They have years to go before they could conceivably sit in the Security Council seat as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, participate in a high-level summit on refugees or cast a vote for their country in the General Assembly. But for a select group of New York City students, the ways of the world’s most prominent international body are becoming a bit less mysterious.
The students are actually called NYC Junior Ambassadors, and they consist of some 600 seventh-grade students from 20 classrooms and after-school programs in New York City schools participating in a program sponsored by the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. The goal is to teach the young ambassadors about the UN; and as part of their grooming, the classes tour UN headquarters. The program began in October 2015 in celebration of UN Day and the organization’s 70th anniversary, with 11 participating classrooms, half the size of the current enrollment. The first graduating class of junior ambassadors occurred in June 2016.
In listening to the students’ questions and answers to prompts from their UN tour guide on a recent Friday-morning tour, it appears that they still have much to learn.
Did everything “get better” after the creation of the UN? asked one girl, referring to its founding at the end of World War II, in 1945.
“Basically, the United Nations stops wars?” asked another student, unaware that the 15 members of the UN Security Council, who are responsible for maintaining peace and security worldwide, have had trouble stopping, for example, the six-year-old war in Syria.
In addition to a tour and briefing at the UN (which are held from January to June), highlights of the program include a classroom visit by a UN ambassador to participating schools; a year-end assignment ranging from art projects to music; and a graduation ceremony attended by local and international leaders, parents and school officials.
Participating schools hail from all five boroughs of the city and largely represent public as well as a few charter and private schools, including Islamic institutions. Their teachers also receive professional development skills, such as workshops to introduce them to strategies for teaching about the UN and engaging youth around global issues; access to educational modules about the UN, focused currently on the global refugee crisis; and online and phone-based trainings.
Some ambassadors who spoke to participating classes last year were Samantha Power of the United States and Matthew Rycroft of Britain.
PassBlue shadowed students from the Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn during their guided tour on Feb. 17. They peppered their guide with questions on everything from the artwork on the walls in the long carpeted hallways of the UN’s second floor to the color of the seats in the Security Council (light blue) to the state of world peace and nuclear disarmament issues.
After learning about the symbolism of the mural gracing the Security Council, which was designed by a Norwegian artist, Per Krohg, and depicts a phoenix rising from its ashes as a symbol of the world being rebuilt after World War II, one boy noted, “So, the top represents the future, and the bottom represents the past.”
That prompted a student to ask if the horseshoe shape of the Security Council table had anything to do with the “Knights of the Roundtable?”
The guide merely smiled.
But world geography might not have been among the stronger areas of knowledge for the middle-school students, perhaps reflecting the American educational system’s dearth of lessons on global affairs or details of how the UN works. (It’s complicated.) Foreign affairs remains on the back burner for many educational institutions at all age levels in the US.
When the UN tour guide asked if the students knew who the five permanent members of the Security Council were, they appeared stuck, after coming up with the US and the United Kingdom.
One girl added, “Europe?”
When the discussion turned to world languages in the first group, the students were asked to guess the six official ones of the UN, with difficulty. They asked the guide, who was from Brazil, what languages he spoke and were intrigued to know that in addition to English, he speaks Portuguese and Hebrew.
“I’m Jewish,” said one girl, with others chiming in that they were, too. Another student had a teacher translating the tour into French for her.
They were all generally impressed with the Security Council chamber, whose 15 members were not meeting that morning, making remarks like, “Holy cow, it’s so huge and so pretty,” and “awesome.” Council members, who have expressed a range of tense emotions in the chambers over every conceivable war — and human atrocity — in the world, might have been amused to hear another student say, “It’s really nice in here.”
The class had been split into two groups during the first half of the tour. The second group was led by a Chinese UN tour guide. When she asked the students which countries made up the Council’s permanent members, she was met with blank faces. A few voices piped up, suggesting Mexico, Netherlands and Africa, though they got one right: Britain.
One boy yelled: “Ukraine? Ukraine?” as another suggested “Sweden.” (Both countries are current elected members.)
They smartly asked about the veto power in the Council and what happened if the permanent members said yes to a resolution but the 10 elected members said no.
To which the guide said: the resolution can’t be passed. Yet when a student asked how many seats were in the first balcony (member state delegations) of the Council, she said, I don’t know, I never counted and it doesn’t really matter. (She did note that all 193 countries have a seat in the General Assembly.)
The students in the second group, now interested in resolutions, asked what types were passed “in this room” (the Council). The guide said such things as nuclear tests, sanctions and asset freezes, specifically mentioning North Korea impositions.
Their interest continued when they encountered the large photos in the hallway outside the Council depicting UN peacekeepers and the genesis of the UN: the Holocaust. One boy, however, didn’t want to talk about that chapter in world history, saying it made him “too sad.” Slowly, he made his way over to absorb the photos of starved people being released from European concentration camps.
Does the UN have its own army? Why not?, some students in the second group asked in front of the peacekeepers’ photos. The guide said, as if she had heard far too many debates on the topic in the Council, Do you want an army if you’re building peace?
The groups merged halfway through the visit, and a lecture about weapons of mass destruction and a tour of the UN’s “disarmament corridor” piqued the attention of many of the boys, one who knew about the two times in history that nuclear weapons were used — in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. They viewed a map showing which countries have performed weapons tests, and concluded the tour with a group picture before taking part in a private briefing (to which PassBlue was not invited) about refugees, an issue they have been studying in school as part of their UN curriculum.
The topic may have been too close to home for some students, as the effects of the Trump immigration ban first proposed in late January were still raw.
The New York City program organizers allowed PassBlue to interview two students after the tour. Constance Gervois, a student who wants to be a journalist (like her father), said the tour “really opened up my eyes about the different problems the world has.”
“I thought it was inspirational,” said her peer, Dylan Riley, who wants to grow up to be a chief financial officer of a human resources agency (like his mother). He was impressed by how UN officials on the ground risk their lives “to save people they’ve never met.”
None of the junior ambassadors wanted to give up their day pass to the UN, treating it like a precious object to save for the future.
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.