An incoming 12th grade senior high student of Ateneo de Zamboanga University represented the voices of the Filipino youth in an international meeting of government leaders and urban decision makers in Surabaya, Indonesia from May 6 to 8.
Joshua Rommel H. Vargas was one of only two youth who were invited by UNICEF to participate in “Growing Up Urban,” a conversation with mayors on making cities safe and sustainable for every child.
He went alongside Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco who likewise represented the Philippines.
The forum aimed at creating synergies between urban development and children’s growth through child-centered urban planning and budgeting in East Asia.
Further, the meeting gathered mayors, governors, and policy-makers in urban planning from 8 countries in East Asia including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines to share their best practices in championing children’s rights in their respective urban cities.
Vargas was later asked to give a commentary on the forum where he spoke about the youth being allowed to exercise their right to participation in shaping the direction of communities.
“The proposals that have been mentioned may be well thought-out and comprehensive, but ultimately I believe that no program would be complete without the creation of a feedback loop that allows the youth to directly influence the solutions to the problems they face,” he said to a crowd of about 50 who attended the meeting.
Vargas expressed that the meeting with government officials and their participation as youth came at a time when the Philippines was set to conduct its Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections, which had been halted in 2013.
Coming from the “very, very diverse” Zamboanga City, his hometown, Vargas also stressed the importance of focusing not only on the physical and economic barriers but the social barriers as well.
“We have to make sure that people of all groups and classes feel welcome to use social services, without the fear of stigmatization, insensitivity, or discrimination,” he said.
The varsity debater and student journalist ended his commentary by thanking the mayors who shared their best initiatives in their cities to make them safe for children.
“We can all agree that solving the urban paradox will make our cities, even societies, better—not only for every child, but also for everyone,” Vargas concluded.
As this was Vargas’ first international event, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be able to travel with a purpose.
“I love traveling in itself, but this time I was able to go where my voice can be heard and where I can be part of the discourse shaping the future of Asian communities,” Vargas shared.
Vargas is an honor student enrolled in the STEM strand of Ateneo de Zamboanga University in the Engineering cluster. He dreams of becoming a computer science researcher.
Other than excelling in academics, Vargas is an editor of The Oculus publication, a member of the Ateneo Debate Congress, and a founding member of the Ateneo Design Society.
His participation in the Surabaya meeting was made possible through the Ateneo Center for Culture and the Arts, UNICEF Philippines, and the City Government of Zamboanga.
Val Amiel Vestil / Ateneo Center for Culture and the Arts