Youth sitting on a sandy beach, bonfire burning, someone playing the guitar. It was September 27, 1995, one day before Mikhail Gorbachev would convene the first State of the World Forum (see Planetary Pulse section in this issue), and 32 youth from 28 nations were beginning the Youth Summit that would be a part of this historic gathering. The sun setting over San Francisco Bay cast an orange, red brilliance that silhouetted the Golden Gate Bridge.
The guitar man on the beach was Charlie Murphy, a diversely talented leader from the YMCA Earth Services Corps. He invited the young people gathered around the fire to enter a ceremonial space, to touch the sacred in a way that would give meaning to the events they would experience over the next five days. Charlie sang songs of the Earth, read the words of the North American plains tribes, and with the gift of his own passion, brought the group into a space where they too could share themselves.
A large piece of canvas was nailed to a sheet of plywood that stood before the fire circle. Charlie dipped the fingers of one hand in a container of green paint and with a deliberate sweep of his arm spread the paint to form a large circle. He said it was to represent our planet.
"How would you like to touch this world?" he asked. Each youth, at their own urging, approached the canvas, chose a paint color to dip a hand in, and placed within the circle some symbolic marking that reflected how they wished to touch the Earth. In a few words they shared its meaning with those around the fire.
A young man from Moscow made the shape of a fist. He said it was for strength, the kind we needed to work together and make something big and important happen. Droplets falling from a raincloud symbolized for a South African young woman her wish to bring hope back to the parched lives of those in her country. A peace sign was added, two hands grasping one another, a rainbow, and a clover for good luck. Two drops of blood, one for nuclear threat and one for ecological destruction were smeared in bright red as youth from Brazil, Malaysia, the United States, Thailand, and Canada stepped to the canvas.
Serving as a Conscience
The Youth Summit schedule included small-group work sessions, conversations with State of the World Forum fellows, and attendance at Forum plenaries and roundtable discussions. After Forum activities had concluded for the evening, adult leaders from government, business, science, and the arts would join the youth for further discussion.
The Youth Summit’s primary architect, Worldlink Foundation president Kirk Bergstrom, said the design emphasized interactions between youth and adults that would enable the youth to make their voices heard to the world community and serve as conscience to the Forum.
But, this group of youth was not interested in simply talking or listening. They wanted action. They recognized that they were inheriting ecological destruction, economic disenfranchisement, and political exploitation and they were anxious to get on with making a difference. They were ready to transcend blame, bridge the generation gap, and build a cross-generational partnership to change the world.
Through the night …
Speakers from the World Forum joined the youth each night to talk informally about topics ranging from primates to economics. In these near-midnight sessions, the passions and frustrations of youth and adults would often meet. One evening’s dialogue touched on the effects of privatization and free markets in China. The explanation that the Chinese government wants to allow "some to get rich first" did not sooth the suffering that a young woman from Hong Kong felt for those she knew were hungry. She implored those whom she perceived to have influence to "please, do something soon. Our people need help."
A young man from Thailand described in horror that in his country monkeys were injected with a drug that would induce a facial expression of terror, then quickly slaughtered for their unique marketability as ashtrays. He wanted to know what he could do.
Jane Goodall, who was attending that evening’s after-dinner conversation, heard him with her heart, and she let him know she knew. She asked other youth for their ideas. In the discussion that ensued the story was told of how a young man posed as a cook on a tuna boat to capture on film the inadvertent slaughter of dolphins trapped in the nets of the tuna industry. The release of those images changed the practices of that industry.
It was in moments such as these that the qualities of the new citizen Gorbachev was calling to come forward began to emerge. This citizen is one who listens deeply and brings into partnership the unique attributes of both youth and adults.
Through the day
The youth delegates were dispersed in five facilitated work groups, each with its own area of focus. They used a consensus-building model to develop a problem statement, a preferred state, and action steps to achieve it.
In five days of small group sessions, one statement was most often repeated by the group facilitators: "Does this make sense?" The statement was used to help resolve conflicts, bridge barriers of language, and arrive at thoughts, plans, and actions for which each member of the group, and the group as a whole, could share ownership. An affirmative response to the question meant the group could move forward.
