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Reflections on the #SpeakUp Summit

A couple of weeks ago I sat in on the Speak Up Summit organized by Debate Spaces, an education nonprofit on a mission to connect students around the world through debate. Middle schoolers across the globe gathered on a Saturday morning (that is, on the East coast, at least!) to explore how they could make their voices heard in the climate change debate. It became clear that even 10-15 year olds are aware of the gravity of environmental injustice and the need for meaningful personal action to contribute to systemic change. Debate Spaces began as a local program in Boston, but current circumstances have led the organization to widen its scope globally. Now Debate Spaces hopes to reach thousands of children worldwide. At the Summit, I saw this ambitious goal start to take encouraging shape.

We began by watching a video about Xiye Bastida, a teenager who, unsatisfied with the small scale of the environmental club at her school and inspired by young activists such as Greta Thunberg, began organizing her group to agitate politically and eventually spoke in front of the United Nations. It was a striking tone-setter. Here was proof that a young person just like any of the attendees could accomplish great things.

We met four climate justice activists who would serve as expert panelists for the meeting: Chris D’agostino of the Sunrise Movement, Sheen Tyagi of GirlUp Nation, Dreese Foxworth of the United People Project, and Jessy Musaazi of the International Student Environmental Coalition. Afterwards, we split off into smaller breakout rooms. My room was led by Sheen Tyagi, a sixteen-year-old environmentalist from India. One of the main points she hit upon was the importance and value of individual action in the face of the growing climate crisis we face as a species, an idea that would permeate the rest of the meeting. As she spoke to us and took questions from the assembled students, I was deeply impressed with how organized and well-spoken she was. Sheen was an excellent guide for all of the younger kids in the room, articulately answering their questions and guiding the discussion with the confidence and ability I would expect from someone much older. I would later learn that on top of all this, she is the president of Girl Up Nation, an international club affiliated with the UN with a focus on issues faced by women.

As the students engaged with Sheen, it struck me after a while how thrilling it was to hear from a kid from Pakistan and then a kid from California back to back. I was listening to voices of children from opposite sides of the planet as smoothly and naturally as if I were in a middle school classroom hearing the students share in a circle. The novelty of Zoom calls has probably worn a little thin for all of us lately, but in this moment I found it kind of magical. I’m not much more than a decade older than these kids and I can’t imagine having this kind of opportunity in middle school. It was encouraging to see so many young people more engaged with an issue as serious as climate change than I ever was at their age--or frankly, than I am even now.

Back in the main session, Matt Summers took over. Matt is one of the co-founders of Debate Spaces and an extraordinarily prolific academic mind. He’s a Harvard Law graduate, a debate champion, a former Fulbright English Teaching Assistant--the genuine article. We were in good hands. Matt guided us through an exercise about thinking of power and influence as a web of connection rather than a top-down structure with the steady hand of a practiced teacher. The idea was that the students would realize that they had more power to effect meaningful progress about climate change than they thought possible. This forum was not only about education, but about empowerment. These are the sorts of ideas that Debate Spaces is fostering: that even middle school children can become meaningful actors for good.

Once we entered the breakout rooms again, the students began sharing short speeches about their plans for climate action. I had begun thinking about what my own course of action might be, and decided that advocating for better public transportation both within cities and connecting the country (an idea I’ve always been fascinated by) would be an excellent start. Though I was only on the call as a casual observer, I found myself getting excited about my own plan and half-wishing that Matt would call on me to share my ideas. If a jaded, cynical, world-weary twenty-seven-year-old (truly a wise old man, right?) can get this excited and empowered by this program, I can only imagine what effect it would have on a tween or young teenager.

As we signed off at the end of a two hours that had flown by, I reflected on what I had seen. There had been forty-eight students from about a dozen countries and a dozen U.S. states. Despite the size of the call and the great distance between the participants, however, there had been a wonderful intimacy to the whole meeting. Jessy Musaazi, one of the climate justice panelists, had been on the call from a car, and had to leave early to catch a flight to help out in South Sudan. I saw and heard younger siblings of the students sitting on laps and running around in the background. I felt a real sense of global community that Debate Spaces had managed to foster in only two hours. This is an organization that, with its growing reach, can help young minds think critically about important issues facing our world. It will foster the environments and teach the skills necessary for these students to become thoughtful and empowered adults.

Interested students can pre-register for the 2021-2022 Debate Spaces Academy here to be the first to learn about program details. You can also sign up to volunteer as a judge or make a donation here.
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