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Empowering the Voice of Tomorrow: Severn Cullis-Suzuki Inspires Students to “Speak Truth to Power”

In June, 1992, a 12 year-old girl named Severn Cullis-Suzuki stood up in front of the delegates attending the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and challenged leaders from all over the world to reexamine how they were working together to solve global challenges. She courageously criticized their unwillingness to recognize some of the most dire issues that plagued the world and encouraged everyone in the room to think about what they were passing on to their children. Her message traveled far beyond Rio and paved the way for future generations of student activists to speak truth to power.

This past month Severn Cullis-Suzuki joined environmental thought leaders, activists and organizations – like Dr. Jane Goodall and the Roots & Shoots Program – at the EF Global Student Leaders Summit in Costa Rica as the closing keynote speaker. Before Severn took the stage, one student, Meghan Johnson, had the opportunity to introduce her in front of over 500 students and teachers and share with them why Severn Cullis-Suzuki was an inspiration to her. Meghan had the chance to personally meet with Severn before giving her introduction speech. “I thought it would be for 5 minutes, but man was I wrong. She was eating dinner and I felt bad for interrupting her, but she was so cool about it. We ended up talking about my experience traveling around Costa Rica the previous week and about democracy and how it affects youth involvement in our society. It was crazy to me that I was talking with Severn Cullis-Suzuki about these topics.”

Meghan Johnson

Right before getting on stage Meghan’s nerves began to set in, but she thought back to her conversation with Severn. Earlier that day, Severn Cullis-Suzuki had run a student workshop on public narrative, and had let Meghan in on a little secret. “I specifically remember her saying that she had never run a workshop before and she was nervous about it.” As Meghan walked out on stage she couldn’t help but think about this. “Because she was nervous about something, it made it a lot easier to get up in front of everyone and give my speech. It felt okay to be nervous.”

Meghan may have been nervous, but the crowed certainly couldn’t tell. Just as Cullis-Suzuki had done 23 years earlier Meghan stood up and grabbed the room’s attention with confidence, passion and sincerity. She talked about what her life was like at 12 years-old and asked everyone to take a minute and think about what their biggest challenge was at that age. She re-told Cullis-Suzuki’s courageous story and reminded everyone that they too play a critical role in making a difference every day, and that it all comes down to their choices and actions.

Severn Cullis-Zuzuki

Meghan’s Introduction speech of Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the 2015 EF Global Student Leaders Summit:

Take a second to tell your neighbor what the biggest tragedy in YOUR world was when you were 12 years old? It could be anything from being dumped by your middle school boyfriend or girlfriend to not making a sports team you wanted to play on. I bet you guys had a lot of different answers.

For me, it was a hockey game. Simple as that. It was the state semifinal game, and I was the goalie for my town’s under 12 team. I remember how excited my team was to have made it that far in the state tournament. My entire face was painted blue under my mask. Everyone on my team had eye black on even though we were playing indoors. We were ready to win. The final buzzer went off. And guess what? We didn’t win. When we didn’t win, I realized our season was over. It wasn’t the loss that hurt the most, and to be quite honest I don’t even remember the score. Instead what hurt the most was that my season was over and I wouldn’t be seeing my friends anymore. It was my first season on a girl’s hockey team after playing with boys for almost 8 years. It was the loss of a family, of a bond so strong that it was painful to lose. In that moment, I wanted to reverse time and go back to the beginning of the season and replay it over and over and over again. Looking back, I’ve realized that instead of trying to go back and restart this season that I loved so much, I should’ve taken the loss as an opportunity to make a change. Whether it was changing the way I made a save, or the way I communicated with the girls on my team. Taking the time to make a positive change would have been more productive than moping around after losing a silly hockey game. Now you may be wondering why I asked you what the biggest tragedy was for you when you were 12 or why I just rambled on about a hockey game that happened 5 years ago. Well our next guest speaker did something amazing when she was only 12 years old.

At the age of 12, Severn Cullis-Suzuki was devastated by the way the Western world was treating the environment. In 1992, she spoke at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. Now, I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t even speak in front of my class at the age of 12, let alone world leaders. She called out the entire world for causing the planet to heat up, for buying things we don’t need to replace things we threw away for no reason. She called out the world for causing species to go extinct and for being greedy. The world stopped to hear the words of a 12 year old from Canada. She decided she needed to do something to spark a change. She knew that no one had any idea as to how to fix the holes in the ozone layer, or how to bring back species that were extinct. However, what Severn did know was that we as people had no right to treat our planet that way. She knew that we needed to stop. Now, some people continue to treat our environment negatively, but then there are people like you and I.

We play a critical role in making a change not only as environmental leaders, but also as the youth. Think about all the great movements in the world that have been led by young people. The Civil Rights Movement and Counterculture are just a few that come to mind. The environmental movement is in need of young people like us to step up in our community and spark a change. Being an environmental leader doesn’t mean you have to become an environmental politician or an environmental scientist, but instead, it means that YOU have to be willing to change YOUR actions and EDUCATE those around you about how they can change their habits in order to be more sustainable. I spent much of my fall speaking at local elementary schools about what it means to be a good environmentalist. Part of what I did was ask kids what they could do with things like toys and plastic bags when they were done using them. There was one catch; nothing could go in the trash. I got answers from donating toys to charity to giving an old tennis ball to a dog. It’s important that we speak up about changing even our smallest actions and habits in our daily lives, like throwing things away that we can still use. It takes a lot of bravery to stand up to friends, family, or even strangers.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki was brave enough to stand up in front of the global community to demand a change. So why can’t we? Today, she is still a leading environmental activist and proponent of youth involvement. Now I’ve watched Severn’s speech in Rio about 30 times now and each time I’ve seen it I’ve become more and more excited to see her speak here. I hope you’re just as excited as I am. Please help me to welcome to the stage, the amazing, Severn Cullis-Suzuki!

Severn followed with an inspiring speech to the students and teachers at the Summit about the importance of speaking the truth in even the most intimidating situations, and of not letting fear prevent them from letting their voices heard. During her speech students, teachers and student Summit interns tweeted and Instagrammed their favorite moments, thoughts, and reactions. Below is a collection of posts that captures Severn’s speech and illustrates how it impacted the audience.

Thanks for making me cry again @severncullissuzuki . Another amazing #efsummit comes to a close with a standing ovation

A photo posted by Hannah-Rose Mann (@hannah_rose_mann) on

These extraordinary events combine educational tours and a two–day leadership conference, tackling significant global issues in places where they come to life. You and your students learn from experts such as Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Sir Ken Robinson, and U.S. and local students work together to design and present their own solutions to the issue. Each Summit empowers your students today to start becoming the leaders of tomorrow. Upcoming Summits will tackle the Future of Energy in Iceland, and Human Rights in Europe.

Zach Michonski

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