Through this process the youth developed a written agenda for the 21st century in the areas of leadership, the crisis of spirit and meaning, the environment, the economy, and youth involvement in the United Nations. Each youth also chose and designed a service project for implementation in their home community.
The excitement, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs the youth experienced found their stage in the closing plenary of the State of the World Forum. Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands, had introduced each roundtable speaker and each had presented a report from several days of meetings. Only the youth representative remained to speak when Lubbers began to introduce Gorbachev, who would make closing remarks. It appeared that once again the youth had been encouraged to have a voice only to be forgotten in the end. But as Lubbers continued, he explained that Gorbachev had invited him to host the session with the proviso that Gorbachev himself could introduce the youth delegate.
And so it was that Gorbachev introduced the youth in the light of his own experiences as a young man, affirming what he believed to be a principle of leadership that required the energy of youth and the experience of older people to work together. He suggested that while experience can protect us from being reckless, youth serves to protect us from conservatism and stagnation. Synthesis is required.
Gorbachev introduced Melanie Parris (see Melanie’s article below), the youth delegate from Trinidad, who echoed that call:
"We have come from several different nations, we have come from the farthest parts of the Earth, we have come because we have a vision, we have come to save our home. We have tackled the giants of language barriers, skepticism, fatigue, and frustration and emerged victorious.
"We want you to know that we are committed to action. For us this conference was not just about talking, making links, and networking. It is about action, it is about supporting each other, empowering each other, and believing that we genuinely can make a difference.
"We are here because we genuinely believe that we can do that, but we are also here because we know that we need you as adults. We believe that the generation gap can and will be bridged. We are going to do it together."
The ceremonial beginning on the beach came back to mind. The Youth Summit and the State of the World Forum shared a moment in history, that most delicate moment, when hope provides the only bridge between the day departing and that being born.
To get a copy of the Youth Summit Agenda for the 21st Century, write to WorldLink, 3629 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94118, tel. 415/931-6952.
by Luciano Zimmer,
I really believe in consciousness and worry about what will happen if people start thinking that the human being is the worst kind of creature. It’s misguided. The power to communicate and convince people can lead them in a good way or in a false direction.
I admire my father. He had a vision and he always thought that it was important to dream. He started many things, but not just to be successful and have a career. He wanted to be happy and be proud of being here.
That is why I think it is important above all to ask: What is our objective? What is our quest? Why are we on this planet? Are we just born to grow up, get old, and die? There are some things in life that we are responsible for, like being joyous. If we don’t know why we’re here, we at least know that we should work for the next generations and above all we should be happy. We should work with hope.
When I was about 16, one year ago, the way I was thinking started to change my life. Before that I wasn’t worried about why I am here or what my role in society is. Then I started to realize that tomorrow, not only me, but all young people will be responsible for society. So I decided to work for the community. I started working as a volunteer for the Citizenship Project with people in the poor district of my city. The project helps people with medical and psychological problems in their family. Most of the time what happens in Brazil is that people are only given food to eat, and most of them are still unhappy. I wanted to feel what it is like for people unhappy with themselves. I started working with them, and I noticed how I was being changed by that experience. It gave more value to what I have, to what I am. It strengthened my will to help people like that because it is a big step towards a better society.
I am starting to be aware of the importance of communicating with people in order to have balance in life. It is important to convince people of the importance of the problems and of being happy. I think if you want to convince someone, you speak with one person and then speak with another; doing that spreads those ideas. I’m doing that already, and it’s incredible. You don’t see results right away, but you see things start to change. Each of us has to get the idea that you can help someone, and that by helping someone you’ll leave a better world for the future.
by Anja Hamalainin,
Some people think it’s cute to have young people at the Forum, it’s cute that they are so worried, and it’s cute that they want to come here and talk about these things with adults.
But I think they now realize what we are here for. We know about economics, we know about business situations, we know about the different conditions around the world because we ourselves come from different places. I think they have finally realized that we really have something to say, and not only to say – we also want to act.
