Integrity in Action: Empowering the Youth as Catalysts of Change

By James Jimenez

I wanted to share the message I delivered to a group of young men, at their moving up ceremonies.

Today marks a significant milestone in your lives. You stand on the brink of an exciting journey, armed with knowledge, friendships, and dreams. This is a moment of celebration, reflection, and anticipation for the future. It is a great honor for me to have been asked to share this special day with you.

When I was informed of this year’s theme – “Integrity in Action: Empowering the Youth as Catalysts of Change” – I took the time to reflect on what integrity truly meant. You see it’s one of those buzz-words that people like throwing around, without really knowing what it means. So allow me to share some of my reflections on the matter – as informed, I hasten to add, by my history as spokesperson of the Commission on Elections for nearly 20 years.

Throughout my long years speaking for the COMELEC, I’ve found that integrity, at its core, is about being confident doing even the most unpopular thing because your actions are founded on moral principles, rather than on a desire for personal gain. It is about speaking truth to power with as much conviction as one might speak truth to stupid. It is about expecting people in power to hold themselves to a higher standard – expecting them to do the right thing, even when no one is watching – or, in the case of pre-voters such as yourself, when you’re not even qualified to vote yet. Integrity, you must remember, is not a passive trait. Sitting around and bewailing the ills of the world while doing nothing about it is pointless – meaningless. Integrity requires action. It is about deliberately leveraging your values to guide your decisions; to drive you to the kind of action that would influence the world around you.

Did you hear what I called you?

I called you pre-voters. Young people on the cusp of adulthood, just about ready to take on the awesome right of suffrage that all citizens are entitled to. As pre-voters, you have a unique and powerful role to play in shaping the future of our society, even though you can’t vote just yet. To put it very simply. your duty to democracy starts now.

In a democracy, every vote counts and every voice matters. Elections are the bedrock of this system, providing a means for citizens to choose their leaders and hold them accountable. Yet, the health of a democracy depends not just on the act of voting alone. This is a common mistake made by people with an incomplete grasp of democracy. The truth is that the health of democracy relies, in equal measure, on an engaged and informed electorate – yes, including those who are waiting in the wings. This is where you, gentlemen, become – as Rizal prophesied – the hope of the fatherland.

But I can’t vote yet! Some of you might be thinking to yourself. That’s not my responsibility, you might say. I would argue differently.

Gentlemen, age does not isolate you from the world. Even with your tender years, are you not exposed daily to the dysfunctions of our society? Do you not see all the many ways that things could be better, but are not? Are you not weighed down by the cynicism of some of your elders? Rizal understood all of this and he never advocated that the youth should focus only on flowers and butterflies, on love songs and basketball games until they turn eighteen; that they should wait until that landmark birthday and then suddenly emerge a fully-formed and functional member of democratic society.

No. The fact is, long before you even cast your first ballot, you are already a member of this democratic society. And while the conventions of society limit your ability to take action at your age, there can be no limits to your mind, to your passion, and to your determination to make the world a better place.

Where do you start? I say, first, educate yourself and others! Make the effort to understand the issues that affect your community, your country, and the world. Seek out the news – the real news about things that matter, not the fake kind that only serves to entertain you with gossip and hedonism. Engage in discussions, seek out diverse perspectives, and critically analyze the information that is available to you. Knowledge is power, and an informed citizenry is an unstoppable force.

Get involved! Don’t simply stay on the sidelines, as though democracy were a spectator sport. This is what the Sangguniang Kabataan system is for. Some of you will certainly be entertaining thoughts of throwing your hat into that ring, and I encourage you and your parents to go for it! And if the SK isn’t your cup of tea, well you can still get involved on so many other levels, without necessarily running for office yourself.

The bottom line is this: by getting involved, you learn how the system works and where it can be improved. So when your time comes – as it inevitably will –your fresh perspectives can bring new ideas and energy to the political landscape.

Be an advocate for change. It is no accident that this year’s theme is about catalysts of change. That’s you! You are the catalysts of change, YOU make change happen. Whether it’s through the content you put out on social media influencing someone to your point of view, or writing letters to your representatives, or organizing peaceful demonstrations, your advocacy can bring attention to important issues and drive change.

And most importantly, lead by example. Demonstrate integrity in your daily actions. Be honest, be fair, and hold yourself to the highest ethical standards. Even if you aren’t always recognized for it, your actions will inevitably inspire others to do the same. Like a stone thrown into a pond, your daily commitment to doing the right thing in the right way will create ripples of integrity and positive change. Strive to make yourself the epicenter of that change.

Your participation in the democratic process is not just a right; it is a responsibility. Despite your age, your actions, fueled by integrity, can transform our society. By engaging now, you help ensure that your values and your vision for the future are represented.

Gentlemen, the challenges we face are great: climate change, social justice, economic inequality—but they are not insurmountable. The excellent education you receive here, together with the molding of your character by your mentors – your energy, your passion, and your commitment to doing what is right – all of that come together in each and every one of you, to give you the power to create a better future.

As you move on up and embark on the next chapter of your lives, carry with you the lessons you’ve learned from your years here, leading up to this moment. Embrace the values of honesty, respect, and responsibility. Be courageous in the face of adversity, and never underestimate the impact you can have.

Today, we celebrate your achievements, and know that the future is yours to shape. Be the leaders who guide with integrity, the citizens who participate with purpose, and the young men who inspire change.


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