Poem: To Those Who Dare Approach Her

“Please take care of my rose

With little to no love

She grew from ashes and rotten soil

Ready to surmount the world

 

Please take care of my rose

Such a selfless force

Always there for you through the worst

Her grace is not deserved by most

 

Please take care of my rose

Her unyielding backbone

Ought not to be incessantly strong

‘Cause of others’ wicked wrongs

 

Please take care of my rose

Appreciate her lyrical chords

Writing that is both candid and soft

Unveils the deepest lows from which she arose

 

Please take care of my rose

Don’t be afraid of her thorns

They were born out of struggle

For light and hope amid her woes

 

Please take care of my rose

Don’t hurt her more

If you won’t treat her right

Just let her go

 

Please take care of my rose

Her petals of everchanging colours

Have an aura that everything blows

Relinquishing capitulation to the shadows

 

Please take care of my rose

Let her know

We lied in our song

She is everything but replaceable”

 

Thinking of a very dear friend.

 

Written by Emilie F. Yaakaar

All Rights Reserved © 2019

#COP24 & #COY14 in Katowice: Part 3. Radically Meaningful? Unnecessarily Complex

In hindsight, I think I was initially worried about my trip to Poland for the wrong reasons. I was concerned about passport control at the airport, about checking into the Airbnb, about getting around the city, about encountering prejudice, about being lonely during COY… And I didn’t think enough about the main purpose of my trip: attending COP24. Ironically, whereas living in Katowice and attending COY14  went smoothly and greatly, COP24 was a double-edged paradox. On the one hand, I participated in various enlightening events, I was at a youth briefing with (and hence met) the UN Secretary General and the phenomenal activist Greta Thunberg, I attended interesting negotiations and sessions (and even spoke during one!), and I conducted exciting research.

On the other hand, I was involved in an interpersonal “quarrel”, I felt powerless and useless at various points during the negotiations, and I didn’t know to where/with who I belonged in such an international setting. Unfortunately, towards the end of my time in Katowice, the negative trampled the positive: I fell ill, I became very unenthusiastic, and I disengaged greatly from everything. My poor health and nihilism persisted well beyond my return from Poland, thus why I wasn’t feeling like writing anything about my experience till recently. To understand what went down, I must start from the beginning.

After COY14 finished on the 1st December, COP24 started the next day. COP24 stands for ‘24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’. COP is the annual UN conference for climate negotiations between parties (countries), which can also be attended by observers (non-party stakeholders such as NGOs). The key area of discussion during the 24th edition was the rulebook for the notorious Paris Agreement, an international agreement to limit to 2°C the global mean temperature increase. Whilst the Paris Agreement was reached on 2015, the rules for its implementation (collectively known as the Paris Rulebook) were not agreed: this process was to culminate at COP24, which was majorly achieved despite certain challenges and loose ends.

I attended COP24 as an observer and organiser for a UK youth climate organisation. Though during COY14 I was relatively on my own, other members of the organisation did come later to attend COP. I really enjoyed living with them, they were all very nice and it was great having someone with whom to speak and commute every day. We also had other teammates who were staying at other accommodation and who we normally met at the COP venue. As an organisation, our main work at COP was lobbying and campaigning. We met with UK negotiators to discuss a variety of topics, and different members also got involved in different activities that related to climate justice (our organisation’s main focus), from gender to conflict of interest. As part of my organisation’s work, other than help with logistics, I carried out interviews and collected stories to write an article for our blog.

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As during COY14, I got involved with YOUNGO at COP. The Youth NGOs constituency made interventions and statements during sessions like the opening joint plenary, drafted collaboratively by many people. I still remember how intensely we were working on polishing, editing and shortening our opening statement for hours. Though it was hectic, I really enjoyed doing it. As a YOUNGO member, I was also selected to attend a youth briefing with the Secretary-General of the UN António Guterres and the amazing teen activist Greta Thunberg. YOUNGO gave a statement during the briefing, and the Secretary-General then spoke to us, acknowledging how political will for climate action has failed so far and more needs to be done. The highlight of the session was definitely Greta and her inspiring words! My favourite quotes from her were: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We have all the facts and solutions” & “Since leaders behave like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken ages ago”.

