Flashback with me for a moment.
Date: November 24, 2007
Location: "Youth Trendsetters" working session room, Center for Environmental Education, Ahmedabad, India
At the end of a long, challenging, and inspiring day, we, the youth voices at the conference, were tasked with integrating ourselves into the greater conference. The conference planners had done a fantastic job of creating opportunities for youth voices to enter the conversation, from leading working sessions, to facilitating the creation of Recommendations for the larger conference Declaration (that will later be widely spread to UN offices, governments, policymakers, etc.), to speaking at plenaries. Now the youth voices had to step up and fill those roles.
As Christy has already reported, Jie Chen, I-YEL alumni and beloved Urban Trailblazers Instructor, volunteered to lead a working session. And I, spurred by a playful "Aekta, Aekta, Aekta" chant from fellow CFC delegates, volunteered to speak at the "Setting the Tone" plenary on the opening day of the conference.
Below you'll get a chance to read the transcript of the speech, but before jumping to that I must give some context.
Planning for the speech the conference organizers helped me gather a group of excited, fiery, young people, my "speech-writing committee" Ernesto and I now jest. What came out of the meeting was a strong, and emotional, sentiment that youth and the education for sustainable development movement were just not being listened to. And, the culprits were not just the usual suspects like corporations, but leaders in the environmental community itself.
Ernesto, Jie, and I took these thoughts late into the night, and composed a manifesto of sorts, which I presented the next day. I am proud to say that the message has truly resonated with the 1,500 international delegates here in Ahmedabad, and I hope it will with you as well.
(Note: Once we have better access to media, we will upload the video of the speech, but for now, enjoy the words)
So many times, when “youth” are brought up to stage to speak, it is for the wrong reasons:
It is because they have been loud and pestering and you want them to shut up
It is because they are just sooooo cute and make for great photo opps
It is because by doing so you can check “youth voice” off of the list as “represented” or “heard”
But, there are also right reasons to have a youth speaker:
It is because you want to hear a diversity in the voices that are speaking
It is because you want to ensure that all voices are given a stage
And, most importantly:
It is because you want to listen.
We do not listen anymore. There is a lot of noise: TVs blasting, Radios singing, Cars exhausting, Politicians politicking, Rickshaws, just being rickshaws.
Listening is a simple idea, but as with all things that are simple, it is actually quite complex. Listening is made up of many dynamic elements.
Listening is trust, trust that what is being spoken is true, for the speaker, and in the speaker’s heart and trust that you will have your turn to speak too.
Listening is respect, not necessarily respect for the words that are being spoken, or even the ideas being spoken, but respect for the person that is speaking the words.
Listening is Power; listening is the vehicle through which the tools of action are disseminated and gathered.
Listening is Leadership; you cannot lead if you do not know what those you are leading need. The world needs strong leadership, the world needs listeners.
It is time to let the listeners lead.
In traditional education, adults (teachers) speak and the youth (students) listen. We all know this framework. But, how can the teacher teach effectively if s/he is not listening to the student? Let us change this paradigm. Trust, Respect, Power, Leadership, let us introduce these dynamic elements into the teacher-student relationship, and, why stop there? Let it flow into all of our relationships. Youth are your disciples, but they are also your colleagues, they are your mentees and they are also your mentors. Let us all become listeners and so, let us all lead.
So we’re talking about listening versus hearing, but, how does one listen? I’ll tell you, you see, no good teacher speaks without providing the tools to act.
Listening happens with all of your senses.
You listen with your eyes…during this conference look around at who is at the table, whose voices at the table are speaking, who is not at the table at all. How can those missing voices be represented. How can you help represent those voices.
Listen with your ears. What words are being spoken, what words are being repeated, what words are not heard, what words are getting lost, what words are not being spoken.
Listen with your heart. Forget the words for a moment, listen for the meaning behind what is being put forward. What are the thoughts being represented, what are the truths in the passions being shared. What are the needs that are being revealed, what can you do to meet those needs. Be a colleague, be a disciple, become a mentor, become a mentee.
We need so badly to listen.
We need to Listen to the earth. Future development, sustainable development, should promote a healthy human-earth relationship, a holistic, systemic framework for all of our processes. Of this I will not speak more because I think, I just have this feeling, that there are many more voices at this conference that will speak to these needs.
We need to Listen to the voiceless. Those who were not able to make it to this conference, those that are “marginalized” and “underrepresented”, those who do not have a vote, those whose voices have been taken away from them again and again, those who do not have the privilege to have a stage to stand up on to declare their thoughts. At this conference, when we are framing our recommendations and our solutions, keep in mind those who have not had the opportunity to give their voice to this debate, for if we do not include their needs, if we do not hear their voices, we have not truly solved anything.
We need to Listen to each other. So often at conferences the topics at hand get lost. Agendas are pushed, attendees, and speakers, repeat what has already been said, over and over and over again. This is a waste of time and energy. Now this is truly ironic to me at an Environmental Education conference. It is a waste of ENERGY. ENERGY being WASTED, at this conference. Listening can be our new energy-saving measure!
The voices of today’s youth are repeating what was said by youth at the original Tblisi conference. Of the UNESCO conference 10 years ago, 5 years ago, 1 year ago. Voices are not being listened to. Words are written down, heads nod, photos are taken, papers are exchanged and declarations are made; but the voices are not listened to.
Here at this conference we will draft statements and recommendations, bold and visionary; shouting out to the world. We want the world to take these recommendations. We want the world to listen to us? And the world should listen to us… But how can we ask that if we haven’t even listened to each other yet?
I’m going to tell you a story. A few days ago I was sitting with my cousins and my aunt; we were making plans about going somewhere around Ahmedabad. And I turned to my aunt and I said “Yes yes, we should go, the kids should come to, we should bring the kids”, and my 13 year old cousin looked at me and said, “hey, what do you mean “kids”, are you not a “kid” too?” And it struck me, she was right. Are we not all youth? Do we not all have a spark, a curiosity, a freshness? And, do not all “youth” have advice, solutions, and wisdom?
We need to listen to all the voices inside of us.
At this conference let us bring all voices to the table, let us make a commitment to each other to really listen. Remember, with listening comes respect, trust, power, leadership, and, I left one out. Responsibility. With listening comes the responsibility to act. Let us take on this responsibility together youth, adult, teacher, disciple, mentor, mentee, Leader. We will listen to the earth and we will listen to the voiceless. We will listen to ourselves, and we will listen to each other, and then, the world will have to listen to us.
It is time to let the listeners lead.