I am a privileged individual – there is nothing special about me, who I am, what I do, what I have experienced. I have grown up with comfort, clean water, a sense of peace and security, and both the access and the resources to obtain a quality education. I am privileged.
And yet, still, for a good part of my life, I stumbled around with a sense of unease, feeling discontent. You see, my parents, like an increasing number of people, were refugees. They left Eritrea in a time of war and took a winding path before eventually raising me here in the United States. Yet, I knew every day of my life that something was wrong with this story.
Surely, this couldn’t be the last page. Was this the happy ending? Was I the happy ending?
The answer is no. No I am not. This is not enough. This is not sustainable development, and it is certainly far from resilience.
Sustainable development is not having to leave your home, family, and culture behind to provide your children with an adequate life. Sustainable development is not millions of Syrians fleeing war only to often be met with disdain and rejection. It’s not having to conceal your language or culture in an attempt to conform, only to never truly be accepted. It is not this increasingly fragmented and polarized world.
Sustainable development is having the resources, access, security and tools to create new opportunities wherever you choose to call home.
You see, resilience is absent in a world that perpetuates ever increasing inequalities and ecological footprints. Our systems cannot keep alienating people and transgressing planetary boundaries. We cannot continue to undermine communities and consume more than the earth can sustainably provide.
And that is why I am so incredibly grateful that we are all here today – government representatives, policy makers, youth activists – we are committed to building more sustainable and resilient communities, everywhere and for everyone.
I want to take the next few minutes to share a few things I know about young people and what it takes to achieve transformational change.
Transformative change, an awakening, does not often happen in the classroom or in the office – it happens in the afternoon debates, the late night conversations that spark ideas, and the unadulterated drive of a tribe of young people behind a cause.
I’d like to draw upon my experiences working with the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA). IFSA is a globally organized and locally operating students association that connects, empowers, and educates forest science students. And as you can see, we also engage in formal U.N. processes. The work that we do fills a much-needed gap, by providing skills and knowledge currently lacking in formal education and pathways for collective action towards our vision of a world that appreciates forests.
To that end, we raise awareness of the sustainable development goals to young people, many of whom do not know them, and the varied ways that forests contribute to the 2030 agenda beyond number 15 – life on land. Let me share with you a few of them:
Forests are the quintessential global commons and the backbones of resilient ecosystems.
Forest products tackle poverty by producing income for surrounding communities. They provide carbon capture and storage to combat climate change. They play a significant role in safeguarding the human right to water while also being home to most of the world’s biodiversity. They host stores of indigenous knowledge…and their sustainable management can provide pathways towards gender equality, zero hunger, good health, sustainable production and consumption, and more items than I have time to speak on today.
To frame it more technically, they are indispensable for the achievement of the SDGs, the realization of the Sendai Framework, and the implementation of the new urban and territorial agenda.
But I’d like us to stop here – what can we learn from this?
Our world is not as simple as we would like to think. Our world is filled with complex interdependent systems. The good news is that we realize this and we’re all working towards a common goal. Our problem, we’re often doing it independently.
There is a need for holistic approaches produced by communities and stakeholders at all levels. And it can only happen when we’re all present, all talking, in the same room. I have the great pleasure of working with the Global Landscapes Forum, the world’s largest science-led platform for sustainable land use which seeks to do just that. We are breaking down barriers, connecting ideas, and accelerating progress through a movement that puts communities first in addressing landscape level issues.
As the youth coordinator to the Forum, my experience has shown me that we don’t have enough time to leave a vast majority of our population unengaged and unsupported. I’ve seen how the Youth in Landscapes Initiative transformed once eager students to young powerful leaders who have returned to their communities to tackle rural migration, promote climate smart agriculture, increase market access for producers, or become policy advocates.
There is an incredible amount of untapped potential in the young people of the world – those of us in the room, only represent a fraction, our constituencies, only represent a fraction, but we’re not here to change a fraction of the world.
So how do we reach them?
How do we continue to igniting small fires in each member of society? There are a few strategies to spread our work and I find they start with support, listen, and engage.
The first, support. There is a great quote that states “Most dreams die a slow death. They’re conceived in a moment of passion, with the prospect of endless possibility, but often languish and are not pursued with the same heartfelt intensity as when first born.”
Self-organized youth groups transform moments of passion into places for action. They actively fight against cynicism and provide the tools and resources for new ideas to thrive. We can’t underestimate the power of community.
We need to actively support the formation of youth-led entities and youth-driven areas of work to begin to claim inclusive development. It is not enough to hand pick one individual, one spokesperson or one leader for a seat at the table – it is about awakening and engaging all young people through community and supporting the mechanisms of adequate facilitation and representation through legally mandated and designated spaces.
In sum, actively support youth led organizations – they not only light fires but keep them alive.
The second, Listen – Once the communities are built and the mechanisms for representation are in place. Listen. Use marginalized groups and young people as indicators to whether we are achieving sustainable and resilient communities. Because when our communities are flourishing, young people – young women and girls, will be thriving.
The third, and the most often heard, is engage and include young people in decision making and implementation. Let’s be clear – you are not handing them a privilege, but conceding to their right. Make no mistake, young people will carry on the work whether they are included or not. And to many, this right is a responsibility bound to their hearts. They are not going to stand and wait for a seat at the table. We’re already here and out in the world dreaming, advocating and creating.
But let me be honest – this isn’t ideal, we don’t want to and cannot do it alone. We don’t want to fight for every partnership, every approval, every dollar or every seat. We don’t want to forever be sidelined in another room – having our solutions forever labelled youth and our projects touted as surprising accomplishments. I don’t want to forever be here, repeating the same things, sounding like a broken, uninspired record.
Engage. Member states we are waiting on you. If these groups that are already changing the world are not meaningfully engaged, you’re missing out on a chance to accelerate change.
And though I’ve found these strategies useful, they won’t be successful if we don’t hold and believe in this principle, truth.
Society benefits from an ever-expanding room of empowered stakeholders, an ever-expanding conversation of people fighting for change. It’s time to break down the divisions – across sectors, across age – to engage in the difficult conversations that can transform our world.
We’ve made the mistake of sectioning off our planet, ever dividing it by nation, fragmented by urban and rural areas, segmented into forest or agricultural areas. We have fractured ecosystems and inadvertently denied our communities the right to live in a natural harmony.
But don’t be fooled, natural harmony is messier than we’d like to believe.
Natural harmony involves fiery debates that run through and transform everything in their path. It can mean barren rock and rubble before witnessing a rebirth of early approaches alongside a blossoming of the new. Natural harmony is a stirring, buzzing incessant noise of different perspectives that all exist to reveal to us that life is flourishing.
It may be noisy, messy and complex in an ever expanding room – but I assure you, it is exactly where we need to be.
I have said this before, we don’t have enough time so let’s not waste our time here.
Greet each other, meet each other and use every ounce of your energy to make the most of this opportunity. Not for ourselves, but for those who cannot be here, our brothers and sisters, who don’t have this privilege.
Together, let’s make privilege a forgotten word.