Written by Andrea Byfuglien
The youth delegation together at the UN General Assembly
Increasingly, youth are interested in participating in discussions of sustainable development and solutions for climate change. However, consultations and high level meetings can often fall short in meaningful engagement with youth. Currently, the Major Group for Children and Youth (the official voice for young people at the United Nations) only has one seat to contribute to the conversation during the High Level Political Forum. Improvements are needed to increase youth involvement to be representative of this growing demographic that constitutes 40% of the world’s population. Youth (people below the age of 25) are more educated, connected and politically active than ever before, and our future is closely linked with that of our planet. Youth should be recognized as essential stakeholders for sustainable development and included as co-designers of policies, programs, and plans.
As a Master’s student at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC), my research focuses on sustainable behaviour change. In particular, my research examines how we can educate people and motivate action on sustainability and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the product of the world’s largest consultation exercise, and serve as a common vision of the world we want by 2030. They aim to promote shared prosperity, environmental sustainability and ensure that progress on sustainable development leaves no one behind. With a focus on behavioural science and the SDGs I was supported by UBC Botanical Garden and their Sustainable Communities Field School to engage in youth leadership training and networking. This experience culminated in the “SDG Bootcamp,” which just finished.
The Bootcamp Experience
Since March, I have had the privilege of participating in the “SDG Bootcamp,” a youth leadership training program for the SDGs. The bootcamp aims to provide youth with the skills and knowledge needed to take action on the SDGs and provide opportunities for putting these skills into practice. It sounded like a great opportunity to learn about activism, driving change and to develop my skillset. I doubted I would get in, but I was lucky enough to be accepted. Little did I know I was about to commence a truly transformative experience that is ongoing.
The bootcamp started out on the Sunshine Coast as a group of 20 participants. Here we explored our personal connection to the SDGs and why we wanted to see a change in the world. What was unjust in our eyes, and where did the desire for change come from? We shared our experiences, our vulnerabilities and our personal stories. In doing this we opened up a space for the group to form close relationships, and enabled dialogue of issues such as power, privilege, inequalities and the climate crisis. We continued this personal and collective development in the second retreat, where we grew even closer as a group and learned about collaboration, group dynamics and conflict resolution. The community building from these retreats served as a catalyst for the final retreat; a trip to New York City to attend the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) at the UN Headquarters.
The High Level Political Forum
The HLPF is the UN’s annual sustainable development conference and the main arena for assessing the global community’s progress on achieving Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Different Goals are assessed every year, and over two weeks in July, Goals 4, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 17 underwent a thematic review. Official proceedings, special events and numerous side events organized by the UN, different governments, NGOs and civil society organizations took place in parallel, and I felt immensely privileged to be given the opportunity to attend the HLPF and represent British Columbian youth.
Being present at these high-level negotiations allowed us to gain a systemic view of the issues we had been exploring in the bootcamp over the past months. For me, this renewed a sense of urgency. It was inspiring to meet and witness leaders, businesses, governments, organizations and individuals from all over the world who come together to collaboratively address and work towards the SDGs. Yet, the HLPF is a rigid structure within the UN system where things happen in silos and change is slow. We are currently not on track to reach the SDGs. There was so much talk of action that needs to be done, of how next year and the coming five years will be pivotal for global action. What about right now? Moreover, time and time again it was brought up how crucial it is to include the voices of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and marginalized populations in these negotiations. Yet, as youth delegates we experienced exclusion from certain conversations, and tokenization. To achieve the SDGs, it is crucial to include everyone in decision-making spaces. As youth currently have only one seat to contribute to the conversation during the HLPF, this hardly seems representative.
My delegation hosted a side-event where we spoke about intergenerational equity and the SDGs. Intergenerational equity refers to future generations having the same rights as the present generation. We aimed to show this as a core principle within the SDGs, providing a voice for younger and future generations to inspire collaboration and accountability for action. Our event was held at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, and with the Canadian official delegation to the HLPF present, we called for intergenerational equity to be included in work towards Agenda 2030.
