And you get a head
A head full of dreams
You can see the change you want to
Be what you want to be
“A Head Full of Dreams” by Coldplay
I grew up in a generation with a head full of dreams – dreams of peace and cohesion, sustainable development, and the power of the individual.
As a child first learning about the world, I listened to my parents wax lyrical about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines – all of which happened a few years before my birth. I grew up hearing The Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” and Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” on Sundays when my dad would fire up the stereo at full volume. I watched the nightly news with my mom and saw various wreath-layings and fetes celebrating people like Nelson Mandela who glittered like superheroes on our TV screen.
As a high school student, I felt the very sands shift beneath my feet when the United States elected its first African-American president. In Manila, crowds celebrated the election of the late former President Benigno Aquino III with the spirit of People Power in tow. And a few years later, hope for our dreams and for continued positive change crystallized into a name and form: the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs established in 2015.
I remember attending a massive event in Thailand in 2015 as a youth leader representing the Philippines. Boasting 2,000 youth participants from over 190 countries in attendance, One Young World was likely the biggest youth event to happen that year. Crowding across the colorful venues and busy streets of Bangkok, our objective was simple: to learn from one another, get inspired, and take action for the change we want to see in the world.
And that we did.
When I attended One Young World that year, I was several years into my journey in the development sector working for peace and education in conflict- and poverty-affected areas mostly in Mindanao. Events like One Young World were fuel for people like me; the best practices, connections, and opportunities we gained from these change-a-thons pushed us to expand our work. Many of us targeted more communities, received more grants, grew our partner base, and fine-tuned our impact as a direct result of these events and the networks they built from.
Of course, it was never easy. I was working for a non-profit organization at the same time as I was contending with college exams and grades, crushes and boyfriends, and learning how to drive a car, but I could feel the momentum in my veins: I was involved. I was hopeful. And the SDGs served like a glimmering lighthouse urging me forward. It could only get better from here, I felt, and I wanted to play my part in that ‘better’ – no matter how small.
But as the decade wore on, it felt as if a pin popped my expanding head of dreams. Reality was calling.
As the world trudged toward 2020, I felt different winds of change blow. The rise of social media changed the fabric of democracy as fake news campaigns and divisive propaganda riled up voters everywhere from the Philippines to the US to Brazil. The damage was felt offline as much as online – with conflict and terror prompting waves of millions of refugees across the world. And climate change was no longer a hazy nightmare that Al Gore pulled up on the PowerPoint screen; it was happening right here, right now.
I still felt hopeful. I was still involved. I still knew I had momentum – as a youth leader, as an advocate for peace, as a dreamer – but I was contending with forces I couldn’t fully grasp. My momentum started to sputter.
Then COVID-19 happened.
As the world slowly and painfully adapted to the shock and uncertainty of the first months of the pandemic to the careful adjustments to a “new normal”, I started to gain an understanding that my work, my objectives, and my hopes will never be the same. And, perhaps, it was never the same to begin with.
Though I had the same brave dreams my parents had in the 90s, the world was being shaped by complex forces spreading like wildfire. Call it the worst effects of capitalism. Call it inequality. Call it exploitation built upon colonialism. Call it the terror after the war on terror. Call it injustice. Then while these fires were spreading, the nuclear bomb of COVID-19 razed everything else.
But I am still standing here, albeit battered and shaken. In the aftermath of it all, I find myself in my late 20’s, still working in the development sector, still somewhat a youth leader, and still a dreamer.
I feel that my years of idealism and innocence comically coincided with a world characterized by SDG change-a-thons, the full might of a united United Nations, and the supremacy of High School Musical’s “We’re All In This Together” on TV.
But today, I need to sing a different tune – one that fits more snugly with the realities of a world forever changed by the pandemic, technology, and an already-changed climate.
First, I have to continue to believe in the power of youth even though I am no longer that young myself. Today we have the largest generation of youth in history – 1.8 billion people between 10-24 years old – and that presents a massive opportunity. They need to be supported – with basic needs, education, and opportunities – so they can maximize their potential, and they also need to be supported to represent themselves and to lead. They have more skin in the game than the rest of us; the decisions we make today will affect not just their general well-being but their very existence on this planet years and decades from now.
Second, I have to concentrate on efforts that reach people where they increasingly are – whether it’s on TikTok, Discord, or whatever the new Facebook is some years from now. Digital technologies may have had a lot of adverse effects on the world, but I still think these tools could be skewed towards good. There have been a lot of innovations in remote learning, climate adaptation, food technology, and so many more areas that could very literally save lives.
Lastly, I owe it to myself to sustain – as long as I can – this head full of dreams even if those dreams are now different.
One thing I am completely certain about is that hope is infectious. From my parents’ mealtime stories, their songs, and the news we all watched together to the faces of the leaders and heroes we grew up with, SDGs, and One Young World, all of that constituted my ‘why’ – why I sacrificed studying or hanging out with my friends to organize the next book or computer donation, why I toiled over sleepless nights to raise funds as a small organization, why I ended up ignoring my parents’ pleas to visit battle-torn areas escorted by the military or by local security.
The dreams of those older than me, the dreams I can still capture from conversations and change-a-thons and YouTube videos, and the dreams of those I work with who are far braver and more generous than I can ever hope to be – all of these dreams still continue to fuel my ‘why’. And if I could keep my own beacon of ‘why’ lit up for others, then I should.
My head full of dreams may have changed, but my heart is still in the game, and maybe – in the most difficult of times – it’s the only thing that matters.
Note: This piece is inspired by lessons learned from the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) held in Singapore in September 2022.