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As a member of the YOUNGO Agriculture WG, I attended the first Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture workshop. I contributed earlier on the year to the WG’s UNFCCC submission for the session, so it was great attending it. I also spoke as an observer during the workshop, in front of negotiators from different countries and blocks, to share our WG’s input/vision for the KJWA. Additionally, since I’m also part of the YOUNGO Adaptation WG, I semi-followed the negotiations on adaptation topics. It was interesting to see how much specific language mattered in the drafting of adaptation texts for the Paris Rulebook. Parties often disagreed on how to word things and what to include and without absolute consensus, a final text couldn’t be approved. As observers, the Adaptation WG couldn’t give statements during the consultations, but we voiced our thoughts through press statements at YOUNGO’s press conferences.

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During the conference, I also participated in a few side events on topics like food systems, social forestry, and national adaptation plans. Their panel discussions and presentations were helpful to learn more about climate and environmental issues and practice, particularly from research, civil society and Global South perspectives. I rarely have the chance to hear about contemporary issues from a non-Western and non-academic perspective, so this was a great opportunity. Visiting the pavilions and exhibitions of different countries and non-profit organisations during my free time also helped with this. COP for me was a lot about stepping back and learning from others, not only for my voluntary work in the climate and environmental movements but also for my studies in international development and for my professional career.

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The only side of COP which I didn’t get very involved with were actions/protests by activist groups. This is certainly ironic, as my organisation is all about activism, and most (if not all) of my teammates did participate in different actions/protests during the conference. Whilst I supported them, I didn’t actively join any of these occurrences. I struggle with being hyper-visible, being vocal, and drawing attention to myself in open and public spaces. I’m very self-conscious due to a variety of reasons, including anxiety, childhood ordeals, my speech disorder, and my appearance. Speaking on stage at the COY14 closing ceremony and doing the WG intervention during the KJWA workshop involved a lot of mental preparation for me: it wasn’t easy. However, I was a bit proud of myself, as I considered them small steps towards gradually feeling more comfortable when being visible and outspoken. Unfortunately, this specific topic, among others, led to the complications and personal dilemmas that arose during my time at COP and that ended up marring my overall experience.

Everything began with an argument/difficult discussion I had with some people. The details around this are irrelevant. I will just say that at some point I became something I don’t like: confrontational and extremely defensive. Due to my upbringing, my speech disorder and my anxiety, I’m not good with arguments/conflicts, particularly orally. I normally just avoid them. However, this time I didn’t do that, because I was/felt personally targeted: I spoke out and rationally stood my ground. Unfortunately, my anxiety and my cyclothymia don’t work according to sense, they can easily go out of control, which is exactly what happened. As the issue didn’t resolve itself, I became irritable, I began to overthink, and I reached a state of emotional exhaustion. As a result, my health started to act up. And, from then, it all went downhill. An interpersonal clash led to my own individual and internal quarrel.

Linked to the disputes I was involved in, some personal dilemmas surged. I began to wonder why I was at COP. I had gotten involved in many things, but, were any of them radically meaningful or significant? As much as I enjoyed working with YOUNGO and observing the political dynamics of the negotiations, I felt as if observers (particularly young people) weren’t really listened to by negotiators. In addition, whilst I theoretically supported radical and grassroots activism as the main way to push for real climate action, I couldn’t bring myself to be part of visible protests or disruptive campaigns. Although I have been involved for years in social, political and environmental issues as a volunteer, campaigner and/or organiser, I’m no activist. I don’t join public protests or attend marches (for reasons already mentioned). I function better in the shadows. I normally go for “safer” action like volunteering for non-profit and civil society organisations in roles such as administration, communications and research.

Paradoxically, I believe this type of “safe” work is often not enough to achieve social, economic, environmental and/or climate justice (to understand this critique, read this https://beautifulrising.org/tool/the-ngo-ization-of-resistance). It can be meaningful, but often it is not transformative enough. At the same time, even if I could be an activist, I probably wouldn’t be able to. Though I dislike this mindset, I’m very calculative and strategic when comes to my life choices. I’m working-class, low-incomed and from a migrant background. I have a family, particularly younger siblings, who greatly depend on me. I don’t get to think just as an individual. I can’t afford to be arrested/punished for civil disobedience or similar actions. My academic and professional choices ought to be made according to their potential productive/profit value. Nonetheless, I have indeed made various “risky”/ “unwise” decisions in this regard, but then again, there are limits to it. I’m just “lucky” that most of my studies, jobs and volunteering experiences so far have been surrounding social, economic, political and environmental/climate issues. Still, I often wish I could do more.

