Gandhi suggested that we “be the change”. But when you’ve got an impending law exam, a resume to build and a Facebook addiction, what does this really mean?
Last year, I was selected to be Australia’s Youth Representative to the United Nations. It took me around Australia, meeting thousands of young people, and then to New York, where I addressed the General Assembly. I learned vital lessons about what real change involves.
I had never imagined I would get to the UN. I was a disengaged Arts/Law student, who cared more about having fun than getting HDs. The law I learned was a series of rules, suspended in a vacuum outside of culture and politics, to be memorised and regurgitated, memorised and regurgitated. Even my Arts degree seemed to prise open an artificial chasm between intellect and feeling. We debated Fukuyama and Waltz without asking why they mattered. What was the human impact of their theories? Who were these societies they analysed? Where were all the stories? I tuned out.
Life was good in Canberra: its challenges involved lying facedown on my bed, cramming constitutional law before my exam in six hours, pausing for glasses of wine with housemates. So why did I feel so restless?
After my first year of uni, I packed my bags and went to Kenya, where I had spent part of my gap year volunteering in an orphanage. This time, I worked at Kakuma Refugee Camp: a lifeless desert on the Sudan border, littered with crude huts, overflowing ditch-sewers and emaciated children.
I met people like Almerina, a woman who campaigned fiercely for female education even though she was dying of AIDS. Like 18-year-old Alice whose two beloved children were the product of rape. I was left wondering how such generosity and resilience can remain among the poorest, most desperate people in the world. I realised you can learn more by going somewhere than by studying it.
With more context, university became more meaningful, but my restlessness continued. I studied in bursts, worked in bars and pestered Rotary until I accumulated sufficient travel funds. I ventured to places like the Northern Territory, where I worked for women’s advocacy services in remote communities; Iran, where I met desert nomads and showered naked under waterfalls; and Pakistan, where I watched sacks of opium being smuggled, and toured an AK-47 factory.
In these places, I encountered stories which taught me that Gandhi’s quote was more than a platitude. I applied to be Youth Rep.
Working at the UN was simultaneously exciting, disillusioning and inspiring.
My first week was World Leaders Week - a surreal “spot the famous face” experience. During one morning shift in a temporary hotel-based office, our pyjama-clad foreign minister, Stephen Smith, stumbled in on a confused coffee mission. A (light) beer with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was another highlight.
Mostly I worked in the Third Committee, negotiating human rights resolutions. Negotiations could be controversial - especially on gender and sexuality. They could also drag on. One meeting lasted five hours because countries disagreed over where to insert the word “and”. We were meant to be resolving extreme poverty.
National face-saving was exasperating. As Sudan reported their brilliant treatment of women, I thought of young women like Alice, whose brutal rapes had been perpetrated by government-backed militia. Countries often completely ignored each other. I sometimes saw diplomats on Facebook.
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