A Big Leap: Highlights of the Intergenerational Dialogues on the Sustainable Development Goals

Bruce Knotts, director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, addresses an intergenerational conference at the United Nations.

Bruce Knotts' opening remarks

On August 1st, a day-long event was held at United Nations Headquarters entitled “Intergenerational Dialogues on the Sustainable Development Goals.” The organizing body for this event was the NGO DPI Executive Committee*. The event opened with remarks by the organizers, UN and government officials, and civil society leaders. Each emphasized that an intergenerational approach is essential to mobilizing the entire global population behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The concept note (PDF) for the event cited its purpose to be “rais[ing] awareness of the high value that youth and older persons can bring to implementation of the SDGs, and foster a shift in the perception of youth and older persons from beneficiaries of social policy to agents of social change.” The rest of the morning consisted of six dialogues on different topics that repeated in the afternoon - allowing attendees to participate in the two dialogues that interested them most. A Lunch Meetup provided attendees an opportunity to interact and network with one another on an intergenerational basis, and the day concluded with attendees sharing their SDG commitments in light of the day’s conversations.

As people of all ages, genders, and nationalities filled the grand main room, the Intergenerational Dialogues on the Sustainable Development Goals began. The dialogue started with Jeff Brez, the Chief of NGO Relations at the UN Department of Public Information welcoming everyone to the first intergenerational dialogue of its kind at the UN. Bruce Knotts, the Chair of the NGO DPI Executive Committee and Director of the Unitarian Universalist UN Office (UU-UNO), spoke about how he was discriminated in his youth due to his age, despite being qualified for positions. Now, as a 68-year-old, he would be unhireable by the UN because he is considered “too old” by their standards. He stated that employers should not limit people simply because of their age.

Indigenous activist Binalakshmi Nepram from Manipur, India addresses a United Nations intergenerational conference.

Binalakshmi Nepram gives an impassioned speech.

Binalakshmi Nepram, indigenous activist, women’s rights defender, and founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, gave an inspiring speech advocating for more involvement of all people. She stated in her speech that “coming to the United Nations is like coming to a spiritual space-- there is nothing like this…” because of the people's wills to invoke positive change for the world. In the continuing dialogues held about SDG issues, we need to “include indigenous people… include women… [and] include people working in disarmament.” After Nepram’s moving speech, she received a standing ovation from the room. Following her, Cody Blattner, a 19 year-old Lehigh University student and trans rights activist who serves as a UN Youth Representative for the UU-UNO, gave an inspiring speech about the issues he has faced as a transgender man, including his search to find an LGBTQ friendly campus to attend college. It was encouraging to see this opening ceremony demonstrate the diversity and intergenerational inclusion they hoped to foster throughout the rest of the day.

The UU-UNO Interns who attended this day-long event each participated in two of the dialogues following the opening session:

The “Breaking the Intergenerational Cycle of Poverty” dialogue consisted of three panelists in the morning session and four panelists in the afternoon session. The panelists included Cornell William Brooks, former president of the NAACP; Patricia Talisse, Counseling graduate of Aleppo University; H.E. Hanh Choong-Hee, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the UN; and Anne Williams-Isom, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone. The dialogue was moderated by Chris Dekki, Advocate for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The dialogue began with each panelist introducing him or herself and summarizing his or her initial thoughts on breaking the cycle of poverty, all agreeing that intergenerational collaboration is vital to lift families out of poverty.

Panelists addressing intergenerational poverty in the United Nations event

Panelists at the UN spoke of how to break cycles of poverty.

Hanh Choong-Hee spoke first and emphasized that sustainability is inherently intergenerational. He argued that lack of communication is at the center of intergenerational issues, while also focusing on education as a way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Talisse followed, highlighting how the lack of resources --not lack of knowledge-- is holding back youth from escaping cycles of poverty. Talisse also proposed that empowerment should be a circle, not given from top to bottom. She noted that youth’s dreams of food security and decent incomes are included in the SDGs. Brooks discussed how the cycle of poverty must be broken intersectionally and intergenerationally. He argued that inequalities and poverty are interconnected through globalization, technological change, and changes in redistribution and policy. Anne Williams-Isom spoke last at the afternoon panel. As the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, she discussed how her organization works with families from day one. Through providing support to children and to parents, she explained how Harlem Children’s Zone aims to truly transform lives and break the cycle of poverty. She also addressed the deeply harmful impacts of internalized racism, and that part of her job is to model what is possible for the children in their programs.

“Sharing Responsibility for the Planet” featured three speakers: George Garland, Chris Hall, and Natalie Ingle. George Garland, the Treasurer of the United Nations Association (UNA-USA) Southern New York State Division, spoke of his experience working in waste removal for the US Military during the Vietnam War. Chris Hall, the Head of Marketing at Kaptyn, discussed how a trip to Antarctica inspired him to work on greener forms of transportation. And Natalie Ingle, a Program Manager at the Wildlife Conservation Society, spoke about her work studying wildlife in West and East Africa. The dialogue then opened to participants to ask questions and share opinions and experiences relating to climate justice.

Cody Blattner, a trans rights activist and student at Lehigh University addresses a conference at the United Nations

In the opening session, Cody Blattner, a 19 year-old Lehigh University student and trans rights activist who serves as a UN Youth Representative for the UU-UNO, gave an inspiring speech about the issues he has faced as a transgender man.

Although the aim of the dialogues was to foster discussion, the conversations lapsed into a pattern of each person speaking about their organization and specific area of concern, with little connection to others’ contributions. The result was a jarring lack of cohesion, where issues ranging from intergenerational communication styles to excessive military defense spending to arctic ice melt were mentioned with no connecting thread. When targeted questions were in fact asked, they were posed to the panelists by several high school and college students that expressed a strong interest in understanding the perspective of older adults on climate change issues.

Similar to the climate justice dialogue, the poverty dialogue might have been better suited as a conversation for much smaller groups so a dialogue could occur more easily. It was disappointing to see that the panelists did not build off of or acknowledge the comments from other panelists and very rarely answered the audience’s direct questions. While each member of the panel had insightful things to say about breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, the dialogue felt rushed and disorganized. It highlighted for those of us who attended that there is still much work to be done to truly incorporate the voices of youth within conversations about the SDGs. It was inspiring to see so many youth in attendance and disheartening to see their enthusiasm and passion suppressed by authoritative adults who refused to give their questions a proper response.

All in all, the event precipitated an important discussion on the value of intergenerational collaboration. As one speaker remarked, it is essential to engage the bookend segments of the population if we hope to mobilize everyone behind the UN SDGs. The Intergenerational Dialogues of August 1st marked an important and necessary step in bringing together people of all generations and backgrounds to learn from one another and learn together how our planet can truly achieve peace, justice, and sustainability once and for all.

* The NGO DPI Executive Committee represents all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with United Nations consultative status through the Department of Public Information (DPI)

Written by Katia Altern, Andrea Floersheimer, and Kate Mays who served as Program Interns at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office during the summer of 2017.

Logo for the UN NGO/DPI event "Intergenerational Dialogues on the SDGs" including the colorful circle logo for the Sustainable Development Goals

The UN created a minute-and-a-half-long video from this event: "UN: inter-generational solidarity key to achieving sustainable development"

Watch Short Video

Watch The Event

The Opening and Closing Sessions of the Intergenerational Dialogues event were live-streamed on UN Web TV. Here, you can find videos of:

The Opening Session (2 hrs)

The Closing Session (1.5 hrs)

Special Message from the Secretary-General (1 min)

Remarks from the UN President of the General Assembly (12 min) and the UN Special Envoy on Youth (7.5 min)