by Cate Owren, WEDO Executive Director who attended the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) conference

April 7, 2013, St. Louis, MO.

I sat at the table full of boys. That was my challenge to myself. Don’t go the easy route – don’t go preach to the choir with the girls, who are already asking for your card and aching to talk women’s rights. Go sit with the boys.  See what they’re up to.

Senator Claire McCaskill (1 of 20 women presently in the U.S Senate, as she noted to wild ovation,) had just emphasized something along these lines at the mid-day plenary session at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) conference, underscoring the need to reach across party (or sectoral) lines, find the unlikeliest allies, and establish common ground. This is how things get done, she said; this is what inspires transformation. Striking a chord with the philosophy of WEDO, which promotes multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder partnerships to change the paradigm for, say, addressing the global climate crisis, I scribbled down the words and thought, okay, here’s my assignment for this afternoon. Go find some unlikely allies.

The last 48 hours in St. Louis, Missouri, at the CGIU conference have been some of the most inspiring hours I can remember in a long time. Completely void of rhetoric, every participant was talking real action. No, they were doing real action. Eighteen, nineteen years old: these students are establishing networks to support undocumented immigrant students in Arizona universities; raising a mere $500 to establish a revolutionary rural irrigation system with Haitian farm laborers in the Dominican Republic; streamlining solar panels to increase rural electrification in India for the poorest households; and finding cells that will be resistant to malaria in populations right here at home in St. Louis. From training on obstetric fistula with village healthcare workers to energy technology innovations, the commitments to action that these students are making are nothing short of awesome.

More than 1,000 students from about 100 universities across 75 countries have gathered to share their commitments and to learn from us, the supposed expert speakers. But I am heading back to New York absolutely certain than I gained more from this CGIU than I gave.

Back at my table, during the afternoon working session I attended on ‘reimagining electricity’, the boys were mostly engineering students, I came to find out. Not exactly my area of expertise. Yet, in conversation about government policy, decentralizing grids, stakeholder engagement and local ownership, and connecting it all to a global consciousness and enabling normative frameworks (okay, I might have added these last parts), I really started to feel at home.

Here’s what I learned in 48 hours in St. Louis:

  1. I was very wrong. These aren’t unlikely allies. These absolutely are the allies. These engineering students – from chemical to genetic – totally get it. Their colleagues across various disciplines do, too. They understand the intersectionality of all our global issues, they are eager for more information, and they want to put it to use. They want to act. They are acting. This is, first and foremost, exactly what hope looks like. It also confirmed for me that WEDO’s own CGI commitment is right on track – we committed in 2012-2013 to expand our usual network, focusing on young leadership in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and networks. This is exciting stuff.

 

  1. These international fora are essential. Supportive (and supported) space to exchange knowledge and expertise, but also questions and criticisms, are crucial to getting these projects right. I watched students engaging each other in tremendously frank conversation about one another’s work – challenging each other and even suggesting how it might go wrong. But it was in the spirit of a shared vision for the future – where each of them is not only a leader for the next generation, but undoubtedly a leader right this very minute – that these challenging debates were entirely productive.

 

  1. Participation matters. In our global UN circles, we fight for space at the table – usually for formal, welcomed opportunity for civil society to be heard. I couldn’t help but think about the impact these students’ work can have, resonating and influencing policy-makers on climate change, biodiversity, water and energy and every other interlinked issue we care about. Recalling the wonderful Adopt-a-Negotiator model at the UNFCCC, I dreamed about CGIU-ers tagging along with their government negotiators, providing the expertise and insights upon which to negotiate. But then – that’s our role, as advocates (and we are, every one of us, advocates,) turning these real stories of action, of our lives, into fuel toward more action.

 

  1. And finally, the power of promises kept. One of my favorite people I met in St. Louis was a quiet, unassuming young guy I met outside the hotel, both of us waiting for the shuttle bus, him mentioning he was a bit tired from the long flight from western China the night before. We chatted, realizing we were both speaking that morning on parallel panels, and swapped silly stories of serendipitously finding our path toward work we deeply love.

Now, I should confess at this point that I have been a skeptic of the ‘commitments’ model. In policy spheres lately, ‘commitments’ has seemed like the fashionable way of saying the right thing with proverbial fingers crossed behind one’s back – the ‘voluntary’ in ‘voluntary commitment’ offering any and all possible out. In that light, I viewed the CGI commitments warily.

Until I saw what commitments can actually motivate and deliver. My new friend had casually mentioned that his current work stemmed from a CGIU commitment he had made as a student in 2008. (He hadn’t mentioned that, as a then student at MIT, he’d simultaneously patented a breast cancer diagnostic tool along with two solar technologies. Wow.) Later that day, when his story was streamed across the huge video projection screens highlighting some of the most impressive and inspiring stories of CGIU, I was completely blown away by what he turned his commitment into.

We met later that evening for a chat in our hotel lobby, him on his way up to his room to try to sleep off the jet lag, me off to pack for my flight back home. I cautiously asked him – because he already seemed a bit too good to be true – if he worked with any women or women’s groups in his part-social enterprise/part-entrepreneurial company designing solar technologies in the rural Himalayan plateau.

He gave me a funny look and smiled. I braced myself. Well, of course, he said. How else would we get anything done right?

 

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