What do we want, and when do we want it?
06 November, 2021
Arriving in the Action Zone at COP26 this morning I was greeted by the sight of the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, being interviewed by national media, buoyed up and enthused about the launch of exciting initiatives by the Department for Education later in the day.
But with the day’s theme of Youth and Empowerment falling on a Friday, the schedule was perhaps from a media perspective being overlooked in favour of the #FridaysForFuture Scotland march that had attracted nearly 10,000 children and young people onto the streets of Glasgow.
With the world’s media a little more interested in what the likes of Greta Thunberg had to say, this perhaps reinforced Mr Zahawi’s position on insisting that children and young people shouldn’t be protesting on school days; that they should be back in school.
But this stance seems to reflect the growing sense of polarisation that has been developing at COP26, with splits between us and them, those inside and outside the Blue zone, the young and old, the Global South and the North, I could go on.
Splits that don’t always need to be reflected in such binary divisions, but when we feel stressed, anxious, angry or overwhelmed, we find ourselves falling back on positions of othering and disconnecting, rather than finding ways of connecting and working alongside each other.
Desperately wanting their voices to be heard
I was determined today would be about capturing and sharing the voices of young people, as it had been so clear from earlier days in the conference that many felt left out and marginalised.
Particularly those from more vulnerable and alienated communities, from across the globe, but for whom COP26 had, to date, felt more of a “greenwash” than a forum for solutions. But was also mindful of so many young people being randomly asked “What gives you hope?” when most are just managing to cope with their despair.
Many who I talked to today spoke of why they were at COP26, why they were desperately wanting to have their voice heard, and to be in and amongst the negotiations, to assist in the development of solutions.
And yet, as mentioned in my previous post, there has been little opportunity for any real, authentic sense of participation, involvement, and coproduction.
Connecting with nature
Youth and Empowerment Day saw considerable focus on climate education, but many of the young people I spoke with talked of the need to Connect with Nature as a key way to address the climate and ecological emergency, as well as having such positive impacts on their own emotional and physical wellbeing.
Young people from organisations such as the UK Schools Sustainability Network, the Scouts Movement and the African Climate Alliance, all strongly embraced the need for young people to be able to get out into the Natural world, and that only through this experience, would they know how best to care and protect Nature.
The UK Pavilion ran with the theme of the day and was clearly delighted to host Bear Grylls in his role as head of the Scout Movement, speaking alongside young people about how important their work is in enabling up to 57 million members access the great outdoors and green spaces.
This was followed by a further appearance from Mr Zahawi who was very proud to be launching the Climate Leaders Awards, alongside the National Nature Education Park, as part of the Department for Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy (to be fully released later this year).
Excitement and scepticism
The young people I spoke with were very excited about this new leadership awards and saw this as being something that would genuine motivate students and teachers to focus on climate education, something they could use on their CV and applications to university, in a similar way to how beneficial the Duke of Edinburgh awards have been for some.
But there was profound scepticism (I put this politely) about the National Nature Education Park proposal – which sees the utilisation of the entire educational estate (all nurseries, schools and colleges) in England (estimated at being the size of Birmingham twice over) as fertile ground for children and young people to learn about Nature and the benefits it can bring to them and their communities.
There was nothing mentioned about how this might simply reinforce the most evident inequalities in access to space, never mind Green space, within schools. There was no mention of why schools had needed to sell off so much of their land in the last 2 decades to housing and retail development, simply to ensure they have the funds for basics such as books for the classrooms.
As with the sustainability plans for many NHS Trusts, land and estates is seen within local authorities as space that can raise revenue and reduce costs. One young person I spoke with suggested this was “typical of what is going on here … it’s all smoke and mirrors” and the hurt was further reinforced by not being able to ask a question.
Whilst on paper they saw that the government was making the right noises about “looking to put climate change at the heart of the curriculum”, they were being sold short on the realities of how this would be delivered, and who would benefit. Any sense of levelling up or Bringing Back Fairer would be completely lost.
This example, far from being in isolation, perhaps best reflects why so many young people feel more comfortable being out on the streets, in a position of protest, rather than being tokenistically represented within forums that don’t hear or take notice of them.
How representative COP26 is has been raised through many channels, but young people from all areas across the globe were repeatedly feeling they were unable to sit at the table, and not surprisingly were becoming increasingly frustrated and angry.
Five key asks
My questions therefore focused on what young people might want of me, and of the Royal College – “what do you want, and when do you want it?” as it felt important for us to be challenged about our position in attending COP26 as observers. As one person asked, “So what are you observing?”. But through the day, having interviewed young people from many different countries and cultures, 5 key asks started to emerge.
"Listen to us"
"Listen to us, sit down and just listen to us, we have ideas, we have thoughts, we have experiences and we have feelings, but just make sure you listen to us” … “make sure you connect in the right context, be mindful of who you are, and what you represent … we have an experience of colonialism, and there’s a big risk this will just get repeated.”
From listening, “take the time to understand, work out where we’re coming from and why this is so bloody difficult for us. This is our future you are talking about” … “Think about language … as you may talk about eco-anxiety, but that doesn’t really translate in my people … I might talk more about experiences in my body … but it is all connected to what I have experienced” …”value my lived experience”.
“Don’t dismiss me but help me. Don’t patronise me. Don’t tell me I’m being emotional, that I’m just from some snowflake generation. What I feel is real, and I need you to respect that.”
“How easy do you think it is for young people to be supported with their mental health these days? You have to be suicidal to get through the doors or the services, and even then it can be a long wait” … “We need spaces to be available where we can share our thoughts and feelings, and be heard, to talk with each other, to support each other, and you guys need to help find those spaces” … “In my country we use park benches as places to connect. .. help us develop the skills needed for supporting young people when they join us on the bench.”
"Take action with us"
“Don’t think you can find the solutions for us, because that won’t work … and we will continue to feel left out of the room” … “We need you to be supporting us to be active, to be activists, but to also help get the doors open for us” … “This shouldn’t be about young and old, but you are making it that way if you carry on like this” …”You have a voice, people listen to you, tell it how it is.”
The day started with a fossil fuels investment protest about by doctors outside the JP Morgan offices in Glasgow. I asked many of the young people I spoke with, is this the type of action you want to see from doctors, or from psychiatrists? “Well, it would at least prove to us that you care … at the moment it is hard to tell, but that would be putting yourselves on the frontline and experiencing what it is like for us.”
Tomorrow I know I shall be in the demonstration - it is important that we Take Action alongside young people. But as they have said, we also need to Listen, Understand, Validate and Support. This is what we can do as individual psychiatrists, in our services and as the Royal College, and this we must do now!