The other internal dilemma that emerged was in relation to representation and belonging. A lot of occurrences at COP are based along national/regional lines. Even YOUNGO, though representing youth at an international level, operates often within a “Global North vs Global South” framework. And, I just didn’t know where I fitted in. I still remember how odd it felt at the briefing with the UN Secretary General when I sat behind a tag reading “SPAIN”. I was representing my country of birth, the country where I grew up, but, it didn’t feel 100% right. The “Spanish” label has never felt completely right, but, in that context, it was worse because I was at COP as part of a UK group: I was supposed to be representing UK youth. Yet, I also felt out of place doing that because I’m neither a UK national nor did I grow up in UK. I didn’t know how to contribute to my organisation’s meeting with UK negotiators.  In addition, whilst I was particularly concerned about the effects of climate change on my actual countries of origin (Senegal, DRC, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea…), I have never even been to most of them, so I can’t speak much on their issues.

In COP, I basically had to wrestle with my privileged position as an EU citizen and UK resident in an international space, whilst being aware that I’m Black and from a 1st generation migrant background: I’m still marginalised within a Western context, and mainstream UK/EU/Spanish “interests” (whichever these are) don’t necessarily represent me. In addition, due to not being and hailing from just one place, I felt as if had no real or authentic right/voice to support or give any specific national or regional perspective. This intensified my feelings of uselessness and disorientation, which originally emanated from my self-criticism about always going for “safe” voluntary work over more radical and disruptive activism. In the end, I left COP and Katowice just craving to go home, drained by my own thoughts and emotions more than by anything else, and feeling as if the experience had just been straight-up awful.

At present, I am more nuanced about my time at COP24. I appreciate all the good that happened, and I try not to exaggerate the bad. I moved on from the clashes I had as I normally do: stepping back, talking less, and avoiding giving an opinion on contentious topics. I’m opening my mind to the fact that activism and systemic change takes many forms, and not all of it is just protests, actions and marches: other types of work can be meaningful and transformational too. And, I have accepted that whilst my identity is unnecessarily complex, I’m more than that, and I just need to be contextually aware of my changing positionality in different settings.

Nevertheless, until recently, I was unsure about whether I wanted to ever attend another UN climate conference again. I even stepped back significantly from volunteering (I temporarily detached myself from a lot of things in general, except for my studies and jobs, because I was ill). I still haven’t published the research article I worked on during COY and COP, as at times I felt the project was not worth it (though I will be sharing it soon). However, I have now begun to be active again within my organisation, and I even put myself forward to potentially attend the next UN climate talks in Bonn. I figured that if I go again (mentally preparing myself better and doing things differently to avoid problems), I would see if the problem is actually the environment at the conference in itself, or just me. I will give it another try, provided I don’t chicken out, and see how things go. For now, I’m glad I went to COP24. Despite the pains it might have caused me, I got a lot out of it, and I’m grateful for that.

#COP24 & #COY14 in Katowice: Part 2. Katowice

 

 

Decor.

 

Morning in the city of Katowice. 

 

Evening at the Christmas market in the city.

Katowice, Poland (November-December 2018). To learn more about my time in the Central European country, click here.

Photos by Emilie F. Yaakaar. All Rights Reserved © 2019

#COP24 & #COY14 in Katowice: Part 1. The Icy Shock & Such Sheer Audacity

I have put off writing this blog series for nearly 3 months. I could blame it on writer’s block or on my health, but, on this occasion, it would be misleading. Truth be told, I was incredibly busy during January: it was my assessment period at university and I had to meet some urgent deadlines in my job as a research assistant. Still, I didn’t write this earlier not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to.

Ironically, it is something I was once really looking forward to writing. I even planned to add short videos, as I did for my time in Shenzhen. Yet, now, all I want is to get it done and over with. So, here it goes. On November-December 2018, I travelled to Katowice (Poland) for one week and a half to attend two international climate change events: Conference of Youth 14 (COY14) and Conference of Parties 24 (COP24). And what happened there, might have changed me forever…

I still recall how, despite all my excitement about attending COY and COP, I was somehow nervous and apprehensive about going to Poland for the two back-to-back events. As a Black person who has a Spanish passport, but “isn’t really” from Spain, travelling (mainly crossing through passport control) is never the most comfortable experience. However, I don’t want to dwell on this because, even if I get racially profiled and subsequently asked irrelevant questions or forced to go through extra checks, I’m still privileged due to my EU passport: I can travel to various places without actual serious impediments.

