Talking transformation: Going from unemployed youth living in slum conditions to catalysts for change

“Two huge things need to happen” to have any hope of lifting the world’s most vulnerable out of poverty, while at the same time addressing climate change observed Julian Basking, the Principal Urban Advisor for Cities Alliance.

“The first is mass investments in the huge networks of services that are required in cities. And (secondly) we need to start to plan for the long term future of rapid urbanization.”

Basking shared that insight during the second of two sessions on Making Climate Justice a Reality, during ICLEI’s Daring Cities 2022 virtual global forum  that took place last week. During a post-session interview he expanded on this thought process, noting that without transformative change, the status quo as it pertains to the Global South and Africa in particular will remain the same. A status quo which he bleakly describes as “unemployed youth living in slum cities in a degraded environment.”

In recognition of this global challenge, the focus of this year’s Daring Cities hosted by the City of Bonn from Oct. 3-7 was finance… and the longstanding barriers to accessing those “mass investments” Basking referred to one noteworthy sub theme to those barriers that was examined during the virtual forum, was finding ways to leverage the power of youth. And more specifically, finding the capital needed to fund the countless number of youth driven projects from around the world related to creating more resilient, more livable communities.

The Investing in Youth Led Activism session tackled this challenge head on, sharing the viewpoints of dynamic young activists from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil; and during the same session, local government insight was provided by representatives from the cities of Monterrey, Mexico and the Municipality of Canoas, Brazil.

Helping to kick off that particular session, Argentinian activist Santiago Eulmesekian offered both half full and half empty perspectives, observing that on the one hand “there is a strong connection between youth and change… we the youth feel that everything is possible.” And on the other that “we see that we are under threat (from) global warming… which is the result of decisions that we (the youth) did not take part in.” In light of this reality, he emphasized that moving forward “it’s necessary to include our voices (the voice of the youth) in the decision making process,” in the fight against climate change.

Eulmesekian, whose ACE Working Group initiative is part of YOUNGO (the official youth constituency of the UNFCCC) went on to observe that much needed funding to empower the voice of younger generations is still lacking. “Many schools (in Argentina) lack environmental education,” while at the same time they “need to overcome barriers for technology and learning because students in Argentina and Latin America do not have access to technology in school.”

He noted that this underscores “the importance of sponsorship and funding” for initiatives such as the one his own group has launched called Action for Empowerment… which is designed to enable students to amplify the dialogue surrounding global warming… through such actions as leveraging social media networks and using platforms such as TikTok.

Luis Gerardo Carvajal Fernandez of Mexico City brought two perspectives to the Investing in Youth Activism session, one as a youth leader with the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, another as an analyst and co-founder of the sustainable finance hub at Siemens Energy.

Fernandez opined that the communication gap that currently exists is tied not only to spreading the word about climate change but also when it comes to funding for youth driven projects. “Every time someone wants to apply for a public or private fund, they have to start from scratch…  and I think that’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Building on this thought process he added that “from my experience pitching to a group of investors and (procuring) funding for a climate related project… is (to ask myself) how can I take this knowledge and advice,” and share it in order to make it easier for other youth driven projects to apply for monetary support… versus learning on the fly how to navigate this whole process.

Fernandez shared that for companies like Siemens, a critical starting point for any project application is “we want ideas that can make a lasting impact. And this is the key word… lasting. If you are planting trees but you don’t take care of them in the future, that is not a lasting impact.” Additionally he asked “how do you make (projects) profitable… and how do you make sure that you impact positively the community” in a manner that creates jobs and has a lasting positive impact?

Julian Basking also shed light on real world strategies designed to improve the changes of getting funding at the local level while at the same time… creating more inclusive communities by promoting active citizenship. One way of doing that he said is to establish Participatory Settlement Forums that create plans for upgrading slums and improving local infrastructure… including within informal settlements.

During his post-presentation interview, Basking delved into how these Settlement Forums work vis-à-vis the establishment of Savings Groups gives rise to what he describes as a whole new saving methodology.

“In the past you were a city official meeting a delegation from (slum) communities saying we are poor, we have nothing, we don’t have water, we don’t have toilets or houses… the city official would say I understand, but  everyone is in that position… so there’s not much I can do for you.”

Now, with Savings Groups, slum dwellers are banding together using collectively saved funds as the starting point to work with municipal authorities to get approvals and buy in for projects they would like to see come to fruition. “So if the community wants to build a public toilet, it’s no longer an illegal structure because they have created a business plan and know what land they’re going to build on… and (as a consequence) it gets clearance from local government.”

It’s a process that’s driven he says, “by a young generation of people who are assuming leadership of these informal settlements, who are engaged with local governments around these issues and are providing that extra capacity.”

Consistent with the mindset of welcoming different perspectives and promoting multi-level engagement, Laura Ballestoro, the City of Monterrey, Mexico’s Secretary of Sustainable Development also spoke during the Investing in Youth Activism session. Ballestoro praised the on-the-ground team working for her department which appears to have embarked on its own youth movement. “We have a very young team,” she observed starting with one employee aged 24 “who is a leader in the climate change agenda in Monterrey,” adding that the remainder of the staff are all under 30 years old.

Ballestoro touched on the many challenges Monterrey has experienced in recent years, from record temperatures to droughts and limited water resources, all of which “affects the most vulnerable populations” even more, she observed. To address these challenges “we’re thinking about (creating) green corridors with good tree cover. We’re also thinking about drainage and drain deposits for schools and different institutions.” Top of mind she said is “we really need to have reservoirs for rainwater.”

Yet another local government perspective came from Paulo Ritter, the Secretary of Environment with Municipality of Canoas in Brazil, who spoke of his “passion for the role of youth” in the fight against climate change.

“I think that our biggest challenge moving forward,” Ritter shared “is to have clarity about the inequality between north and south and the planet and also the fact that we’re now seeing a war happening and (yet) we stay silent.”

In addressing this challenge, he feels that youth can play a critical role in communicating the need for adopting a more humanistic perspective while at the same time spearheading much needed projects that address the inequities that exist. And in doing so, to help to catalyze positive transformation.

If that doesn’t happen, “our discourse will (continue to be) empty and we will not really change anything in people’s lives.”

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