This week marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly. While climate change, labor rights and many other important topics will draw a lot of attention, much of the focus will be on solving the massive refugee crisis and ending the conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria. Of course, during any conflict, it is often the children who suffer, which is why we were thrilled to sit down with the remarkable Casey Rotter. Head of UNICEF's NextGen initiative, Casey has dedicated her life to lifesaving initiatives for the world's most vulnerable youth by pioneering engagement and philanthropy among millennials in a field where their passion, energy and generosity has previously largely been ignored. We are honored to speak with Casey about her life's mission, how she doesn't give up hope in the face of such despair and why sustainable fashion plays an important role in providing opportunity for children. If you are interested in getting involved visit: www.unicefusa.org/nextgen
Row+Rue (R+R): What drew you to UNICEF and the cause of children? It's obviously a hugely important cause, but was there one story or experience that really drew you to UNICEF's mission to as opposed to deciding to work in another area of the UN or for another organization?
Casey Rotter (CR): I think there are a few different aspects of my life that led me to UNICEF, starting with my paternal grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, and my mother, who has volunteered throughout her whole life. Because of them, I have always been cognizant of global issues and valued the importance of philanthropy. Giving back was inherently part of my life from a young age. My mother and I were huge fans of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn, and I remember trick-or-treating for UNICEF as a child.
In college, learning about the Rwandan genocide and the situation in Darfur hit close to home. I became active in my university’s UNICEF Club and organized a panel with a few of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Listening to their stories and hearing about the organizations that helped them get to where they are today – in a position where they can and choose to give back to their own communities – deeply inspired me. At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to be involved with a humanitarian organization like UNICEF in some way.
R+R: What inspired you to start NextGen? Why was it important to get younger philanthropists involved? And in your experience, are millennials lazy members of the "me generation" as FOX News portrays us, or have your NextGen members been supportive, active and engaged in the work you are doing?
CR: I was pursuing a Master’s in Fundraising and Philanthropy at NYU when I noticed a recurring theme amongst guest speakers: most organizations were experiencing an aging donor base. I had already started interning at the U.S Fund for UNICEF in their Development department and I wondered if we were experiencing the same issue. I did an age overlay of our database and found that our average donor was 63 years old. I decided then to write my thesis on how and why nonprofit organizations should engage their next generation of donors and supporters.
Regarding the ‘me generation’ or the ‘slacktivist’ generation, I can see how if you haven’t worked with millennials, you might have that sort of opinion, but that has not been my experience at all. I have actually found that the majority of millennials want to help – they are the most globally aware, well-traveled generation. They see themselves as global citizens and want to make the world a better place – most of the time they just don’t know where to turn.
Millennials are passionate and dedicated and have so much to offer. They see their time, money and skills as having equal value and are eager to share all three in support of a great cause. Because they are very visual, they need to see how their support is making a difference. Their support is palpable - they become your social media mobile task force, enhancing grassroots efforts on all levels. They are dedicated to making the world a better place, and they will devote their money, resources, networks, skills and time to make this happen – thank goodness, since there just so happen to be more than 80 million of them (us)!
R+R: Your job involves a lot of travel and going to a lot of events and parties (we're around if you have an extra ticket or three!) We think the hashtag #JetSetterForGood would be a good addition for your personal brand. Thoughts?
CR: We currently use something similar, #NextGenTravels. Check it out! We encourage our members to use this hashtag when they are traveling around the world, visiting UNICEF supported programs in developing countries, or meeting with other NextGen members and/or UNICEF staff in different countries. The millennial generation is always traveling and it is awesome to keep track of where everyone is via Instagram. I love when our members post photos with other members they ran into, or excitedly share a photo when they happen to pass the UNICEF office in France, or see a ‘Change For Good’ sign on an airplane! It’s a great way for us to stay connected and celebrate UNICEF’s work.
R+R: You've traveled the world for various projects. Many of them are obviously desperately sad. Have you had a experience or interaction with a child where you had an "a-ha" moment of where you felt sure why you were doing what you were doing and that you were making a difference. Conversely, have there have been times with the situation is so overwhelming that you felt a moment of helplessness?
