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An interview with King’s student Ishaan Shah – UN advocate

Ishaan Shah

Staff writer Diya Nadeem interviews King’s student and UN advocate, Ishaan Shah:

Current King’s College London undergraduate student, Ishaan Shah, juggles his studies, social life and advocating for the UN. Ishaan has created the organisation Stolen Dreams to help raise awareness on modern slavery and human trafficking, which led to the creation of The Youth for Freedom Collective in collaboration with Anti-Slavery International. His incredible work has led to his recognition by UN Women and his recent invitation to speak at the UN Women council in Turkey.

Roar had the opportunity to ask Ishaan a few questions about his philanthropic work and success.

Roar: What started your interest in advocating for gender equality, climate action and youth?

Ishaan Shah: It was in 2016, at the age of thirteen, that I first learnt that modern slavery and human trafficking still existed. I had learnt about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its abolition, however, I was completely unaware that those very exploitative practices continued to persist, deeply embedded in our socio-economic and political systems and societies, and hidden in plain sight. 

Curious to understand the issue more, I headed to the internet and started to research. What I began to notice was that the content online was complex and difficult for me as a young person to understand. There were also not many avenues for youth and adolescents to get involved beyond raising awareness. While the climate and gender movements were including, albeit in a limited capacity, youth voices, the mainstream anti-slavery movement seemed disconnected and isolated in its own bubble. Simultaneously, I asked around 150 children in my cohort at school if they knew that modern slavery existed. Not one of them knew. 

On any given day in 2021, 50 million people were trapped in situations of modern slavery. 1 in 4 are children, and 1 in every 130 women and girls globally is in modern slavery. This is not an issue happening in faraway countries and communities, it exists on our doorstep, in the clothes we wear, foods we eat, technology we use and potentially on our highstreets. Moreover, this is an issue that is intrinsically linked with many other global issues we face today including, climate change, gender inequality, and conflict.

It was a combination of these factors – the outrage of learning about modern slavery, seeing the disconnect between the movement and young people and acknowledging my own privileges – that I decided to dedicate my life’s work to supporting anti-slavery efforts. Thus, Stolen Dreams was co-created. 

R: Can you tell me briefly what your organisation  ‘Stolen Dreams’ is about?

I: Stolen Dreams was co-founded in 2017 as a youth-led collective working to raise awareness about modern slavery and human trafficking. Since then, we have grown into an international group of young people that are determined to drive concrete action through education, advocacy and policy. Our projects include educational outreach in schools, providing support to young people who are engaged in their own grassroots anti-slavery initiatives, collaborating with established organizations and intergenerational partners in the sector, and providing policy advice to local governments, international and regional intergovernmental organizations, and their Member States. 

We spend much of our time with organizations, policymakers, experts, academics, writers and educators, learning from the best minds in the world on these issues. Since our launch, we have traveled deep into the anti-slavery movement, always learning at speed. Our core aims involve recognising intersectionalities, promoting intergenerational partnerships and ensuring the meaningful co-leadership of youth in decision-making processes to drive comprehensive and concrete action.

To further support our goals, in partnership with Anti-Slavery International, The Anti-Slavery Collective and grassroots youth, we launched The Youth For Freedom Collective. The Youth For Freedom Collective is the first international youth-created, youth-led and youth-focused anti-modern slavery collective. Through promoting youth co-creation, co-leadership and co-ownership within the anti- modern slavery movement, we aim to ensure young people are centered in anti-slavery efforts. The Collective acts as a unifying force to facilitate a bridge to the gap between youth and the existing anti-modern slavery movement; to understand the role we play and how we can best support efforts as valued partners. Our core guiding principles include raising awareness, collaboration between stakeholders, driving action, promoting meaningful youth inclusion, exercising accountability and recognising intersectionalities.

It is only through seeing young people as more than beneficiaries of change, and rather, as valued partners and co-leaders at the decision-making table, that we can see greater progress towards ending modern slavery and human trafficking in all their forms, wherever they may occur. 

R: Advocating, studying, exams and a social life: how do you balance it all? 

I: Balancing it all is challenging. There are times when I can be incredibly efficient and productive, but there are just as many times, if not more, where I struggle to build the motivation to complete even the most basic of tasks. 

Our lives, as privileged as they are, are demanding and ever evolving, which requires us to move at a fast pace. Burnout, fatigue and even mental health challenges are common experiences that many people in advocacy spaces feel. Yet, each of our experiences are common but differentiated. While I have had, and continue to have my fair share of burn out experiences over the last five or so years of human rights advocacy, each time I reach a stage of such intensity, I am reminded of the support and wellbeing tools that allow me to, on the whole, maintain some sense of balance.

Personally, there are four tools that I use to maintain a balance between advocating, studying, exams and a social life:

  1. Being in touch with my own feelings and knowing how to respond to challenging situations, for example periods of heightened anxiety or stress.
  2. Having a strong support network of family and/or friends who I can mutually rely on has been a huge factor in taking care of my wellbeing. 
  3. Having a clear sense of planning, listing priorities and routine to my day, although this does mean making some sacrifices (and maybe a little FOMO), means that I am able to plan ahead and (try to) avoid last minute deadlines. 
  4. Respecting and maintaining boundaries, so that when the day does come (and I know it will come again within the next month) where I feel that I am on the verge of burnout, I must take a step back and look after my own well being regardless. 

Ultimately, today, working in the human rights space feels like my foot is wedged in a door that is repeatedly being slammed shut. But what I always find it imperative to remind myself, is that when your own foot is sore and tired, and you feel overwhelmed and frustrated, it is reassuring to know that there are incredible people – especially young people – and some amazing organizations who will keep the door open for a brief moment on your behalf whilst you take breather.

