I was sat having a coffee with an American undergraduate student when we found ourselves discussing national stereotypes. As a Brit, I am naturally cynical. This isn’t a generalisation – it’s the truth.
This cynicism, Michael said, should be celebrated. Surprised, I asked why he welcomed such a trait and was greeted with some sound logic.
‘The last thing I want when I’m traveling is to meet another American.”
Like many of us, Michael explained that when travelling, distancing yourself from your everyday social norms is all a part of it.
“It’s more than putting miles in between you and your home; it’s immersing yourself in what you’ve seen, read and heard that attracted you to a particular country in the first place. That includes meeting you grumpy Brits over a fellow countryman”
I never looked at my cynicism as an attractive feature before and although I very much enjoyed his observation, I feel this one trait is taking us ‘grumpy Brits’ down a path towards isolation and political insignificance.
Apologies for turning this cultural antidote into something more sinister but please let me explain how in six days I had reached this epiphany.
One Young World (OYW), described by many as a ‘young DAVOS’, is the largest gathering of nations outside of the Olympic Games. Around 1,300 millennial leaders converge on a different city each year to discuss issues affecting youth in an attempt to activate leadership.
As a first-time OYW delegate traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa, I had high expectations but my evil British inner-monologue continued to dismiss this event as nothing more than an international frat party comprising of elitists, self-interested companies looking to improve their corporate image and the offspring of rich, prominent political types working their way up the ladder.
If these were indeed the brothers and sisters of Alpha Epsilon Pi, then the One Young World Counselors made up the guest lecturers on chummy terms with the university President, in this case, David Jones (CEO) of Havas Worldwide. I even branded OYW’s returning ambassadors as celebrated alumni welcoming a new cohort of ‘buddies’ into a selective network littering all tiers of the corporate world.
Already convinced that my preconceptions would be validated on the first day, I jumped into the summit’s plenaries, special sessions and breakouts with my shield raised. Just how wrong I was quickly dawned on me as I found myself captivated, angered, in tears and more importantly, emboldened through a collective consciousness of change making that made me both proud of my accomplishments and, at the same time, question their impact in comparison to what others had done half my age.
What I found strange was that this self-criticism wasn’t a negative. My appetite for direct action grew as I listened to a thousand stories from millennials, global leaders and celebrity activists on their efforts to drive positive change.
Many of these changes were reached under adverse conditions, the likes of which I simply couldn’t relate to so I felt no sense of competition, which is rare when ambitious young people inhabit one space for several days. Instead, I saw opportunity; the chance to collaborate with those who had hunger but recognised the need to draw on one another’s experiences over all else.
What a humbling experience. I never once felt a sense of urgency to assert my opinion or vie for someone else’s attention and those who did were quickly challenged. This wasn’t a place for self-interest or the 30second pitch. Such ill-conceived tactics spat in the faces of those who had literally traveled through warzones to attend.
I found myself sipping tea with Rasha Alzrir, a Syrian national who politely hijacked one of the plenaries to highlight the atrocities occurring in Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian cities where civil war continues and the threat from chemical weapons remains.
After visiting the Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, I shared my thoughts on gender inequality with Amanda Dufresne, the victim of a near fatal sex attack who’s story haunted me as a man but soon made me realise that gender isn’t the issue – rape is the issue and men are also the victims; a social taboo rarely discussed, Amanda explained.
Then I heard the story of Llwad Elman, who established the Elham Peace and Human Rights centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, which rehabilitates child soldiers and who, along with her mother, set up one of the only rape crisis centres in the country. Llwad, 23, has done all this despite her father, long-time peace activist Elman Ali Ahmed, being assassinated for speaking out against violence.
What makes her story even more remarkable is that her sister, Iman Elman, 21, commands a brigade of 90 men and is considered to be the only female commando in the country! Two sisters; one fighting terrorism on the frontlines, the other, speaking out for women’s rights and supporting victims of violence in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
It’s hard not to walk away from events like this feeling self-congratulatory based on your own achievements but such feelings were cast aside and replaced with an overwhelming sense of urgency to double, triple my efforts.
So as well as switching off my cynical switch, there’s one other thing I’ve started doing now that I’m back in Britain – opening myself up to the benefits of collaboration. What I’m seeing here in the UK is division; whether it’s David Cameron discussing a referendum on exiting the European Union or Scotland’s first minister pushing for independence, One Young World has instilled the mantra of ‘thinking globally, acting locally,’ which I plan to do in all my endeavors.
I’m also campaigning to uphold Britain’s membership within the European Union. This isn’t the time to withdraw behind national borders; the world’s issues are too great for any one nation to solve. Like I have done, governments must adopt more millennial traits, especially those around international collaboration, if we’re to stand any chance of combating some of the world’s ills.