When the invitation to attend a Town Hall with President Barack Obama landed as junk mail, I presumed it was just that. I palmed it off as another phishing scam; the thought of recognition from the Obama Foundation seemed a little far-fetched.
When it emerged that the invite was genuine, there was a sense of excitement along with relief that I hadn’t clicked delete. I was shocked that the Open Government Partnership had considered me for nomination, let alone the Foundation accepting it.
To be recognised by the Obama Foundation as an emerging European young leader is a real honour, yet this opportunity meant more than that; the work we are undertaking as a collective within Scotland’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Network is now being noticed far and wide.
Since day one, we’ve set about forging an SDGs community in Scotland grounded by the principles of kindness, inclusion and openness. This approach has secured robust partnerships and progress between civil society and government on the SDGs agenda in recent months, and so I welcomed the opportunity to discuss the developing Scottish approach with young leaders from across Europe. It’s these encounters where the real value in the Obama Foundation’s Network can be found.
That’s no surprise, as the Berlin Town Hall was set up to bring together hundreds of emerging young leaders from across Europe, to ignite conversation about what it means to be an active citizen and help advise how the Foundation can help support us in our work.
It’s on that note that the event kicked off with a panel discussion between young change makers, facilitated by Ben Rhodes, one of President Obama’s most trusted aides.
The panellists went straight into discussing the changing face of Europe (cue Brexit chatter) and the rise of far-right nationalism. Flavia Kleiner, the face of the political movement Operation Libero, remarked that the aim of politics is:
‘…not about national sovereignty, but about the wellbeing and dignity of citizens.’
This really struck a chord given our own national story that is being written. Enhancing the freedom, safety and wellbeing of our fellow citizens should drive the decisions we take, yet some seem willing to jeopardise the unquestionable progress our country and continent have made.
‘…this moment is full of contradictions…as collectively in Europe right now, on average, you probably see the highest standards of living of any group of people in the history of the planet.’
However, even with so far to go in delivering an inclusive and fairer society, the aim of today’s politics can often seem far from being about wellbeing and dignity.
Voluntary and charitable organisations are at the front of what Obama calls, ‘a battle against powerful forces…threatening to reverse’ progress in Europe. That battle necessitates equally powerful communications, and Delphine O, Town Hall panellist and French MP representing Paris, was spot on when she said:
‘…it is not enough to just do something. You have to tell the story of what you are doing.’
We know how important it is to be able to tell the story of the work we do to promote the positive impact we have, and to enable people outwith the charity sector to see what exactly we do. This challenge exists not only in Scotland but across the world, and Obama reflected on the growing wave of misinformation that will continue to grow with the rapid development of artificial intelligence.
It’s clear that organisations and communities at the forefront of tackling poverty, reducing inequalities and combatting climate change must continue to rise to the task of telling our stories in a way that cut through other narratives and bring others onboard across the political divisions, however hard that proves to be.
Ben Rhodes touched on cynicism and division as the two factors that stop society from progressing, and of all the wise words that came from Barack Obama, one line stood out to me the most:
‘Get the architecture in place first. Then turn up the pressure and progress.’
Obama was referring to the rigidity among progressives across the world and a growing unwillingness to stray from purity on the big issues of the day. He was not saying that there is always room for compromise, but the Paris Climate Agreement and Obama Care were good examples of where finding middle-ground – even if you know more is needed – can set foundations towards bigger and better things.
The main message I took away from Berlin was that we all need to work to nurture spaces where division and cynicism become harder, where collaboration becomes easier and where we can move towards bigger and better things together. I like to think our approach to developing Scotland’s SDG Network mirrors some of this.
We’ve slowly crafted a space where government, civil society and others are all welcome, allowing a different kind of conversation to thrive. Also, we recognise that the Scottish review on SDG performance underway will not be perfect; rather, we’ve focused on relationships and ways of working in these early stages.
With all that, I hope Scotland’s SDG Network can become an exemplar of what was discussed with the Obama Foundation in the months to come. I left Berlin with the confidence that it can.