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Who isn't in the room?

Inclusion. This is the theme I was invited to speak on last month at the Global Women’s Forum. I had until the next morning to work out what to say to 1000 people, in under 60 seconds. No worries I told myself, You could blab for a week under wet cement.

But 30 minutes turned into an hour, and the few words I did wrangle from my pen kept chasing each other around in tiny circles. I realised that I felt completely unentitled to write a story of inclusion — because I had never felt excluded. I could not recall one moment when I felt left out because of my colour, nationality, age, or gender. I had lived my 20 years in a bubble not once threatened by the sharp edge of discrimination.

The words of Abigail Disney came back to me: “Inclusion is about walking into a room and observing who isn’t there.” So perhaps inclusion really means representation, because so many people will never have a voice. I considered the number of auditoriums I’d been in with people who looked just like me, who had lived similar lives, fluent in a suffering experienced by those who weren’t even in the room… living it, day in, day out.

People who suffocate from the air they breath, whose homes are swallowed by rising seas, bellies bloated in the wake of another failed crop cycle. They will never know what it is to be in these air-conditioned rooms and talk about the “future threat” of climate change.

We can take time off our privileged lives and schools to protest — but for many young activists, missing their education is not a choice. It’s a decision thrust upon them, down to the lack of access to a cheap school uniform, or the need to help their families. Walking miles in search of clean water. Swapping textbooks for sewing machines, so they might eat tomorrow, by making us ever-cheaper clothes.

Inclusiveness? I couldn’t help but think of Greta, and how conflicted I feel watching her. Awed by how she has ignited a global movement of impassioned young people; yet squirming at the division I have witnessed from painting the world with the same brush of blame. Of my generation claiming the moral high ground.

How do we know that, one day, many of us young activists won’t react like the millions of principled, caring children who went on to become our parents; when we also have to watch our high hopes for a healthy planet being shovelled into the furnace of the Military-Industrial complex. Who will we blame when we need to be adults, go to work and feed our families? This is a universal problem and as much the fault of historical processes, human evolution, and flawed systems as it is the misguided individuals heading up corporations (and in dire need of therapy).

Through a message of urgency, Greta has helped bring climate change from the periphery of our collective consciousness to front and centre stage. Yet while fear can rattle people awake, the shadow it casts must be met with light. With possibility, opportunity. Redemption. A message of hope. Not the naïve variety, which expects institutions to deviate from a history of maintaining the status quo; but the kind ignited by individual initiative.

Whether it’s Elizabeth Wathuti from Kenya, who at 23 has trained 10,000 school children in environmental stewardship (and planted twice as many trees); Isabel and Melati Wijsen from Indonesia, who at 10 and 12 decided to take on plastic pollution, and were the catalyst for Bali becoming the nation’s first island to ban disposable plastics; or Alexia Hilbertidou, who at 16 started GirlBoss in New Zealand to break gender barriers and empower girls across her country to pursue positions of leadership.

For these young trailblazers, complacency was not an option. They have since been recognised for their efforts, but there are many more who will never make it to any auditorium. We must be their champions. And we won’t achieve that by giving the deniers in power the excuse they want to invalidate us as idealistic and non-inclusive, but by showing the agents of change in those organisations how to work with us. Because they respect our tenacity, focus, and uncompromising resolve.

My mandate is to help other young people become leaders in the fight, but also teach them how to find the allies within older generations, organisations and politics they’ll need to create lasting change. We have more allies than enemies. More similarities, too. For one — we all have bad hair days. Secondly, we all want a world where we need not be complicit in the exploitation of people and our planet.

So how can we take on a challenge that transcends borders, backgrounds, and hairlines?


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