The event started with Eden, one of the youth delegates, doing a beautiful territory acknowledgement that included meditation and gratitude to the Lenape People, whose traditional land we were on. With this gratitude, we also opened up a space of mindfulness, vulnerability and community. Throughout the event we highlighted current best practices of intergenerational equity implementation by governments, explored what intergenerational equity means as a concept within Agenda 2030, and considered what meaningful youth inclusion looks like. It was an incredibly powerful experience to sit down with government officials, delegates, and business leaders to discuss inclusiveness in the decision-making of a future that concerns us all. How could those in positions of power open spaces for youth voices? For the conclusion, we had asked a member of the official Canadian delegation to provide concluding remarks. In response to what we had been talking about, she abandoned her script and spoke from the heart about meaningful youth inclusion and intergenerational equity.
With over 80 attendees present, including Canadian government officials, we spoke about how Intergenerational Equity is a fundamental component of Agenda 2030
There were also multiple examples throughout the HLPF that highlighted the potential and importance of inclusiveness and partnerships. Costa Rica is successfully establishing inclusive partnerships between public and private sectors to break down silos and accelerate change. Vanuatu had removed all hierarchies within their government consultations to allow for more inclusive spaces for citizens in decision-making. Ghana has a dedicated platform for coordinated civil society efforts in achieving the SDGs. This provides hope that forums such as the HLPF and the knowledge sharing that occurs there will enable a whole-of-society approach to problem solving and create the much-needed spaces where stakeholders, especially youth and other marginalized populations, can meet and shape decisions together.
Why this is relevant to my work at the Botanical Garden
We are all co-creators of the future. The SDGs can seem abstract and unachievable, so it is crucial to make the Goals relevant to individuals and communities. Their value as a framework for social justice and ecological sustainability requires them to be locally actionable and relevant to people. At UBC Botanical Garden, we work towards reinforcing the value of the SDGs. Through displays of garden landscapes, treetop adventures and programs such as the Sustainable Communities Field School we promote engaged citizenship by involving visitors in critical conversations on biodiversity, water conservation, sustainable food choices and consumption patterns – all grounded in the SDGs. In this way, visitors can go back and raise these conversations in their own communities.
Botanical gardens are crucial allies in the move towards inclusive, sustainable communities through their ability to reconnect people with nature. The global network of botanical gardens is already an established system that works across borders and communities to advance global conservation initiatives. In order to achieve the SDGs we need to adopt new mindsets and values that are different from those that caused the situation we are currently in. Instead of chasing profit and growth we should value social justice, women’s rights, education, biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Gardens are ideal spaces to foster a sense of belonging within our communities, to build strong partnerships, and spur local gardens for global goals.
I am still processing and integrating the learnings from this journey, but here are some main learnings and take-aways from the bootcamp experience and the HLPF:
The power of sharing – The bootcamp challenged us to open up and explore vulnerability and authenticity, which led to an incredible sense of community and psychological safety. We were also able to channel this energy to create a common objective and support each other during our time at the HLPF.
Be realistic but stay positive – There is a long way to go in achieving a socially just and environmentally sustainable world. A lot can be gained by moving from a problem-oriented to a solutions-focused approach. It is important to recognize achievements we are making and to be hopeful that a more prosperous future lies ahead.
Foster and honor resilience – Everyone faces daily battles and holds biases that are not necessarily evident. Both battles and biases need to be recognized and surface in order to build resilience and overcome the struggles that hold us back.
Hold spaces and work for inclusivity – Making room for quiet voices, and listening once they speak up, are skills that all can benefit from practicing. Privilege and power can be used to lift others up and create a more inclusive environment for all.
Conclusion and Next Steps
The bootcamp and experience at the HLPF have reinforced my desire to find behavioral solutions for the SDGs. Sustainable development has diverse meanings to different countries and people. Everyone’s realities and challenges are unique. To move away from business as usual we need localized, actionable solutions to the SDGs that are developed with respect, integrity and accountability in mind. This requires an understanding of people’s behavior and values, and spaces such as UBC Botanical Garden where bottom-up action can take shape.
Overall, having the experience of the bootcamp itself is amazing, but the community that has come from it is invaluable. I am excited to pursue the relationships and community that was established, and continue our work with purpose to create alliances and achieve a more just and sustainable future.