For me animal life is a huge issue. Finland just joined the European Union in January, and I learned how they transport animals in the European Union area because some countries want to get their meat fresh, to slaughter the animals themselves. They try to transport the meat alive. It is just horrible. If the animals aren’t able to walk, they keep hitting them with electric prods. And they are moaning and screaming, those animals, and nothing is done to stop these things! I think it is just as important as climate change or that we have too many people on the planet. It’s just as important to me because I have lost many nights’ sleep thinking about these things.
Being at the Summit has been important for me. I had met people from other countries before, but this is different because we have the same role. We are like one person, just different nationalities. It’s amazing how similar we are inside even though we are from different countries. We are different, we have different cultures and ways of speaking and acting, and still, we had to be able to unite and work as equals in a small group.
I was the only person from Finland. There are a couple of people from Russia. I thought that there might be some controversy between us but there wasn’t. It was just great to work with them.
One thing I have learned here is never to trust stereotypes. It’s great now be able to tell other people "No, you’re wrong; the Russians aren’t anything like that or most of them are not." That’s something really good to know.
by Melanie Parris,
Trinadad and Tobago
It does something for me to see people laugh, to know that they have peace and joy. It also does something to me to see people cry, to know that they hurt, because their pain is my pain. I care about the fact that so many young people are depressed and frustrated. I have watched suicide rates in my country and all over the world. Every day more and more people kill themselves. Why?
Because they are unhappy. Because they do not experience love. I believe that as human beings we gravitate to love just like moths gravitate to light. When we feel like we are not accepted, then it depresses the system – physically, emotionally, spiritually. You could destroy a person by hating them. Some believe that good things can come out of hate. Like if you put pressure on a certain group through discrimination, then it forces them to come closer together, and something good comes out of the bad situation. But do they need to be discriminated against in order to be united? I say no.
I believe that each person was created special. When we tap into that potential which was created in us, we can achieve what we were meant to achieve. That is why I believe it is important to love your neighbor as your self. Anybody around you is your neighbor. Your brother, your sister, the grocery store owner, and everybody else in the world is your neighbor as far as I am concerned. I want to be treated with love, with respect. I want people to look beyond the stereotypes and to see me. I want to be listened to and heard for what I am saying. I want to be supported and encouraged to really fulfill my potential. And so I must treat people in that same way. I think if people in the world were to live this way, we would develop healthy relationships.
Sometimes love is tough. If you are a corporation and you are raping the land, then I could love you by taking action that would prevent you from doing what you are doing. Whether you know it or not, you’re hurting the environment, you’re hurting me, and you’re hurting life. I don’t hate you for what you’re doing because I know hate will destroy me. But if I could stop you from doing the thing that you’re doing, then that’s love. I look for laws that you are breaking and I let you know that if you continue doing it, I am going to stop you. Hate is a beautiful motivator, it inspires a lot of passion. But you can have that passion without the hate. Hate has destructive qualities and destructive results.
For example, if I am an environmentalist and I believe in protecting the environment, and you are a company destroying the trees, aren’t you a part of my environment? How can I say I love the environment, but I hate you? Can you love a tree and hate a person? Love your whole environment. There are trees in your environment, animals in your environment, people in your environment. Love them all. If you do that, then you won’t just be helping the trees, you might also help people. Because people are attracted to love, then they’ll be more likely to listen to what you say.
I’m saying that because I have counseled teenagers. That’s what our peer counseling was all about. The Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago took a group of young people and trained them in basic communication skills and counseling skills. We worked with youth on any kind of problems that came up, from arguments and time management to pregnancy and pregnancy prevention. That was one of the best things that I have ever done because it opened me up to be able to really reach people. So I know the power of love. I learned to ask myself how I would feel if I were in their situation, to feel what they feel, and then to try to find solutions to problems.
I’ve seen people turn their lives around because they know you love them. In the beginning they don’t think they have the power to change their lives. When people are on drugs, at first they don’t think they have the power to get off it. They look in the mirror and they hate what they see. Then they meet somebody who really believes in them, who is willing to surround them and support them with love and practical encouragement and guidance, and to just accept the person beyond the addict. They discover through the power of love that they can do all kinds of things.
by Bernadette Babaran,
Langapa City, The Philippines
I’m 18. I’m now in college studying accounting. I’m the third child in a family of five. I was seven years old when I started working on the street as a vegetable and plastic bag vendor. My parents came from poor families and were not able to finish school. They were not able to find stable jobs to provide for the needs of the family. My mother used to work in the street even when she was a child. My father is a mason, but the work is seasonal and most of the time he has no work. So I had to help them.
