By Sean Russell
The future of the ocean depends on us and we depend on the future of the ocean. This was the theme of the second UNICEF Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Activate Talk held on the eve of World Oceans Day in New York City at the UNICEF headquarters to share and celebrate the work of young conservation leaders activating to address SDG 14 – Life Below Water. This inspiring evening brought together hundreds of young leaders for a discussion emphasizing the critical role young people around the world play in helping to protect our blue planet.
With remarks from UNICEF leadership, Shannon O’Shea and Olav Kjorven, who shared how children and young people are inspired by and activating around ocean conservation, the evening kicked off with keynote speaker, Karan Jarath of Texas, Young Leader for the SDGs and inventor of a subsea oil wellhead capping device.
Having grown up working with young leaders in the ocean conservation community, it was an honor to have the opportunity to moderate the SDG Activate Talk panel discussion – Young Changemakers Go Under the Sea, which united an outstanding team of young leaders – Malati and Isabel Wijsen of Bali, Indonesia and co-founders of Bye Bye Plastic Bags; Ben May, Communications Coordinator for the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit and Sea Youth Rise Up delegate; Emil Bilaver, a ten year old student from Montreal, Canada who was inspired to take conservation action by the World’s Largest Lesson initiative; and Fatoumata Cisse, a 7th grade New York City Junior Ambassador working to protect the ocean through community action.
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Panelists took the audience on a journey sharing their stories of their first connections to the ocean and the powerful role it plays in their lives, and communities, no matter where they live. As young leaders, they highlighted how each of them have activated in unique ways to engage their communities and peers in protecting the ocean and encouraged the audience to return to their communities and take action around critical ocean conservation issues. The panelists inspired the audience, emphasizing the importance of individual actions and calling on all present to understand the key role that young people play in the ocean conservation movement.
One of the key topics that emerged in the discussion was the threat plastic pollution poses to the health of the ocean. Regardless of their background and experience, each young panelist shared strong concerns regarding this issue. "The fact brought up by Melati and Isabel that a million plastic bags are used every minute put the current state of the world’s oceans in perspective," said panelist Ben May.
The discussion went beyond concern and focused on solutions – highlighting diverse ways young people are activating in their communities to address plastic pollution at its source – ranging from working with their school cafeteria to eliminate single-use plastic lunch containers to advocating national governments to eliminate plastic bags. The team showcased how they’re building grassroots movements on a global scale to engage their peers in taking on the challenge of plastic pollution.
"With the question of how our individual impacts make a difference, I cited two different studies that found that it only takes a small percentage of a population (5-10 percent) to convince everyone else," reflects May. "I wanted to show that every action can make a difference by paving the way for new people to get engaged."
This special event also featured guests – artist/designer Bernard Chang and Founder and Executive Producer of Kreative Kontent, Debbie Margolis-Horwitz as they unveiled the Annie Sunbeam and Friends comic, the latest in a series from Comics Uniting Nations highlighting the importance of protecting life underwater. The evening concluded with an energized interactive fair allowing for continued conversations and networking with a variety of youth-serving conservation organizations.
On the eve of World Oceans Day, this talk provided a powerful reminder that young people can no longer be written off as leaders of the future, especially when it comes to the protection of our ocean. Instead, young people are activating and leading the charge to protect our blue planet now and need your support to expand their impact. A special thanks to UNICEF and the SDG Activating Talks team for an outstanding event and their belief that young people can change the world. Happy World Oceans Day!
Sean Russell is a youth engagement strategist and the founder and director of the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. He collaborates with conservation organizations on a global scale to develop initiatives to empower and activate young conservation leaders. You can connect with him online at www.seandr.com or on Twitter @seandrussell.