R: What has been your most impactful or rewarding experience as an advocate so far?

I: There have been countless moments of impact and rewarding experiences throughout my advocacy journey – from launching Stolen Dreams, and later The Youth For Freedom Collective, to receiving awards, speaking at the United Nations and engaging in intergovernmental negotiations. 

However, for me, grassroots work and impact are the most rewarding experiences. Going into schools, educational settings, youth groups and dialoguing directly with children and young people is inspiring. We get to talk and teach children as young as 7 about modern slavery and human trafficking. While at first they are shocked that modern slavery exists, we often see that they are then determined to take action. Very often they do – from starting conversations about the issue at home and writing to their Member of Parliaments, to choosing to slow their consumption of fast fashion and even locally sourcing their vegetables, seeing the will to act from children is powerful.

R: How can we educate ourselves about human rights, gender equality and climate action?

I: When educating ourselves about human rights, gender equality and climate action – all tremendously broad topics, underpinned by thousands of years of history, politics, culture, theory and more – we have to be proactive and decisive. Educate yourself by reading books, going to events, listening to podcasts, talking to colleagues and friends – there are so many ways we can educate ourselves. But I encourage those willing to learn, to also be open to unlearning, and to also make sure that the sources you are absorbing information from are diverse and reflect society, to avoid the risk  of learning about these issues from one dangerous perspective.

It is also crucial to acknowledge the privileges you hold, whether it be the fact you have access to an education, to technology, and to basic human rights. In doing so, you will feel uncomfortable in the things you read and learn, and I implore you to lean into those feelings of discomfort, because that will encourage you to translate that awareness into action. 

The global challenges we face today are often too broad and systemic for one person to combat; it can often be overwhelming at times, especially in the current dire situation our planet is in. In recognising this, and in understanding the power imbalances that exist in advocacy, whereby we need to see the political and corporate will to act, it is important to pick your niche. Find the area you are passionate about or determined to bring about change, be proactive and learn, speak to the people and communities impacted, and find your unique way of taking action online and offline. 

R: How can others get involved in advocating for causes they are interested in?

I: There are many ways one can get involved in advocacy. Volunteering, attending events, raising funds for organizations, even changing your own consumption behaviors or dismantling harmful gender norms in the household are all forms of advocacy. No matter how big or small the action, there is always a change being made – and it is at the grassroots level where these are felt most. 

This means being proactive and finding the ways to engage that you feel most suited to and comfortable with. Read the books, volunteer your time, hold a fundraiser, write to your Member of Parliament, engage with your local government, start conversations in the spaces you occupy… there are many ways to get involved in advocacy. 

Nevertheless, we must remember that engaging in advocacy is a privilege in itself. The opportunities and barriers to engage in a UK context vary from many other States whereby it is incredibly dangerous to advocate for human rights, climate action and other forms of political, social and environmental justice. 

Of course, if you would like to get involved in advocacy related to modern slavery, gender equality or at a United Nations level, do feel free to contact me. 

R: How did you get involved with the UN?

I: My first interaction with the UN system was when I was invited to speak at a parallel event during the UN’s 65th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65), which is the largest intergovernmental gathering globally to convene, discuss and advance gender equality. I spoke on a virtual panel about combating human trafficking, especially of women and children, providing a youth perspective to the conversation. It was during this CSW65 that I met a group of incredible young activists who were supporting UN Women in engaging more young people in the Generation Equality Forums that were being hosted to promote multi-stakeholder action to advance gender equality. 

Since then, I have been engaged in the UN system in various capacities, holding several mandates. My positions include being the first Youth Focal Point for the Review and Implementation of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a UN Women National Gender Youth Advocate, the UN’s Migration Youth and Children Platform (MYCP) Contemporary forms of Slavery and Trafficking in Persons Specialist, the first Youth Representative on the UN Network on Migration’s Civil Society Action Committee, and a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Young Champion.

Ultimately, through these positions we are working with fellow youth colleagues, and intergenerational allies, to shift power imbalances and ensure that youth, in all our diversity, especially young people facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization, are being centered as valued partners, and as co-leaders of UN deliberative decision-making processes, across the entire UN system. 

R: What was it like speaking at the UN conference in Turkey?

I: I have had the privilege of speaking at several UN dialogues, forums, summits, intergovernmental meetings etc. While it is incredibly humbling, it is a tremendous responsibility and can be intimidating, especially when you are often the youngest person in the room or on the panel. Speaking directly to decision-makers whether it be behind closed doors or in public arenas means that you are responsible for conveying messages that are authentic, factual, evidence informed and co-created with youth, especially young people who are directly impacted by the topic you are speaking about. 

However, it is crucial to understand that speaking at the UN means going beyond delivering a statement or intervention. It means proactively following up with stakeholders on the content of that particular event / forum / space, holding relevant people accountable, and localizing that information by providing transparent communication and feedback to the grassroots youth and constituencies you represent or are part of. 

It was great to deliver the opening remarks at the UN Women Europe and Central Asia Generation Equality Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. The three-day Forum allowed us as youth to dialogue with stakeholders on how we can facilitate greater action by Member States and the private sector, through partnerships with youth, to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, in all their diversity and intersecting identities. We look forward to engaging further with the UN Women Europe and Central Asia Office as well as the other participating States and stakeholders in delivering on the momentum and commitments generated in Istanbul. 

Find Ishaan Shah on LinkedIn.

View the Stolen Dreams website

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