact, the history of labor in America is the story of fighting for civil rights, equality and good jobs for all.

And as an elected female leader of the AFL-CIO, I’m proud to say the labor movement represents 7 million women, making it the largest organization of working women in the country. Our fights today are about quality health care, retirement security, paid family leave and a living wage—all of which we think you should have, by the way. But we’re also pushing the boundaries to build transformative worker power in a new economy, taking global challenges head on like climate change, technological transformation and economic inequality.

We like to say that the union is YOU. It’s whatever you want it to be, whatever you believe needs to change. It’s only by banding together that we’ve ever won anything, from voting rights, to the 40-hour-workweek, to safety on the job, to the space and support to say #MeToo.

So join us. Let’s face the changing economy and workplace together. We need your best ideas. Take the reins, redesign the labor movement and innovate it. Let a union be a vehicle for your biggest, boldest goals—the more audacious, the better.

Shuler is the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO

TIME’s Davos 2020 issue was produced in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

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