Cheers from thousands of youth reverberate through the walls at Madison Square Garden. But their excitement isn’t for the usual lineup of pop culture icons; the audience is on their feet for the United Nations.
Looking back on the 2017 WE Day stage in New York and Toronto, the diplomatic crew included the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the former Secretary General to the UN, and the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN. These powerful speakers motivated youth to take action on climate justice and provided insight into ’60s-era segregation, inspiring students in the audience to stay active in their local and global community.
United Nations Day—an annual event that marks the ratification of the UN Charter in 1945–is a time to reflect on the progress of global goals and what targets need more traction. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals tell us there is much to be done if we are to create a world that affords every individual their basic human rights. But, the captivated mass of young people transfixed by the words of Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon and Andrew Young, suggest this generation, is up for the challenge.
A thread of partnership, diplomacy and fierce resolve connects the on-stage speeches of these international leaders. Off-stage, their unique personal stories illuminate their paths. From behind the scenes at WE Day, we sat down with these trailblazing change-makers to trace the origin of their passion for global development and diplomacy.
Mary Robinson had her first meeting of the day at 7 A.M., during which she discussed the impact of climate change with female world leaders. The early start time is to ensure meaningful participation from the players at hand. “I’m serious,” she says leaning in. “Because these are ministers who have their presidents with them, we had the Deputy Secretary General, they can’t be there later. So, 7 to half past 8… before 9, we get the business done.”
The former President of Ireland and previous United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has been “getting the business done” her whole life. A law degree from Harvard, appointed to the Irish Senate at the age of 25, a formidable contender in law and politics, a life-long advocate of women’s rights, and now a deeply committed, highly influential player in addressing climate change. “That will be my passion for the rest of my life,” she comments on the subject.
As an international leader, her accolades speak volumes, and point to how the actions she’s taken are helping to build a world in which the dignity of every person is respected—a value she learned the importance of while growing up in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland.
Mary’s father was a doctor, and as a girl, she remembers going with him on house calls. Regardless of income, he would see patients, with some only able to offer a chicken as payment come Christmas. Witnessing her father’s interactions with his patients and their families, formed a lasting impression: “He’d go into the home and I’d sit in the car, maybe read a book, maybe just dream my dreams,” she recalls. “And then the light would come on in the hall, and it would take him another 20 minutes to leave the door because he was talking to the mother or the wife. That was as important to him as any prescription.”
This sense of empathy and dignity has stayed with her throughout her life, guiding her work.
That same passion that first drove her to seek out positive change, exudes from the crowd at WE Day UN—the audience’s eyes glued to the stage, while listening to this remarkable woman explain why climate justice demands attention. She can barely find the words to describe her awe. “When I look at this audience of young people… their idealism, their desire to make a change… I am going to recruit them,” she laughs. “They need to know it is their world and their future. It’s not too early for them to make their voice heard.”
In person, Ban Ki-moon radiates the grace and diplomacy required to forge collective will between close to 200 nations for a decade. No surprise—the former Secretary General of the United Nations has built a career on building partnerships. And, as one would presume to be the case, collective will is the only way this diplomat sees the world achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which will, he explains, “make sure everyone is given what they need as human beings” by 2030.
A noble philosophy of international partnership and compassion stems from childhood lessons that have shaped the man Ban Ki-moon is today. And today, he is a grown-up United Nations protégé.
“I was a child of war. When I was just six years old, the Korean war broke out,” he shares. “At the time, there was nothing to eat, nothing to wear, no drinking water. The United Nations came to help us.”
Experiencing the assistance of the UN first hand as a child left a lasting impression: “Without the United Nations, I could not become anything, including,” he adds, with a chuckle, “the Secretary General.”
In addition to vital emergency assistance, memories from this time conjure visions of something else—something that inspired his career path. Amidst the war, there were textbooks—textbooks handed out by the soldiers in blue. Individuals from a time long gone, they have formed the basis for his life-long career in diplomacy and ambassadorship.
As commander of the world’s largest partnership organization, he has worked to achieve consensus on difficult issues, notably, working to put climate change on the global agenda. From the WE Day stage in Toronto, he tells a stadium of young people that enacting the Paris Climate Agreement was one of his proudest moments. As he explains, the agreement set out “ambitious, yet achievable targets,” and as such, is a plan wholly dependent on partnership to succeed. “This partnership can only be done with the wholehearted and generous support from various groups of people, particularly private sector and civil society. We cannot always depend on government.” For the youth gathered in Toronto—each one having earned their way to the event through social action—he hopes they will continue to be active citizens and work together. “You are here today because of the driving belief that we can all do our part to make this world a better place through desire for change and concrete action plans. You’re right. Not only can we do this, we will.”
Andrew Young knows how to tell a story. And from the stories, it’s evident that this former United States Ambassador to the United Nations has never been one to take the easy road out. Take the day he had a tête-à-tête with an apartheid leader in South Africa. “They said, who do you want to meet with? I said, whoever the meanest, toughest guy is.”
Or that time back when he was a young man, at the start of his career as a fiery human rights activist, when he had to explain why he was protesting with the city’s garbage collectors in Atlanta to a police officer. “I said, these guys pick up your garbage. They get very little pay. You don’t get enough pay either. Now if they get a raise, I guarantee you get a raise, but if they don’t get a raise, you probably won’t get one either… I shook his hand, but he put me in jail anyways.”
Oh, and how could we not mention the story of when he was a student with entrepreneurial prowess. Before the idea of a social enterprise had even entered the collective conscious, he was recycling bottles for 2 cents apiece in order to help other students, who couldn’t afford lunch. “I was the only one who had lunch money. So, I had to learn how to keep them from beating me up and taking my lunch money.”
All true examples from his own life, each memory is told with a hint of humour. As light-hearted as the storyteller is, the narratives themselves are like parables, packed full of wisdom and insight.
His professional history is chock-full of similar traits. Years pursuing peaceful social change define his career as a formidable civil rights activist. This is a man who helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a world ambassador, he never shied away from a challenge. Rather, he embraced the problem through active listening, a critical mind and an open heart.
Speaking to him about his past, he credits life “on my block” for teaching him how to be an international ambassador. Growing up in New Orleans in the ’30s and ’40s, he was surrounded by difference on every corner—literally. “I grew up in a neighbourhood where there was an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on another. The Nazi party was on the third corner… and I lived in the middle of the block. I had to get along with everybody before I went to kindergarten.” It was advice from his father—not given out of naiveté—and it formed the basis of his philosophy towards social justice.
For youth navigating how to make change today, his advice is straightforward: “Understand people who are different.” It’s precisely this ability to acknowledge differences, while fighting for human rights that he identifies as being the United Nation’s role. “The UN is the most relevant organization on the face of the earth right now. It’s the only place where people can come together to disagree.”
Wanda O'Brien loves finding out people’s stories and learning from different cultures. A Canadian abroad, she’s worked on four continents.