A young woman in a wheel chair came up to the podium. “Ciudad Juárez is a place full of opportunity to be an agent of change,” she said. “The only limits are the ones inside of you.” Yes. This youth leader was talking about the same sprawling city of more than a million people located across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas, that most of us think of as the drug trafficking capital of Mexico, and one of the most violent places in the hemisphere. Yet for two days last week, I talked with young people who were showing us another reality of Ciudad Juarez: a city filled with hope – thanks to a growing number of youth activists who are fighting to reclaim their communities and restore peace and stability in their lives.

I was in Ciudad Juárez attending the launch of a new IYF initiative aimed to keep this city’s young people in school and improve opportunities for them to either get a job or start a small business. In other words, we are working to give them the space and the opportunities to realize a different kind of future than the one so many now face. All the major players attended the two-day event: top representatives from USAID, the Mexican government, leading NGOs, experts in violence prevention, and business leaders. But right from the beginning, it was the positive energy and passion of the younger generation that lifted us up and held our attention.

This city is losing people all the time—including some of its brightest young people—as a result of too few jobs, too much violence and too little hope. A staggering 3,000 people were killed here just last year, and 85 percent of those who enter elementary school don’t graduate from high school. Yet, ironically, the young people I spoke with have gained a new kind of strength and commitment to each other and their city as a result of this recent plunge into disaster. “All of this drugs and violence has helped my dreams grow bigger, not smaller,” says Alejandra Madero, 21, who is studying to be an architect. “Before all of this, me and my friends wanted to have fun, party, and just a regular career. Now we want to use our skills to help people and improve the life in Ciudad Juárez.” Like so many of her peers who are members of an informal group of young activists called the “Youth Network”, Alejandra thinks about how she can contribute to rebuilding her city. Her plan: to use her architectural background to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly homes made out of the earth and other natural materials that would provide shelter for the homeless. Some young social entrepreneurs are organizing cultural events for the younger kids to express themselves through art, music, and dance. Young doctors are working to ensure their neighbors get access to health care and emergency services. One young woman, trained as a psychologist, is working with families who have lost a child, parent, sibling or friend to the drug wars to ease their suffering. Alejandra says it’s important for everyone to be involved. “We don’t need a hero; we need all of us to become heroes.”

I wish more journalists who report on what’s taking place in this city had been with us last week, to hear these words of hope, and meet these deeply committed young people who are becoming such remarkable agents of change in their communities. Yes, this is a violent and unforgiving place. I just learned 39 people have been killed since I was there last weekend—all between the ages of 20 and 30. But when you meet young people who are working so hard to transform their city, and see the growing partnership of government agencies, business leaders, and civil society organizations committed to working together to support them, you have to pay attention. And when you do, you might have to begin writing a different story about Ciudad Juárez.