CR: There have been quite a few of these moments. The most recent one was actually not during my travels, but while reading a Huffington Post article about a mother and premature baby whose lives were saved thanks to a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In reading further, I learned that it was a UNICEF supported hospital, and when they mentioned the name – Yekatit 12, my whole body got chills. Yekatit 12 is the hospital that NextGen chose to fund as one of their first projects in 2010, and the article was talking about THE actual NICU that we funded. It was such a personal and special project for us at the time, as many of our members were having their first babies, and dedicated their baby showers to the project. Maternal and newborn health took on a totally new and personal meaning for our members. A few of us actually visited the hospital in 2011 when the NICU was being built. Reading the article, I was reminded of why we do what we do, why I work for UNICEF, and why I am so proud of NextGen. It was a very special moment for me.
Conversely, I often ask my colleagues in the field, who are dealing with the issues, policies, governments, barriers and children on a daily basis, how they cope with the hopelessness, and what keeps them going when it all seems too daunting, too big of an issue. I usually get a response that is a rendition of this: in those times, you have to think small, think of one child at a time. You know the saying ‘you save one life, you save the world’? That’s what we have to focus on. If not us, then who?
R+R: Right now there are dozens of human catastrophes that are particularly affecting children but none bigger than what is happening in Syria? What programs or aid missions have you launched? Have you had any success? What do you think the future holds for the Syrian children and what is UNICEF and NextGen doing to help?
CR: Unfortunately, I don’t think the world is paying enough attention to this conflict. UNICEF is working both in Syria and in surrounding countries to protect children and provide them with food, water, medicine, education, shelter and more. NextGen spread awareness about the issue and also raised $500,000 to provide access to education for out of school children in the affected regions. These funds were matched by the Education Above All Foundation, so that over $1 million was transferred to UNICEF to get Syrian kids back to school or at least in some sort of educational atmosphere.
We cannot stand by as this conflict continues, now entering its fifth year, leaving a generation of innocent children out of school, some who have never even entered a classroom. There are nearly 6 million displaced children, with more than 2.7 missing out on their education. This is unacceptable and we must do more about it. I encourage everyone reading this to please check out #nolostgeneration on social media and visit www.unicefusa.org/migrantcrisis to see how you can make a difference.
R+R: As you know, sustainability is a complex issue, particularly in fashion. To codify it, we at Modavanti have come up with a badge system. What issue matters most to you in your life (Organic, Vegan, Fair Trade, Artisan, Eco Friendly, Made in USA, Zero Waste, Recycled)? Do you wear sustainable clothing? Why or why not? And in your work have you either seen any positive impacts artisanary can have? Or the dark sides of the fast fashion supply chain such as child labor?
CR: Fair trade would be first on my list, given the nature of my work. It is very important to me that consumers know where their clothes are made and by whom. Know your consumer footprint!
Our current NextGen project supports global and local child protection, which includes our work against child labor. I am also passionate about supporting local artisans from all over the world, and purchasing recycled, zero waste (our upcoming UNICEF Masquerade Ball in Chicago – www.unicefmasqchi.org – is actually a zero-waste initiative!) and eco-friendly clothing materials. I absolutely love supporting women’s artisan networks and companies/organizations that have or support women empowerment programs.
R+R: Lastly, what's next? Where is NextGen headed? and what's next for you? Will we see you as The General Secretary anytime soon or do you have work left to be done at NextGen? Most importantly, whether it's money or volunteering our time, how can we get involved with UNICEF NextGen and the great work you are doing?
CR: What’s next? I would LOVE to see NextGen members and leadership communities in every state across the country. Right now, our NextGen Steering Committees are based in NYC, Chicago and Los Angeles, with a powerful growing presence in Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston, Houston and DC. We have members representing nearly half of the states.
We also have international NextGen programs in Vietnam and London, and we have seen a growing interest in Tanzania, Copenhagen and the Philippines. I would love to see NextGen grow to be a powerful international network of thought leaders, philanthropists and investors in developed and underdeveloped countries, working together to advance UNICEF’s work and save and improve the lives of even more children around the world. As for me, I am just looking forward to working with these incredible people and cannot wait to see what we will continue to accomplish together on behalf of the world's children.