From the Mouth of Babes: Around the World, Youth Tell the Story of Their Leaders

As an American, I have always believed that the health of a nation is based on the common aspirations and welfare of leaders and its children—the current and future generations. During my time as Deputy Director at the DHS Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, A Center of the White House, I witnessed the commitment of a nation’s leader to the health and wellbeing of its youth, on a micro level and on a global scale. Our work was very hands on and immediate; implementing interfaith dialogue through service and action as a direct intervention in places around the country and world that needed it the most. Many were in localities overwrought with violence and unrest. I learned that no matter the adversity faced, any nation’s approach to tolerance and reconciliation defines its future. Where leaders, youth and these values of tolerance and reconciliation intersect, the essential productivity and security of each and every country is defined.

In the United States today, we have a younger generation profoundly impacted by an ominous dialogue; the tone, topics and tenacity of hatred and divisiveness, coupled with an economy that is looking more and more like it is good for a few, not for the many.

Not so long ago, we had a very different approach, and we saw the emergence of a new generation, inspired by leadership and a message – that we can do better, and yes, there is hope to be found in this world. And with the inspiration of a new millennial generation, we saw many sectors of the economy begin to recover and many more people become civically engaged. Unfortunately, is seems as though we are on the precipice of losing that momentum.

During my time as a White House appointee, I searched the world for countries that were either struggling to find a measure of tolerance, or were strong examples that we Americans could look at as a hopeful indicator of what could be. Unfortunately, in my tenure, I saw more conflict and hatred than cooperation. As an example, in the Philippines, an aggressive anti-drug policy is cloaked in the vein of reconciliation however, the approach is misguided and profoundly intolerant, and has essentially turned the nation into a police state and has destroyed lives, families and entire communities. When a leader addresses a problem as critical as drugs without applying the calculus of peace, the outcome is far from ideal.

On the other hand, there are outlier nations, where leaders infuse their most precious resource – the youth – to dream big and aim high. Nations that signify hope. In recent years, I have come to get to know one such country – Azerbaijan, a nation located in the Caucasus region between Russia and Iran. I have traveled to Azerbaijan twice, to meet and connect with various faith communities, youth groups, organizations and the general public. There I found a people that have, as part of their ethos, strong interfaith tolerance and cultural integration. It is a country that is majority-Muslim, yet with a government that is uniquely secular, and this country has been hailed as a beacon of hope, tolerance and a model for healthy reconciliation.

It was not always this way. Azerbaijan is a nation that has definitely endured hardship. When Azerbaijan had just gained its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, its neighbor Armenia, backed by those who did not wish to see Azerbaijan independent and free, invaded around 20% of its sovereign territory, expelling around 1 million Azerbaijanis from their homes and lands. This internationally recognized illegal occupation continues to this day, which does not allow the Azerbaijani refugees to return to their homes.

Despite these huge challenges however Azerbaijan is also a nation that has risen above the tide of adversity, time and time again. One need only visit to understand the ingredients for success that Azerbaijan has been working with. It’s a small country in a troubled region, with a strong economy, an incomparable literacy rate (99%), and a remarkably hopeful youth. It’s a nation that has approximately 1 million refugees, but has never asked another nation to take care of its own. It’s a nation with a leader that is the embodiment of humility, hard work, and a healthy approach to reconciliation. Some mainstream media have often portrayed Azerbaijan with certain bias, and yes, the country has had its growing pains, but the actual experience of seeing Christians, Jews and Muslims of all ages, living peacefully side by side and praying together is far more informative than propaganda.

There are places where leadership serves the next generation; where education, freedom of faith, opportunity and economic strength abound. And there are many places where this is far from the case. But the ones that are making it work serve as an example to the rest of the world. We must ask ourselves: what can we learn from those leaders in nations, such as Azerbaijan, that we can apply to our own standards for leaders and goals for our younger generations? And what can we learn from those nations that do not achieve this, and do not approach adversity or opportunity with health or humility? For nations that have shifted under new leadership from a place of hope to a place of hardship and isolation, how can we draw lines in our own sand and assure something better?

The answer, I believe, is in repentance, restoration and reconciliation. In short, we must turn away from (repent) the bitter divisiveness to show the next generation a better way; we must restore the dignity and civility to the tone of dialogue and discourse; and we must reconcile ourselves and each other to the truth that what we do today has the ability to affect many generations after us—for good or for evil. Let’s all take a deep breath and think about the model we show and the legacy we want to leave our youth: maybe we can find glimpses of that in the nation of Azerbaijan.