“Can you get outside of yourself and come together and realize that the mission of sustainable development is larger than you?”
This was the resounding challenge from Steve Sostak of Inspire Citizens during the second Global Issues Network (GIN) Conference at Keystone Academy on October 20. Around 100 students and educators from across Beijing gathered together for a full day of motivational speeches and interactive workshops that called on students to act on pressing global issues such as climate change and inequality in education.
The Keystone GIN Committee, comprised of Director of Service Learning, Zadok Huang, and Grade 11 student coordinators Loubna Laribi and Tori Gu (pictured below), co-organized the conference with Inspire Citizens, an educational consultancy organization based in Beijing.
“The GIN Committee is the eyes of Keystone to the world, and we want students to be involved not only in their local communities but also in the global community,” Laribi said. “It's pretty awesome to be able to connect with other people and learn about what they are doing so we can develop our ideas to help solve global problems.”
This year’s conference zeroed in on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of quality education (4), gender equality (5), and climate action (13). It featured speakers including Koen Timmers of Innovation Lab Schools and Jacob Sule of the iRead to Live Initiative in Nigeria, as well as China-based organizations such as WildBound, Stanford’s Rural Education Action Program (REAP), and Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC). Keystone teachers Chris Cartwright, Chris Leonhard, Dr. Deborah Smith Johnston, and Sindhura Mahendran also held workshops throughout the day.
The Power of the Youth
The day before the GIN Conference, Keystone hosted 27 young women from EGRC who are part of the organization’s Future Women Leaders Scholarship Program. Several Keystone faculty members and staff organized immersive workshops such as the Silhouette Identity Project to enhance the girls’ English communication skills.
During the GIN Conference, EGRC Development Director Elise Li (pictured below) discussed how the organization has used education to empower economically disadvantaged students in the rural regions of China, where gender inequality persists due to poverty and a cultural preference for boys. The success stories of the EGRC alumni, including a current headmaster of an elementary school in Gansu Province, moved Li’s audience.
“Students and teachers felt an instant connection and showed a strong interest after my speech,” Li said. “There were five young gentlemen who asked more about what EGRC does, including a student from THSI (Tsinghua University High School International) who is passionate about gender equality. She even told me she hopes to talk to Mr. Malcolm McKenzie (Keystone’s Head of School) to connect her school for a possible fundraising project for EGRC.”
For Li, forums such as the GIN Conference shows the power of the youth to take action by turning their passions into a platform that inspires people to take action.
“Sometimes, kids are the best teachers,” Li said. “I received feedback from high school girls at Keystone who are part of a student exchange program with EGRC, and I’m impressed by the breadth of their insights and perspectives. Not only are they talking about helping rural young women from Gansu but they’re thinking holistically. And it is important for future leaders to have this skill.”
Students Are Geniuses
Gender inequality has a significant impact on the lives of children, particularly in the rural regions of Eastern and Southern Africa where there is a high rate of school dropout in girls before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. In Nigeria, more than 5 million school-aged girls are not in school, even though primary education is free and compulsory. This, along with the Boko Haram crisis and child labor issues in the country, has prompted Jacob Sule to initiate iRead to Live. The organization mobilizes volunteers who tap into the ideas of SDGs to cultivate a passion for reading in students and enlighten the community on how education can prepare children for the future.
“In Nigeria, education is a privilege and many students do not even have access to the internet,” Sule told his audience at the conference. “But all of you in China have the best opportunities. I would not be surprised to see that in the next 5 to 10 years, you will be able to change the world.”
He challenged the participants to see learning beyond the classroom, a view shared by his co-speaker Koen Timmers from Belgium. In one workshop, Timmers asked attendees from Keystone, the International School of Beijing (ISB), and Tsinghua High School International (THSI) to create a duck using six Lego pieces. After one minute, they placed their creations on a paper pond. No ducks looked the same.
“I could have approached this challenge by showing a duck and asking them to replicate it. Instead of doing that, students came up with solutions themselves. And I was able to learn from them. That's an approach in education which I believe we need to implement.”