Our parents taught us how to work in the street. I was really fortunate that my family is intact, and I wasn’t like other children, who sleep in the streets, so I’ve never been involved in some activities of the other street children – like taking drugs.
I used to envy the children who went to school. My parents wanted me to finish my studies. Some parents oblige their children to work rather than study and go to school. I’m lucky my parents are not like that.
Even my teachers told me, "You can make it. Work should not be your priority. You can study in the mornings and work in the afternoon after classes."
So I thought I could do that even if I had to sell candy at school.
When I was in my first year of high school, I met the coordinator of the Urban Basic Services Program started by the United Nations Children’s Fund. They had an educational program for street children and I got one of their scholarships. This program gave us a lot of seminars, trainings, and sort of turned me into a different kind of person.
Street children are children who have lost their hope or never had it. But this program made us realize that even though we came from the most difficult situations and feel that we can’t do anything for society, we can still do something to make things better.
Now I’ve reached the stage where I can talk to people – I can share what kind of life I had before. It’s difficult to share; it’s a part of my life that sometimes I don’t want to recall.
In 1991, we organized ourselves according to our trade – pushcart boys, newspaper boys, the scavengers. I was elected president of my organization, and later, president of the federation made up of all these smaller organizations.
When the federation tries to solve problems, some young people, laugh at us, "Oh, that’s corny!" Maybe they really are laughing at the thought that youth can do anything and maybe they just think that it’s not their responsibility. But we don’t want the young people to keep thinking that way.
I am hopeful that we can have a better future. This lies not only in the hands of our leaders. It lies in the hands of every individual living in this world. The young people can do something to make the world more progressive and a safer place to live.
If not us, who will solve all these problems? If we don’t start it now in our generation, who will start it?
by Phumelo Motene,
Hillbrow, South Africa
Globally we have a lot of problems. If things continue as they are, we’ll be getting to the stage of total collapse. These problems are defeating the adults. They’re making so many mistakes; they’ve become so narrow-minded and fixed in what they believe.
For a very long time I’ve had so many ideas, but none of these could be put into practice. I feel that I need to stop blaming the next person. By coming here to this Youth Summit, I’m saying, "I want to take the blame for a change. I want to do something instead of blaming the next person."
The world at large somehow has this idea of young people as being not very constructive, as being sort of out of line. They think we are useless in the community. But I think that’s not right. When you disapprove of people, and don’t listen to them and tell them they’re not good enough, they actually will not be good enough. Imagine how many great ideas and how many great people you would develop if you gave them a chance by listening to them.
Everybody I’ve met has had an impact on me. Every single person, from the lowest to the most high. I’ve learned so much from people who don’t usually talk to anybody because they believe, "Oh well, who’s going to listen to me?" I think the mistake the whole world is making is thinking that until you’ve had an education, until you can speak English, you’re not wise. But if you give everyone the same amount of respect in the beginning and appreciate them, you will see how much more you get.
When I speak of South Africa the first word that comes up is "hope." We kept going on hope. The adults who told their children "Listen, my love, someday we will get it right." I don’t think they really expected it to come right, they were just saying it. They just kept hoping that because of the belief and the trust they had in themselves that someday – they didn’t know when – it would come out right.
And now it’s happened. Nelson Mandela is president. And he has had an incredible influence on everybody. There was one day when he called the widows together from both the extremes. He said, "Your husbands and you were involved in all this in the past. And I know that you on one side of the table hate the person on the other side of the table. But at the end of the day, we are at the same table. And if you want to give your children a future, if you don’t want your children to suffer the way you suffered, we need to settle this among ourselves."
South Africa has taught everybody a lot of things. We’ve made our mistakes, but if there’s one thing we can show the rest of the world it’s that if we can get through our problems, anybody can.