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DMU students are 'agents and forces for change' in the battle to save the planet for future generations, says UN director


A United Nations (UN) director has told students from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) the vital role they have to play as ‘agents and forces of change’ to ensure our planet is protected for future generations.

Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, Director of the Sustainable Development Unit at the UN, took part in an inspirational Q&A with four students and DMU Vice-Chancellor Katie Normington as part of the university’s Leadership Series, which was streamed live from the UN headquarters in New York yesterday.

UN - group shot

Students with Ms Gyles-McDonnough (centre) and VC Katie Normington (right)

Ms Gyles-McDonnough told the students the world has the largest generation of young people in history – 1.8 billion – and it was vital they used their voices to push countries to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The call to action was put to DMU students Tarnjeet Kaur, Dennis McCall, Kushbu Lad and Roze Arbaciauskaite who were in New York in recognition of the exceptional efforts they had made to champion sustainability.

They have been given the opportunity to address UN representatives in one of the famous debating chambers, where many world leaders have previously stood.

They then put their questions to Ms Gyles-McDonnough, who opened the session by congratulating DMU for its work as the only university in the UK to be a UN Academic Institute global hub for one of the Sustainable Development Goals – SDG 16 to promote peace, justice and strong institutions. 

She said: “Universities play a really crucial role in ensuring we can achieve the SDGs. The work you have already done in terms of integrating the SDGs into the curriculum - and the strategic plan across the university - is remarkable and we hope many more will follow in your footsteps.”

These are the questions the students put to the UN Director, along with her answers.

Tarnjeet Kaur, BA Business Management and Economics

UN - Tamjeet

Q: What is the biggest challenge we must overcome to meet the SDG goals?

A: “This is really, really important. We look around us today and we are facing crisis after crisis. We had Covid that did not just impact health but the socio-economic health of our countries, we have a climate emergency on our hands and now we have a war in Ukraine with dramatic increases in food and fuel prices that are hitting countries when their fiscal space is already squeezed.

“So we have seen some of the SDGs falling off track. We have made some progress but some of it has been eroded. We have another 236 million being plunged into poverty, an additional 265 million going hungry. This is going in the wrong direction. The challenge we have is to halt the decline and get back on track. There is some real urgency in making sure we do the most we can as individuals, as countries, in the private sector and in civil society to come together and push to achieve these goals. They are hugely important for humanity.”

Dennis McCall, PhD in Air Transport Management

UN - Dennis

Q: As young people what role can we play to meet SDG targets?

A: “It is very important for the world to accept we have the largest generation of youth in history. 1.8 billion  - about a quarter of the world’s population – and 90% of these are in developing countries.

“The young people care very deeply about whether they have opportunities and choice, whether their economies can grow and whether the growth will allow governments to invest in things that are important to the young people - security, education health. Young people are already contributing. They are contributing to resilience in their communities and they are proposing solutions. They are leading.

“We have a responsibility to expand that space and for young people to step into it and to help to shape that future that they will carry not just for them but future generations. You are very effective mobilisers and you are connected. Being connectors you are influencers and technology makes this even more powerful. With that power comes the responsibility to how that is used. You are truly inspiring and there are many more of you. With some active listening and experience it is very important that that space [for young people] is afforded and that space is taken.”

Khushbu Lad, MSc International Business and Entrepreneurship

UN - Khush

Q: With the focus on climate change, how do we meet the targets of all 17 SDGs?

A: “Nature and a healthy planet is a source of life and the responsibility to protect that is important. Sustainable development is about how we meet the needs of all of us living today but also to not limit future generations. So strong climate action to make sure we have a healthy planet on which we can all thrive is urgent and important

“It underpins all the 17 goals. You cannot really separate climate from action to reduce poverty, or health, or the urgent transformation we need in our economies, so it is like an underlying force that impacts everything. It is therefore vital we look at the goals in this integrative way to allow us to reach the objectives we have at the end of the day. Climate change either hinders the progress we are trying to make or, the way we address it helps advance us towards the goals we are trying to achieve.”

Roze Arbaciauskaite, BSc Education and Psychology

UN - Roze

Q: What would be your key message for current and future leaders and young people in general?

A: “You are agents and forces for change and that is hugely important. So how do we draw on you as effective mobilisers and to find pathways to what is important. We invest in your skills which is what you are doing now at DMU and this is incredibly important. You have to make the most of what you have been given.

“We all need to find our authentic voice and find ways to express that voice. You need to take your cheerleaders, silent or loud, with you. And remember every step we take we stand on the shoulders of someone. The sense of humility and leadership takes us where we want to go. Remember leadership comes from anywhere. It is not something you claim when you are 40. You take it from where you stand at that moment using the skills you have at that point. Think about what your contribution is from here and, as you move to a next place, what is my contribution from here?

“I think that inspires us to start now and not to think we have to jump over 55 hurdles before you can step in a space and share your voice and offer what you have as ideas and solutions to problems.”

Posted on Friday 24th June 2022

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