Timmers also spoke in a later session about several high-impact educational projects he organizes that empower the youth. For Project Kakuma in Kenya, he has mobilized a global community of 350 educators from 70 countries who teach youth refugees in the Kakuma camp via Skype for free. This project is part of the broader Innovation Lab Schools, or “global classrooms” that instill empathy by using a curriculum patterned on the SDGs. An Innovation Lab is also established in a Jane Goodall Institute school in Tanzania. Timmers also relaunched the Climate Action Project which calls on more than 100,000 students across the globe to tackle climate change issues together.
“We need to allow students to offer their solutions because they are geniuses,” Timmers told the educators in the audience. He also encouraged students to do more after the conference. “You have the potential to change the world. You just have to follow your passion.”
Bound to the Wild
Oftentimes, direct experience leads to a better understanding of a passion. Songqiao Yao, the founder of WildBound, an experiential education venture in China, told her GIN Conference audience about how she discovered her passion for environmental protection after watching Antarctic penguins on a monochrome television in her youth. That curiosity almost faded into oblivion during her high school years, but she rekindled it during a 3-month expedition to the icy continent after graduate school.
“Having the experience of nature around us puts knowledge on a deeper level in the consciousness,” Yao said. “We know about the environmental crises we face, but it's a very intellectual perspective. But how much do we actually care about that? Intellectual knowledge and experiential knowledge are two different kinds of things.
Yao showed her audience a photo of a young traveler who held a chunk of ice, hugging it close to her face. She revealed that the girl was trying to listen to the popping sound of prehistoric oxygen escaping from minuscule air bubbles trapped in melting ice. For Yao, the experience was magical yet mind-blowing because the air trapped in Antarctic ice has existed long before modern humans ever walked on Earth.
“Whoever has been exposed to nature at a young age can always have something to draw back from if they need inspiration, strength, or just a moment of calm,” Yao said. “They will understand that nature is always there and it is a more powerful motivator than just facts and figures. You don’t need to become an environmental scientist because you can also contribute even if you're working in another sector.”
The GIN Conference is one of the numerous opportunities where Keystone students can provide service for the benefit of local and global communities. Keystone places great value on service learning, which reinforces the school’s five core values and forms part of students’ holistic assessment. Keystone has brought delegations of teachers and students to community service trips within the perimeter of Beijing and outside of China, most recently in an earthquake-stricken region of Nepal.
“It's a great chance for us to tackle and explore global issues, and to, at the very least, spark a change in our mindsets,” said Tori Gu, one of Keystone’s GIN Committee student coordinators (center, in the picture below). “It's not only about leading but more about inspiring other people to take this step despite life’s uncertainties. From this forum, we can tell other students that change is possible if you’re just willing to try,” she added.
Delegations from international schools that attended the conference highlighted the impact of student collaboration on solving problems in their communities.
Loredana Giovanelli, Extended Essay Coordinator at Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA), witnessed the enthusiasm of her students and said they took away valuable knowledge that will help them accomplish their projects. One of her students, Ricky Yu, said he learned how to initiate a project with faculty members and sustain its momentum. He also liked the collaborative activities, which introduced him to more ways to find solutions to problems.
Seventh-grader Amy Lu from THSI, on the other hand, said she was inspired to achieve her project on protecting the environment and organize a fundraiser for rural schools in China. THSI teacher, Jeremy Hachey, believes the conference offered students a chance to work with their peers across Beijing.
“I was encouraged by the students, knowing that they are very busy but still decided to participate in the conference. That showed a lot,” Zadok Huang said.
“Those are the kids who are the changemakers because they're the ones that are willing to get their hands dirty and think critically and problem-solve,” Steve Sostak said.
The conference speakers commended Keystone students for taking real-time action in solving global issues. The conference so inspired Sule that he vowed to begin a similar movement in Nigeria. Timmers noted the “huge potential” of Keystone students, but reminded them to figure out their passion and the direction that they want to go to. Yao, meanwhile, said students should get in touch with nature to understand who they are and find out what they want to pursue in life.
“Connect your passions to the skills that you’ve learned in the classroom,” Sostak said, “That’s basically something that you do well or love, connected to something that is a great need in the world. If you can find that vocation within the intersection of those two things, it will be a pathway to happiness and making the world a better place.”
Photos: Zheng Liu and Carlos Key