It had been two years since the United Nations conducted its business in person, a period when world affairs veered dangerously out of control. More than six million people are dead from Covid, 27 million people have been forced from their countries because of war, hunger, racism or nationalism — and 13.7 million of these people are children.

And so last month I decided to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York city, specifically for an event called Justice for Africa’s Children. It was produced by Kailash Satyarthi, a friend and colleague of many years and the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Two organizations, the 100 Million Campaign and Laureates and Leaders, both founded by Kailash, organized the event.

The 100 Million Campaign is based on the idea that those children fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries should help those less fortunate left behind in poverty. Laureates and Leaders pulls together 80 Nobel Laureates along with dozens of world political figures to press the argument that the world needs to treat poor children with justice and fairness.

This is definitely something the world does not do enough of. For example, while the global economy has recently been adding two billionaires a day and 10 trillion dollars in wealth, fully one half of the world’s children (every other child) lacks one of the basics rights of life as outlined in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child — freedom from hunger, violence, disease, gender inequality, sexual exploitation, child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.

In my work with Media Voices for Children I have found that we do universally love our children, and there are people working for them in every corner of the world. But while children represent the future, our politicians have failed them miserably. We have let human nature and greed have the upper hand. We have taken the idea that if a problem is not visible in our own backyard, it doesn’t concern us.

So how is it possible for me to also feel a sense of optimism? Because I sense a sea change in awareness. I feel like a witness to a watershed moment when justice for children is achieved by a new wave of youth activism shaping our times.

I have worked as a journalist and advocate for children for the past 30 years, recording children being children, their resilience, their beauty, their innocence and our treatment of them — sometimes cruel and medieval. When I began my work, over 250 million children were working in child labor with 73 million doing hazardous work. Today, that number has been reduced to 160 million, a reduction of 90 million children, while 64 million girls are in school who had never entered a classroom. This is what real change looks like. This is what’s possible.

We know from firsthand experience what works to end child labor: social protection programs, cash transfers to pay parents to send their children to school, investing in communities, investing in girls’ futures, giving children the opportunity to speak their truth to power. And we know that each barrier placed in the path of a poor child robs us of a potential scientist, legal scholar, artist, musician, entrepreneur. We lose when they lose. We lose the potential each child has within them.

At the Justice for Africa’s Children event I was joined by a young, new board member at Media Voices for Children, originally from Costa Rica who was visiting New York for the first time and attending this one of a kind session. It was a great pleasure for me to introduce Fernanda to Kailash and see him welcome her to this historic event.

To me, the speeches that mattered most came from young activists who had themselves been trafficked, sold into slavery, forced into the worst forms of child labor. These survivors are now leading a global movement to pressure our politicians to enforce the laws on the books against child exploitation, increase humanitarian and development aid, expand education, address gender parity and protect refugee and disabled children. Their passion and honesty, their life experience in the face of the worst treatment imaginable, was sobering and inspiring.

We speak of our children as “the future” and indeed they are. But one impassioned girl from India who had been sold into child labor put it differently saying: “We are the present!!”

The global community has not kept faith with the world’s children. Justice means fairness. Americans are fair and generous people. As the world’s leading economy we need to take the lead and commit the money. In the end, it comes down to money and political will.

The day before, as I arrived at Kennedy Airport, I saw a sign that filled an entire wall. It was inescapable. It said, “Welcome To New York City — We Welcome Everyone."

That the word everyone was underlined made me smile.

Len Morris is co-founder of Media Voices for Children. He lives in Vineyard Haven.