DAVOS, Switzerland — “I was a little skeptical and excited because of what Davos is,” said Erica Williams of her sense of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting prior to arriving.
Williams is a senior strategist at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, an incubator for social change projects that use technology and media to engage people in the political process.
“It’s the world’s elite coming together to talk,” continued Williams, and, from a distance, “it seems indulgent.” No one articulated what the impact was to her before she arrived. But the value of being at the annual meeting, known simply as “Davos,” soon became clear.
“I understand why it has been challenging to articulate the impact,” said Williams, during a conversation in one of the Congress Center’s many gathering rooms, surrounded by reporters and attendees, such as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde who sat merely steps away. “It really is intellectual conversations about pressing issues.” Williams had just finished a breakfast meeting with Russian investor Yuri Milner and Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent.
A Global Shaper from Washington, D.C., Williams works with young people under 30 to advance issues and causes in the political process. She also talks to politicians about the needs of young people and how to reach them. Think of her as a lobbyist for the young, but without the expense account. Her work, to date, caught the attention of Van Jones, whom she worked with at the Center for the American Progress. Jones recommended Williams to the Forum as a Global Shaper. She subsequently applied and was accepted to attend Davos.
“In the larger sense, I wanted to get an understanding of how people in this level of power viewed not just our generation, but the role our generation has in shaping the world,” said Williams, taking a break from typing on her iPad.
She wants to go back and tell her constituents, young people throughout the United States, that there is a space for them at the table. She especially wants to make sure that message is clear to the young person who would qualify to become a Shaper, but may lack a clear path to the organization.
“Really we’re all the same,” said Williams of young people and the rich and powerful she had met so far. “The impact they are looking to have is the same...the fundamentals are the same.”
“I look at what people offer the world,” she said, describing how she interacts with various stakeholders, “and I change my message to reach people wherever they are. But, fundamentally, I ask them the same questions.”
But interacting with individuals who, on an average day, are inaccessible — hidden behind a wall of schedulers and PR teams — has not lost its luster. “That has been one of the most fascinating parts of Davos,” said Williams, “ You don’t run up and meet every single person. But they’re here and relatively approachable.”
As a young person at Davos, Williams was quick to make clear that she understood the privilege came with a responsibility. Being here, she said, “makes our role much more critical,” since many young people perceive that there is a ruling class that has no room for them. “We have a place at the table.”
“It’s important they figure out where they fit,” said Williams.
When Williams gets back to Washington, she plans to share that message as much as she can.
“After a two-day nap,” she said, “I am certainly going to share the experience and tell a lot of people about it.”
And she acknowledges that every year at Davos is unique, so, “for that reason I would love to come back.”
Kolawole is a Global Shaper attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. She is the editor of the Ideas@Innovations blog, and the Innovations and On Giving sections.
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