Stepping Back & Stepping Up: a personal reflection

COP17 climate talks in Durban ended with mixed reactions and emotions. The deal? To establish a new body, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, to negotiate a new global agreement for emissions reduction by 2015, to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. So, what does this mean to me? Well, the short answer is a whole lot and nothing at all!

A lot – because it signals to me how much work needs to be done and how far we still have to go. Nothing – because this decision (or lack thereof) has not forced me to postpone the action I will take to do my part. I’m not willing to wait until 2020. I will not wait until it is too late – because we, as humanity, cannot put Mother Earth ‘on hold’ and she is not waiting for us!

A poster along the dock of the beach in Durban (photo: Firyal Mohamed)

What relevance do these ‘talks’ and the implementation of a new 2020 agreement have on the lives of the people who are dying right now from various effects and impacts of environmental change? Or the countless others who are being displaced? Or on the millions or billions of lives we are putting in jeopardy by – failing, stalling, diverging responsibility – whatever label we put on this – delaying action on a real, urgent and global challenge. This decision doesn’t change the task ahead, it doesn’t stop climate change and it doesn’t secure our future. If anything, the outcomes of COP17 reinforced to me how much of this responsibility rests in my hands – in each of our hands as individuals, to take urgent action to do our part.

I may sound like a cynic, but this realization has shed some much-needed light – a wake up call, if you will, on where I need to focus my efforts. It was the realization that these talks are a good step in global cooperation, but also the recognition that investing our hopes in hands of a few is not what is going to ‘save us’, that has pushed me to re-evaluate my role as an individual and my contribution to the bigger picture.

Upon reflection of my time in Durban, my initial struggle with my role as an observer has now been transformed into one of my most invaluable experiences. It encouraged me to learn how to ‘step-back’ on several occasions and embrace the role of an on-looker. I was able to identify what I saw as strengths in the processes and structures but also critically evaluate those crucial areas where I saw distrust, miscommunication, or blame brewing. I was able recognize capacities for trust-building and opportunities for engaging in dialogue, even at the most fundamental levels – from challenges we were forced to resolve in our communal living situation, to those countless informal conversations I experienced and witnessed in the hallways of the ICC, on the bus rides home, or dancing in the rain together at the concert ending the Desmond Tutu climate justice rally.

Durban Climate March (photo: Firyal Mohamed)

This role as an observer, allowed me to comprehend at a deeper level what I see as the task at hand for Initiatives of Change (IofC): making self a catalyst for change, in some ways being the bridge across the divides…a dispensable one at that. I saw IofC’s role in ‘bridging trust across the world’s divides’ evolve into one that I now view as being self-sustaining, one that would carry benefits far beyond the organization’s contribution. One that would deem us, in the best sense of the word, obsolete – that the individuals who met each other halfway on this bridge, would then be able to conquer those divides and cross the bridge together.

Sometimes to achieve this, it may mean stepping back and serving more as a helping hand, or stepping up to create a safe space for open and honest conversation to occur, encouraging dialogue with an opinion you would normally dismiss. From these small acts, amazing things can emerge. It becomes a balance of understanding when we need to step back and when we need to step up. Or further, recognizing when stepping back is the step-up, so that you perhaps become ‘the stage’ on which the production will occur…rather than being the star of the production itself.

So instead of getting lost in the structure, in the complexity of the process, in the jargon of the political lingo…in the utter chaos (which is very easy to do), I learned how to step back and embrace this invaluable role as an observer. I explored what it meant to just be present during the times I felt lost, confused or disengaged, recognizing there is much to learn, value and appreciate in the ‘other’, whatever or whoever this may be. This recognition of the need to step back elevated me beyond the superficial layers of the negotiations. It allowed me to put on a new lens from which I could now view the world in front of me without limits, boundaries, or divisions. It was from this lens, that I am now able to set a foundation and begin shaping how I see myself stepping up and contributing, to the best of my ability, to the challenges that face us moving forward.

A call for courage - Africa Roars: Thousands of South African youths form a giant human lion's head and call for urgent action on climate change. (photo: Greenpeace)

During this time, I felt myself turning more and more to my own inner conscience by making that space to listen, rather than to react and it was in those moments where I felt my purpose flourish. And there it was. Without even knowing it, I began to see the beginning of a new journey, nestled in the roots of one of many of IofC’s affirmations – the importance of silence, of quiet time – the time we intentionally make to listen to that inner voice, that came in so many unexpected times and situations, but nonetheless, they came. And now the possibilities seem endless.

So I’ve begun what will be a long journey after arriving home, a long personal journey and a hard fight to secure a safe, trusting and healthier future for myself and for my own children and grandchildren. I’m excited to face these challenges ahead as they bustle with possibilities and am eager to continue to contribute to the work of IofC- work that is now more necessary and timely than ever, as we face one of the most significant global challenges of our time.

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2 thoughts on “Stepping Back & Stepping Up: a personal reflection

  1. Thank you for these moving and profound reflections Firyal. I think that the inner journey you have made mirrors the journey we all must make as we confront difficult issues and deal with people who don’t seem to see what we see.

  2. I like this too. My recent thought has been ‘care for the planet depends on care for people’ If I want to see a change in the way people care for the planet then the quality of my care for people needs to change too – this is what can build trust, hope and the ability to make changes in life style. It brings a whole new focus into life. Mary

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