Shifting Power: How Small Steps Lead to Big Change

31 October 2023

Two takeaways from the 78th UN General Assembly in New York

In September, three members of the Big Change team – Caireen Goddard, Senior Director – Impact, Aliyah Irabor-York, Youth Associate, and Eloïse Haylor, Head of Global Alliances, attended the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York. In this blog, they share the learnings and collective reflections on how to reimagine global convening and share power to transform education.

1. Despite better collaboration with young people we have to be even more ambitious to create collective, intergenerational change

Following last year’s UN Transforming Education Summit and the Youth Declaration, many organisations reflected on the exclusion of young people from the spaces where discussions and decision making on education were taking place. Young people’s perspectives and actions were often kept at the margins.

Aiming to foster intergenerational collaboration at Big Change, our team this year included Associate Aliyah Irabor-York, a dedicated young individual who has been actively contributing to our work over the years. We were happy to see that many other organisations also walked the walk in sharing power with the active inclusion and participation of young people. 

During the side events we joined and hosted, we saw how Cambridge Partnership for Education, Brookings, Salzburg Global Seminar, World’s Largest Lesson, and many more organisations had invited significantly more young people who were involved in panels and co-creating events around UNGA. 

While it’s inspiring to observe the initial signs of shifting the conversation around education to be more intergenerational, we left New York determined to be even more ambitious. This ambition extends not only to our efforts to transform education but also to the reimagining of the spaces where critical decisions are made.

UNGA is the only place where 150 heads of state and government gather to debate international policy issues. It is also one of the rare occasions where people from all over the world and from across sectors come together to share ideas and create partnerships for better futures. Yet many people agree that not enough change has happened and change isn’t happening fast enough.

Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Centre for Universal Education at Brookings, asked in her reflection: “Does this UNGA meeting madness make a difference? Is it worth the time, the cost, the effort? This is a conversation I have had more than once, especially as people get to day 2 and 3 and all our stamina starts waning.” She answered with “YES” – justified by the seeds planted at UNGA that will bear fruit, as exemplified by the organisation “Teachers for the Planet” that was birthed through 17 Rooms and cross-sectoral UNGA energy.

Reflecting upon our week in New York, our answer is also YES, but under the condition that we become better and bolder at convening. What would it really take for UNGA to be a space that, as Maria Fernanda Diaz de Leon Marin put it, “harmonized perspectives across all generations”? Not just inviting new voices to perform within existing structures, but setting the stage to create a new sound altogether. The question we should continue to ask ourselves is “How can we gather in a way that supports more intentional, effective ‘seed-planting’ to shift systems?”

2. Show a new way is possible – reimagine convening to facilitate system change

When organising and hosting events, it’s easy to fixate on the agenda, speakers, or even the lunch provided. But it is rare to consider the space that we find ourselves convening in. People who have been to UNGA many times are used to a system that promotes a standard dress code, conversations and other aspects that may be deemed as ‘professionally acceptable’. But do these spaces allow us to bring our full selves? Do meeting marathons and collective exhaustion enable us to make the decisions that can solve our crises?

One key question we’ve found helpful as we collaborate intergenerationally is “Why do we show up this way?’ Asking “why” repeatedly can get us closer to the root answer and help us re-examine every-day practices and invite others to show up in different ways. Ultimately we want to aim for global convening spaces that feel “like an oasis that helps us think, plan and ideate for the future” – in Vee Kativu’s words, a Girls’ Education Activist.

For example, at an afternoon workshop and evening Reception co-hosted by Salzburg Global Seminar, Big Change and YouthxYouth at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, our Associate, Aliyah Irabor-York, took off her uncomfortable shoes while facilitating a Big Education Conversation.

Conscious of the implicit expectations of the audience and an ‘UNGA’ event, she modelled a new understanding of being ‘professional’ that is rooted in authenticity. Another example of inspiring change was how Aliyah sensed the room and responded. When people retired to the back of the room, she directed everyone to gather in a circle. This instantly increased engagement, and empowered several youngest participants to step forward and share their reflections.

These examples support our core belief that by bringing people with diverse perspectives together, holding space for them and empowering them to connect their thinking and ideas, we are shaping the conversation on how to transform education. As we explored in our guide on intergenerational collaboration and sharing power, how people are invited to show up in the space makes all the difference. Intergenerational collaboration is about releasing us all from what’s not working and learning new ways of doing and being together. 

Yet, during UNGA in 2023, so many events had a set agenda, scripted dialogues and an organisational ego that is often a barrier to authentic relating. How can we foster decision-making spaces with avenues of genuine listening and open-ended conversation?

Otto Sharmer’s Theory U for transformation emphasises “deep listening”, which calls for an attunement to the emergent and collective field of the future. But how can we truly listen in spaces cluttered with scripted monologues?

Through our week in New York we learned that listening is not a passive act but an art. Valentina Raman and Erioluwa Adeyinka from YouthxYouth have a wonderful habit of asking: “What’s your learning question?”, thereby role-modelling how asking the right questions holds more importance than possessing all the answers.

Big Change took the first step towards facilitating authentic engagement during the reception we co-hosted. Aliyah invited guests, who found themselves having a Big Education Conversation, to forget their organisational titles and let go of the pressure to elevator pitch. Instead, she suggested they turn to the person next to them and say what they really believe is the purpose of education. And really listen to them.

We heard of unexpected connections made, even a breakthrough in a previously tense working relationship. It’s refreshing to see UNGA where success is gauged not by the number of events or outputs, but by the quality of presence, depth of listening, and trusting relationships formed. 

What next? Applying insights beyond UNGA 

Leo Garnier posed a question we kept contemplating upon: “Is anything really transforming if things aren’t changing in classrooms?” Insights and learnings from UNGA aren’t yet fully manifested in practice in the classroom.

Sweeping rhetoric of transformation in the UN can feel far removed from the everyday realities of students and teachers trying to make change in their classrooms. But we believe that to make big change, everyone needs to be part of the conversation. To transform systems, we need to create spaces that give us permission to be honest with each other and show up authentically. We need more conversation spaces and structures that support us to change our ways of being together as well as doing. 

We extend an invitation to join us in reimagining the future of global convenings. Engage with us as we share, learn, and strive to bring about lasting change, one conversation at a time. 

Download the guide to more inclusive and intergenerational convening here, and put it into practice with an intergenerational Big Education Conversation – download free resources in seven languages. Follow our journey and joins us on social media: X and Instagram   

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