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07 March 2018
UNA-USA 2018 Global Engagement Summit - The largest gathering of US support for the UN

By Sydney Spencer, UNA-NCA Program Assistant

 

A room, which is so frequently filled with global powers and esteemed diplomats, welcomed a new audience on February 23rd. It was on this New York winter morning that over 1,500 aspiring global leaders, international development professionals, and gressroots advocates gathered in the United Nations’ General Assembly Hall for 2018 UNA-USA Global Engagement Summit.

 

Previously known as Members Day at the UN, the Global Engagement Summit brought together UN advocates, top grassroots leaders, and members of UNA chapters from all over the country for a day of dynamic and informative discussions on the UN’s most pressing issues. This year’s summit had the honor of hosting key UN officials including Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed; President of the UN General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák; U.S. Youth Observer to the UN Munira Khalif; and many more.


A Call to Action

 

The Opening Plenary set the tone for the summit through its speakers who issued a call to action on the Sustainable Development Goals – a unifying theme throughout the day. The United States Youth Observer to the UN, Munira Khalif, gave a powerful speech reminding the audience of the importance of youth in UN advocacy. She yielded a standing ovation when informing the summit’s youth that, despite common belief, they do not need to wait until adulthood to take action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that they have the power now to catalyze change.

 

Her Excellency Amina J. Mohammed, evoked an equally emotional response from the audience while speaking on gender equality for women and girls. She closed the plenary powerfully, asserting that, “times up on neglecting and abusing women and girls.”

 

“Environmental sustainability is essential for the evolution of our species,” – Megan Boone on climate action

 

Following the Opening Plenary, the summit switched focus to environmental issues through the panel, Our Planet, Our Responsibility. The conversation featured Megan Boone, an environmental advocate and actress from the hit series The Blacklist who shared how popular culture can help progress environmental sustainability by shedding light on global issues. To learn more check out the Picture This! Festival sponsored by Sony Pictures in support for the SDGs.

 

The audience also heard from panelist Lia Cairone, Senior Policy Advisor at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Ms. Cairone emphasized the vital role megacities play in achieving environmental sustainability and educated listeners on the C4o Initiative – a network for helping megacities tackle climate change through clean urban development. As a member of this network, New York City has passed its Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGCP) mandating buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to become environmentally clean.

 

Priorities Before the UN General Assembly

 

During the subsequent breakout session, President of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, spoke on current action items on the UN’s agenda. His Excellency additionally announced the UN’s annual SDG of focus will be SDG #6: Clean Water and Sanitation.  Learn more about the UN General Assembly's Agenda here.

 

Students ranging from high school to graduate school expressed concern over complex modern issues such as the global refugee crisis, international cyber security, and North Korea’s nuclear program. It was during this conversation with His Excellency that the knowledge and global awareness of the audiences’ youth shined.

 

“There is no company that cannot contribute,” – Natalie Africa on private sector involvement in the SDGs

 

This year’s Global Engagement Summit showcased many innovative global development topics. One of the most notable panel discussions included The Private Sector’s Role in Achieving the Global Goals featuring representatives from progressive businesses such as The Coca-Cola Company.  Jennifer Ann Ragland, Senior Director of Coca-Cola’s Government & Stakeholder Relations sector, assured attendees of the importance of the SDGs to the private sector, giving the example that SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) is crucial for the survival of Coca-Cola’s products. She also explained how the private sector can further SDG progress in more inventive ways than simply donating large sums of money and provided the example of how Coca-Cola offered its Marketing & Distribution experts to help organize large-scale aid distribution during the height of the refugee crisis.

 

The private sector has come a long way in regards to its involvement in the SDGs, according to panelist Natalie Africa, Senior Director of UN Every Woman Every Child Initiative. She stated how during the age of the Millennium Development Goals, UN professionals had to place consistent pressure on the private sector for stepping up its role in global sustainability whereas now, the sector’s involvement has widely increased.

 

“We are a big country, we can do better, we can do more,” Gillian Sorensen on the global refugee crisis

 

The afternoon discussion, The Global Refugee Crisis, provided invaluable insight into the complexities and hardships that thousands of refugees face today. Grainne O’Hara, Deputy Director of the UN Refugee Agency’s New York Office explained the challenges with resettlement and assimilation that refugees face while Amir Ashour, Founder and Executive Director of LGBT+ Iraqi non-profit, IraQueer, revealed that not all refugees are running from war. Mr. Ashour proceeded to tell his experience as a refugee from Iraq, pressured to flee due to his involvement in LGBT+ advocacy.

 

Another significant and often-overlooked issue facing refugees, especially child refugees, is gaps in education. These educational gaps – usually the result of the vagabond lifestyle of a refugee and the lack of educational resources in refugee camps – can cause critical delays in cognitive and social development. However, Gillian Sorensen, a Board Member of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explained how creative partnerships can solve this issue. Ms. Sorensen went on to explain her involvement in forming the partnership between the IRC and Sesame Street with the purpose of bringing educational videos to refugee children in their native language.

 

Solidifying a Commitment to the SDGs

 

The summit’s keynote speaker, world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, concluded the day on a high note. After the audience was prompted to take part in a massive mobile letter-writing campaign to congress advocating for UN support, Mr. Sachs brought the room’s attention to continued commitment to the SDGs. He encouraged us to speak to everyone in our social circles about the SDGs and to do everything we can to raise SDG awareness in our communities.

 

A powerful moment unfolded when an 8th grade student from the audience asked Mr. Sach’s how to actually raise awareness on the SDGs considering people never actually listen. Her question evoked a standing ovation and was met with Mr. Sach’s enthusiastic response, telling her to ask her teachers about implementing SDG education in their curriculum, discussing the topic with her school principle, and meeting with her city council on how their community can do more to progress the SDGs.

 

Overall, the positively and excitement emanating from all of the summit’s attendees and speakers was overwhelming. While the UN can at times feel far away from daily life, the Global Engagement Summit reinforced the massive organization’s commitment to the people and well-being of our world.

 

Video clips from the summit can be viewed here.

 

Learn more about the sessions at the Global Engagement Summit:

President of the UN General Assemblymen