Moments of Empowerment, Enabling Change and Inspiring Commitments

Joanna Tao, a previous Young Reporters for the Environment student, won a FEE scholarship through YRE to the 9th University Scholars Leadership Symposium, run by the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. The below article was written by Joanna, about her experiences at the Symposium.

A young journalist’s life changing experience at the 9th University Scholars Leadership Symposium – Bangkok, Thailand 2018. 

It was certainly one of those moments, where anxiety takes over and uncertainties unfold in front of your eyes as you hop onto the plane to an unknown destination. Travelling non-stop around my beautiful home country New Zealand for a month before taking off to Thailand, I was as nervous as I could ever be.

The United Nations Flag outside of United Nation Conference Centre in Bangkok, Thailand, 2018

Going to a foreign country and the United Nations conference, it all seemed too surreal. Before a second thought about this could appear, I landed in Bangkok, Thailand on a hot and humid night on August 1st, 2018.

The purpose of the conference was to empower young people and create positive social change, I had the privilege to meet 1057 young delegates from 87 nations around the globe. With global citizenship and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals being the core focus, we were united as one to start that global movement. As a Young Reporter for the Environment (YRE) journalist, I have captured some significant moments and the sparks that gave me hope for the future within the conference.

 “Never delay Joy. Nothing is impossible. Love is all there really is.”

Geraldine Cox, an Australian Diplomat who devoted her life in Cambodia as a champion of children’s welfare and served deprived children for many years. A fearless mother providing support and education for thousands who are so unfortunate. Arriving in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1970 after knowing she was unable to have a child of her own, the 25 years old Geraldine joined the Department of Foreign Affairs with hopes and dreams of a life away in Paris. Instead, years later she came back to this country where she then built Sunrise Cambodia in the early 1990s and continued to support 2000 children living in the community as well 120 children living in residential care until today.

As Geraldine unveiled her journey in Cambodia and her dedication to creating a better future for the next generation, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by how one individual’s baby steps can change a new generation, how one’s passion allowed her to achieve the unachievable and her dedication continues regardless of how big the obstacles are. Nonetheless, I was inspired, with my heart moved and torn apart by the stories told of children from Sunrise Cambodia. Her stories and the empowerment she provided these deprived children gave hope to all the delegates in the room, leaving each and every one of us speechless and in tears.

“There’s only one life and it will soon be past, only what’s done in love and for other is what will last.”

“I constantly ask myself: ‘What am I going to do about it? What am I going to tell my grandchildren I did in the face of this issue?’” – Tim Peters, USLS 2018.

For 20 years Tim Peters has struggled to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea, a country in crisis. The neglect and denial of 23 million people’s human rights in North Korea is currently one of the world’s most significant humanitarian issues. Many North Koreans run away in search of freedom and to escape from fear, intimidation and a totalitarian government. They try to escape illegally from the country, and many of those caught doing this are subjected to brutal beatings, public executions, forced abortions and imprisonment in prison camps (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2018). With a record in  2017 of 85% of the North Korean refugees being women, many of them fall into sex trafficking or cheap labour work, sold to marry Chinese men in order to stay under the radar.

Photo taken inside the United Nations at the stage on August the 1st, Bangkok Thailand 2018. From left to right: Tom Mannix (Australia), Joanna Tao, Ruth Stowers and Chayce Glass (New Zealand)

Being the founder of Helping Hands Korea, (Tim Peter’s has started) food aid projects such as making rice crackers and sending them into North Korea; smuggling vegetable seeds to allow North Koreans to grow their own vegetables, as well as providing the “underground railroad” to aid North Korean refugees. Tim’s movement was brave and bold, and it hit right onto that eager journalist heart of mine. Gaining insight from someone who lives on the front line between life and death, his chapters of life moved me. Enabling change simply through faith, North Korean’s Human rights will never once again be ignored because of him. I myself was shaken by his movement, that a man is willing to sacrifice his own life to help those in need. The selflessness and fearlessness of Tim Peters was my biggest takeaway, knowing that this is Human Dignity that we are talking about, and it should be done without borders.

“Success is waking up and doing what you love and working long hours and feeling blessed you get to work them, feeling like the luckiest guy on earth that you get to do your job.”

When John Wood’s trek in the Himalayas showed him the reality of what extreme poverty and illiteracy really means, the book “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” and Room to Read was born. An education organisation which has now allowed more than 1.7 million children in the developing world to have access to educational opportunities, through the opening of more than 725 schools and 7,000 bilingual libraries. In a difficult economy, Room to Reading challenges the injustice of quality education and continue to raise fund to provide children’s books in local communities. John has also funded more than 7,000 scholarships for girls, many of them coming from marginalized groups or having been freed from child trafficking.

The fight for quality education has been one of the major focuses for John. With 200 million children around the globe have little to no access to education because school fees are too high, or there’s simply no place for them to gain quality education. Room to Read gave these children in the developing world the biggest hope, a ticket to a better future and peaceful world. Even when faced with the biggest financial challenges, John never gave up. Inspiring commitments is my takeaway from John and Room to Read, a powerful tool to keep yourself accountable through rough patches. “What kept me going were the people who believed me” said John on the last day of USLS conference. Looking back, knowing that those who have supported me on my journey of being an environmentalist and journalist were the ones that kept me going through some of the roughest life obstacles; those who have accompanied me and stood next to me when I couldn’t keep myself accountable, they believed and had faith in me.

New Zealanders (Kiwis) taking a photo with the national Māori flag (Tino Rangatiratanga Flag), in front of the United Nations welcoming stand in the Conference Centre. Bangkok, Thailand 2018

It was a moment of realization, that all the support throughout the years I was fortunate enough to receive made me who I am and kept me going at a young age.

As a young journalist representing YRE global, I cannot be more grateful for this wonderful opportunity given to me by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) and YRE Global. As cliché as it sounds, USLS2018 was truly inspiring and life-changing. The three speakers have truly electrified me and sparked a burning fire within my heart to continue what I am doing and to do more. Being with a room full of future leaders and like-minded young professionals gave me the honor to share my world-view and experiences, creating this global network for further collaboration – the beginning of a ripple effect.

Whilst being an environmentalist and journalist, I am also first-year Urban Planning student. This week-long conference has challenged my thoughts on sustainable city development and global citizenship, and my time here in Thailand has left an imprint on me at the starting line of my university life. Think Globally, Act Locally. This is truly a turning point, knowing that moments like this will keep me grounded and continue my journey as a journalist with a passionate heart who is ready to serve the world with love and kindness.

As said by Robert Swan

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”