With a mission to inspire collaboration and compassion in young people, World Merit Day began with a bang: an emotive video montage with empowering messages of: “if it can be dreamed it can be done my friends. Together we achieve.” That message ran throughout the day, as each speaker and performance drew out the same world-changing sentiment. Even the hosts Matt Littler and Darren Jefferies started as they meant to go on when they said “you might think that today you’re going to be talked at with magic words from magic people, but the most important people here are you. You can change the world.” The line-up of speakers was of an incredible calibre and the expectation could be felt hanging in the air of the BT Convention Centre.
The first talk focused on climate change and the need for us to become more aware and, better yet, more proactive, in fighting it. It came from Parker Liautaud, 19 year old polar adventurer and climate change campaigner. He shared the three main lessons he’d learned on his expeditions: “the future is closer than we think; team accountability is crucial; and progress often still occurs even when it doesn’t seem like it.” He was quick to point out that progress still requires work and that, even though our tendency is to not think about climate change, challenged the audience not to “undervalue the future” by “making decisions now and not thinking about the consequences. If we can organise ourselves as a generation we can be the ones to make a real difference,” he told the young audience.
The next speaker also focussed on climate change. Felix Finkbeiner, now 16, was just nine years old founded his organisation Plant for the Planet, which aims to raise awareness of climate change – especially in the younger generation – and sees volunteers across the world fighting the CO2 emission levels by planting trees, contributing to the global aim to reduce 500bn tons of CO2 to meet the 2 degree goal. Like Liautaud, Finkbeiner recognises the importance of his generation stepping out and making a difference: “we cannot wait for the adults to save our future we have to get involved ourselves.” he said. Talking to The City Tribune about his progress so far, Finkbeiner admitted he was “very surprised” at how successful the project had been.
His next ambition for Plant for the Planet, he told us, is to recruit more volunteers so they can reach their target of 1m young ambassadors. When asked how involved he still was with business aspect of the organisation he founded, Finkbeiner revealed, “I’m still involved in the meetings, but we have a democratic structure where we elect global representatives now.”
Sir Ken Robinson – key note speaker at the TEDx event only a few days prior – also spoke to this young audience. He briefly mentioned his views on education, but for World Merit Day his main point was about finding your passions and talents – “we often ignore our talents, yet we are capable of extraordinary things,” he noted, encouraging the audience to “explore your inner world as well as the one around you.” He described two worlds as “the one that is there whether you are or not, and the world of your own private consciousness,” insisting that if you navigate these two worlds and find a “pathway that will enrich them both, then the world won’t just be one of passion it’ll be one of compassion.”
Author, TV presenter and inspirational speaker Katie Piper overcame a 2008 attack in which she was raped and burned with sulphuric acid, speaking on World Merit Day about the untouchability of the human spirit. She told the audience that this is the “most powerful tool we all possess, if we access that we can get it through the hardest times.” Piper spoke of the happiness and success that she found when she discovered her attackers “could only touch the surface – my spirit, my soul, these are mine and they are completely untouchable,” she said, reminding the audience: “no one has ever been touched or moved by the neatest nose or the smallest waist, but – whether you know it or not – we’ve all been touched by someone else’s human spirit.” She concluded with a message of discovery much like Robinson’s when she said: “just remember you’re creating your life right now, so please, make it outstanding.”
BJ Wasserman and Rob Albee gave two emotive and inspiring talks – both colleagues of the Inside Circle Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to emotionally assist men in prison in California – they also talked about talent, revealing that “even the worst – the guys that did horrendous crimes – even they have gifts of beauty and unimaginable talent.” Albee closed the first talk by telling the audience that he had asked the inmates what message they would give to this young generation at World Merit Day, reporting back: “You should go out and get it… I spent too many years waiting for something to happen.”
In an interview with The City Tribune, Wasserman told us “I’m being naive if I expect someone to solve my problems in this world. Each individual needs to step up now,” revealing the self-motivation and pro-activity which became common attributes of the event’s speakers. Albee supported this statement, saying: “we all carry a unique piece of the answer.” The interview ended with a discussion on the highlights of each of their lives or career thus far, to which Wasserman replied after considerable thinking: “it has to be the moment I chose patience and tolerance with my son, instead of abuse, which meant the chain of abuse stopped there.”
Kate Robertson, co-founder of One Young World – a not-for-profit organisation that helps young people around the world to network for positive change – brought a powerful and focused message to the audience which harmonised with Malala’s later address. She won much applause for her strong statements, but her strongest was her plea to the young audience to “focus down. It’s not enough to feel inspired – you have to take that inspiration every day and interrogate it,” she said. Robertson’s impassioned views weren’t found only on the stage – she told The City Tribune after the event, “I absolutely loved Katie, Margaret Aspinall and Malala. I loved that they have such big messages and yet they were so funny.” When asked whether she thought that was important she replied, “if the messages are so big, to make the messages loveable as well is so important, which they definitely did.”
And so the long-awaited Malala Yousafzai arrived on stage, after apparently “getting lost in the building”, Robinson joked. Introduced her as “the leading icon for education in the world, not just of women but of people everywhere,” Malala began her talk speaking about the Taliban invading her village and disallowing girls access to education. Under this terrorist rule, she said, there were two options: “to remain silent, suffer and be killed or to speak up and then be killed.” She chose the latter: “I said I will stand up for my rights. I will raise my voice.”
The Taliban left in 2009, leading her to realise that “our voices are powerful and women’s voices are more powerful.” Despite life returning to normal, she had made herself a target, and was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012. Now, after her recovery in Birmingham, she still campaigns for the rights to education: “this is what my message is, let’s make sure that every child is getting an education, that every child is going to school.” She concluded her talk with the poignant argument: “we cannot solve problems by war. We can only solve problems through dialogue.” Addressing the young audience directly, she said: “I’m hopeful that you are the ones who will bring the change, the next Martin Luther King Juniors are here.”
Robinson reappeared to ask Malala a few questions, picking up on her comment on women’s voices being stronger and queried what she meant. Malala replied: “we are stronger voices in society because when God created everything, when he was deciding who should bear children he chose women because woman is the one who can suffer through pain and overcome it,” to immediate female applause from the audience. When questioned about what makes a good teacher, she answered: “a good teacher is one who can make you understand. Not one that preaches at you, but one that allows you time to think, what you think.”
While the day ended with laughter, the audience left challenged and stretched, yet light with inspiration as the final band played their set in the auditorium. Matt Littler’s and Darren Jeffries’ opening remarks – “we’ve got some special people here today and were going to make special people too” – had been fulfilled. It was hard to escape the feeling that the departing audience really did contain the world’s next leaders.