I’ve been absent from work over the last week due to a really great opportunity. Thanks to excellent karma, aligned chakras, or a good deed in a past life I was headed to Wilton Park’s Atlantic Youth Forum in England for a full week, care of the British High Commission and British Council.
Wilton Park outlines a fairly vague mission statement for the Atlantic Youth Forum, stating the forum is meant for attending students to “gain insight into each other’s concerns and perceptions on key challenges facing their countries and the international community and to make lasting contacts.”
Naturally, I had some questions/thoughts/concerns/anxiety over what this ACTUALLY meant, what I was supposed to do leading up to this conference, and what the outcome would be (if you know me, you could only expect as much). Over the last week, I did manage to find the answers to these, and many more. For example,
1. What do you mean gain insight to each other’s concerns and perceptions? Their country’s insight? Do you mean what ‘they’ want? Like policy changes? Like bottom lines? Are we negotiating a resolution?…Oh god… is this model UN?
So what really happened? I listened to others, listened with no expectations, no stipulations, and no ulterior motives. They did the same for me. I learned about individual’s stories of immigration, their successes in life despite many obstacles, and the issues they cared about. I learned regardless of culture, language, or political disposition that most of us were still students and we were still willing to learn. Whether that meant learning about each other or about each other’s concerns, this willingness still existed.
There were no resolutions, no reports, (thank GOD). Instead, we adhered to the ‘Wilton Park Protocol’, a promise to keep everything we said “off the record”. No one at Wilton Park can be quoted (directly or indirectly) and nothing we say is binding. This includes students, politicians, and civil servants; you name it, they can’t quote it. Imagine, how open would our discussions be if we practiced this a little more often?
2. What key challenges? The topics we have plenaries on? Are there other key challenges?
Despite our varied backgrounds, cultures, languages and political dispositions, this seemed to be the one thing we all had in common. We connected through our concerns and passion related to issues like food scarcity, constitutional rights, the conflict in Afghanistan, climate change, and many others. I cannot emphasis enough the power that this has given us as we move closer to being the key players in solving these issues.
What is lacking in international negotiations like Copenhagen or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review is perspective. Realizing the similarities you have with people around the world regardless of social, economic or political interests, connects you in a very strange and lasting way. For the rest of my life, no matter how different I think an individual or a country is, or how conflictual I think their interests are with mine, I will always remember that somewhere beneath the surface there will be similarities that I will understand.
3. What do you mean ‘lasting’ contacts? With who? How?…Facebook? Email? Newsletter?
‘Lasting’ as in permanent, memorable, connected. With my peers, and yes, yes, and yes.
After the picture tagging, and initial tweets and blogs are posted I know that months or years down the road I will still be connected to these people. When I find myself in Turkey, I know I can stay with Sevcan. Germany? Solveig’s got my back. Maryland? I know Mary Beth will help me out. Think of how powerful this connection could be if we ever found ourselves sitting at a roundtable negotiation on climate change; I would expect fewer bottom lines and negotiation walk outs. After all, it’s hard to forget these people when you’re bound by the traditions and rituals of Wilton Park!
So finally, I find myself asking ‘so what?’ The question I always ask myself when reading papers, writing essays, listening to arguments.
At Wilton Park I decided to ask Jamie Shea (Director, Policy Planning, Private Office of the Secretary General, NATO) the same question. So we’re students, so we care, so we’re at this forum…so what? Here’s what he had to say.