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Reaching out to young Middle East leaders to advance U.S. foreign policy

At just 30 years old, Andrew Rabens is building bridges between the United States and youth leaders in the Middle East and North Africa.

In his role at the State Department as a special advisor for youth engagement, Rabens’ job is to focus on helping empower young people in this region to positively affect their communities and countries. His work is part of a larger ongoing commitment by the U.S. government to support active citizenship and greater political and economic opportunities for young leaders.

“Over the past couple of years and with the Arab Spring in particular, we have seen immense fundamental changes that have swept across the region and that have created an atmosphere for expanded engagement,” said Rabens. “We have new opportunities to build relationships with an even larger demographic of youth in the region.”

Rabens works with 18 embassies and one consulate to build and strengthen their youth networks by identifying the important issues, finding common interests and addressing challenges.

One of the key ways that Rabens has increased outreach and communication is by working with embassies on the creation of the Youth Councils, which bring together a small network of youth leaders to advise the ambassador or embassy leadership on key issues. For example, in Algeria, Rabens said the ambassador and his leadership team have used the input from their council to take on the challenge of youth employment.

Andrew Rabens of the State Department. (Jason Beren)

In addition to Algeria, there are six youth councils in the Middle East, including ones in Jordan and Israel. There are plans to start councils in Egypt and Lebanon.

Another effort has been through the Active Citizen Summit, which was held this past fall in California and Washington, D.C. The summit brought together 60 young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to help them expand their capacity to be active citizens within their communities, to strengthen and expand relationships among one another, and to provide them with a window into the American political process and society.

During the summit, all of the young leaders presented ideas for how they could tackle an issue facing youth in their country. For example, Rabens said, one delegate from Saudi Arabia had an innovative idea for putting together a carpool network of women to help get more women in the workplace. Participants are now in the process of implementing their projects.

“The Active Citizen Summit was one of the more exciting successes in my time at the State Department. It was an amazing group that consisted of Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, Israelis and Palestinians – many delegates whose governments would not talk to each other, but the youth delegates were willing to talk to one another and challenge each other. They saw people as people,” he said.

Mario Crifo, deputy director of the Bureau of Near East Affairs’ Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said Rabens has helped establish connections between youth who wouldn’t normally come into contact with one another.

“Andy chooses the right issue to engage them such as promoting entrepreneurship in one region and social media in another, and is sophisticated in how he chooses the right tool for this engagement,” Crifo said.

Rabens’ success in building strong youth networks played an important role in September during the uproar over an anti-Islam video that drew protests in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Rabens led an effort with colleagues to reach out to youth in the region to not only get a better perspective of what people were thinking on the ground, but to also talk through how they could potentially respond to the challenges and negative press and images resulting from the protests.

Rabens said he hopes that by helping to provide extra resources, networks and connections, these young leaders will play more active roles in their respective societies and push their policy ideas and initiatives forward, which will not only advance their own interests, but also overlapping with American interests.

“The challenges that we face, especially as young people, whether it’s in Berkeley, California versus the West Bank or Jerusalem, are very similar. Ultimately, we all want a pretty similar shake at life,” said Rabens. “The conversations you are having with your friends at Starbucks are the same as the ones at a Stars and Bucks coffee shop in Ramallah. There are the same personal and political desires and challenges and future aspirations. There’s a sense of a small-worldliness.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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