I just watched First Lady Michelle Obama address the young people of South Africa from a church in Soweto, and found her message to them particularly insightful. She talked about “true” leaders who lift up families, sustain communities and transform nations. “That kind of leadership rarely starts in palaces or parliaments,” she said, “but in the smallest acts, in the most unexpected places, by the most unlikely individuals.” The First Lady underscored that today’s youth are not tomorrow’s leaders but today’s. “When it comes to the challenges we face, we simply don’t have time to sit back and wait,” she said. “I’m here because I believe that each of you is ready, right here and right now, to start meeting these challenges.”

This week, I met a few outstanding young leaders who have clearly taken up the First Lady’s challenge. They came from Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala, and Peru to offer their insights and recommendations to a group of high level leaders meeting in Washington, DC. The topic of the conference, sponsored by IYF, was how to ensure more young people in Latin America have the skills and the opportunities to get a job, start a business, and realize their fullest potential.

Juana, Guillermo, Maxsalia, Luis, and Cristina aren’t members of the Congress or the Parliament in their countries. But they are already leading change in their communities. They already know how to lobby those in power to help them get things done. And they certainly aren’t waiting around for permission to take the next step. They are tackling those problems right now, and mobilizing their peers to join them.

And these aren’t small challenges, either. Guillermo is helping to organize young people in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where violence, drugs, and hopelessness are threatening to overpower their communities. Recognizing strength in numbers, he is helping the city’s youth to coordinate their efforts to improve conditions in the city, and working with the government to help register youth-led NGOs so they can raise funds and build programs more effectively.

The challenge that Maxsalia, age 23, has taken on in her country of Jamaica is teen pregnancy—the highest rate in the Caribbean— and the spread of HIV/AIDS among Jamaica’s young people. Like Guillermo, she is unafraid to walk the halls of power—and has already lobbied US Senators and officials at the State Department and USAID, stressing the urgency of improving reproductive health services in her country. For now, she is uninterested in going into politics.  “I’ve learned that once people get elected, they lose their focus, they lose their will.” But she admits that some day, she may run for Prime Minister.

These young leaders lent real value to the proceedings at the DC conference. Their recommendations and insights demonstrated a high level of sophistication and knowledge around the issues. They also offered great stories and made us laugh. “This role offered us an opportunity to show young people can contribute at every level,” said Guillermo, “but we are also opening up space for the young people who are coming next.” They rightly believe they should be at the table shaping the policies that impact their lives and so deeply. Their stellar performance at this meeting demonstrated, once again, the value they would bring.

The First Lady told the young leaders of Africa: “There are so many causes worth sacrificing for; there is still so much history yet to be made.” I was grateful to have spent time with some of Latin America’s dynamic youth this week. They already know what’s worth fighting for and what needs to be done. And they will make history, in small ways and large. But they also know they can’t do it all by themselves.