Youth can learn the power to make a difference

In late November and early December, I attended the two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. I was selected to represent the Girl Scouts of the USA as part of a youth delegation for the World Assn. of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

I was the only American youth delegate in a team of 17 young women from 13 countries. As a Girl Scout delegation, our focus was on the relationship between gender and environmental issues, as well as promoting nonformal environmental education.

The marginalization of women, particularly in developing countries, means that they usually receive a smaller share of food and resources than male family members. Women are expected to collect water and harvest crops — tasks whose difficulty is exacerbated when a drought dries up the nearest stream. It forces them to walk greater distances along often dangerous paths and farther away from getting an education.

The delegation believes that, by implementing informal education programs — education that has a curriculum and goals, but is taught in outside organizations, such as Girl Scouts, instead of in schools — girls and youth can be empowered to become agents of change in their communities.

At an event, Beatrice, a Kenyan member of our delegation, gave a speech emphasizing the need to look past the fact that African youth are victims of climate change. Beatrice characterized herself and African youth as agents of change as she described the tree-planting project she was working on with her Girl Guides in Kenya. She said she was educating girls about taking environmental action.

After hearing her emotionally charged speech, the reality of her story struck me. I realized that climate change affects everyone.

To voice our opinions about climate change and inspire other people to act, the delegation choreographed and performed an environment-themed version of the cha cha slide. As our allotted time slot approached, I didn't know if anyone would pay attention to us; we were just a small group of young people dancing in an open, outdoor area under the blazing African sun.

I was surprised by what happened next: We started dancing, and negotiators filed by — they had to pass us on their route from the convention center to the exhibition area — and some of them stopped to watch. We kept dancing, and the people walking by turned into a steady stream of spectators, many of them taking time out of their day to watch us.

Later, we were approached by Robert Owen-Jones, the chairman of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation — one of the most important committees at the conference. Impressed by our dance, he asked us if we would perform it at the opening plenary session for his committee in front of 192 international negotiators. This was a huge honor — no youth group had ever been asked to perform at the plenary.

I didn't know whether the youth presence would be celebrated or ignored by high-level U.N. representatives, so I was glad and relieved to find that, as a young woman and especially as a Girl Scout, I felt respected.

Twice, I met with one of the lead American negotiators, Jonathan Pershing. He believes that youth are an important part of the negotiations process, as we are the generation that will inherit the world's environmental troubles, and that he would like to see youth draft policy statements.

Later, I brought him two policy statements that members of our world association, along with other young people at the conference, had drafted on the topics of gender and capacity building. Rather than tucking them aside and promising to review them later, he and I stood in the middle of a waiting crowd as he critiqued our policy statements point by point.

I left Durban with a heightened sense of personal growth and a desire to take action. Growing up under the blanket of smog that covers the Los Angeles Basin, and five miles from the Pacific Ocean, I am keenly aware of the effects that climate change has on my surroundings and how these issues affect youth — particularly asthma caused by smog and pollution, which I have suffered from since childhood.

Now that I am back home, I am planning workshops to educate younger Girl Scouts about what they can do to take action on environmental issues. I am a leader of an elementary-aged Girl Scout troop in Tustin, and I'm currently working with my girls on badges relating to food security, sustainability and the environment, as well as teaching the girls about recycling and reusing through crafts made from recycled materials.

Through education and awareness, girls and youth are inspired to take action and impart lasting change.

ELAINE MURPHY lives in Irvine.

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