Fortunately, I had no problem to enter Poland, my arrival was trouble-free. The rest of my stay in the Polish city of Katowice also proceeded without any incidents or hassle, which made me rethink my preconceptions of the country. To put it bluntly, I was concerned about getting racial abuse or experiencing xenophobia, particularly due to the political climate as portrayed in the media, but none of that happened. There may have been some interesting stares here and there, nonetheless, as I always say, I’m overly familiar with that owed to my upbringing in Spain.

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Indeed, my time in Katowice was quite pleasant.  Something that definitely helped was learning some Polish expressions and pronunciation beforehand. I tried to speak Polish whenever I went outside, normally to order food, buy transport tickets, or shop groceries. Basic words and sentences like “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please”, “How are you?”, “I’m fine”, “How much?” and “Thank you”, were all I needed, together with gestures here and there. Some people did speak English to me, but still, I always went for Polish first, even if it wasn’t much or perfect. Speaking just the basics of the local/official language wherever I go is normally essential to me: it makes me feel more like a resident and less like a tourist.

That, coupled with the fact that Katowice was reminiscent of my hometown (the wonderful Vitoria-Gasteiz!), allowed me to feel comfortable during my stay in the Central European country. I even adopted a “homely” feel-good routine, such as buying a cup of hot chocolate with cream every evening in the central station during my commute (the hot chocolate was actually thick, similar to the one in Spain, which I terribly miss!). Something I didn’t get the chance to do was eat traditional Polish food, as I mostly ate sandwiches, soup, and mini pizzas, due to the hectic nature of what I was doing there. I also didn’t have time to do touristy stuff, but I wasn’t there to do so anyway. I still got to walk around the city every day.

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Although, at first, it seemed dull and ordinary (almost certainly due to the winter weather), I ended up liking Katowice. It was calm, with a mixture of vintage and modern buildings in its central area. As mentioned, it reminded me of my hometown, due to its classic appearance, serene ambience and medium level of liveliness. Additionally, as it was the start of the winter holidays, Katowice had Christmas and wintery decorations across its streets. During the evening, I always walked by a beautiful and colourful Christmas market, with stalls selling warm food like churros and products like Bethlehem figurines.

Growing up, we had the same things in Vitoria-Gasteiz during that time of the year. This festivity atmosphere in Katowice made a part of me feel “at home”, wherever that is. This is no surprise, as countries and cities across Europe often have significant cultural, environmental and/or architectural similarities. In the case of Poland, it is a Catholic-majority country, just like Spain: all the Christmas and religious references felt just right to me. Thus, I didn’t get any culture shock.

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I did find particularly odd-but-delightful how vendors wrote messages in their tipping jars, explaining what they wanted the money for. I thought it was both witty and touching. Still, the only staggering things I had to get used to were the early sunset and the freezing weather. I still remember the icy shock to my face when I stepped in the country for the first time. I expected it to be cold, but not that cold. I soon discovered I couldn’t even carry hot drinks outside, as they quickly became cold.

In spite of the challenging weather, getting around Katowice was trouble-free. Upon my arrival at the airport, COP24 volunteers were there in a visible marquee. They helped me get the right transport to get to the city centre. Katowice has a good public transport system: there are buses, trains and trams to get to most places. By using Google Maps and checking the timetables on stops, I always found my way around and never had to rely on a taxi (except for my departure, since it was very early on the morning). The trams were especially handy and lovely to ride (just like in my hometown!), quaint and simple.

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When I was riding the bus for the first time, I felt secure and I was not concerned about getting lost, even if I was worried about checking-in at the Airbnb where I would be staying. I wasn’t going to be alone during the whole week and a half, but I was the first member of my organisation to arrive and I had never been booked into an Airbnb before. Fortunately, I had no problems. Upon my arrival in the residence, a friendly man was there to give me the keys and show me around the small home. The place was wonderful: it had beautiful decor and it felt very homely. Words can’t quite make it justice, so the pictures below should help.

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Overall, I ended up liking Poland, contrary to my previous fears and expectations about the country. It was certainly not the physical or cultural environment which made my time in the country as troublesome and draining as it ended up being. It also wasn’t my experience during my first few days in Katowice, whilst I attended the 3-day COY14, just before COP24. As a matter of fact, COY14 is probably one of the most fulfilling events I have ever attended.  COY is the annual assembly of YOUNGO – the official children and youth NGOs UNFCCC constituency for UN climate change processes. It is also known as the International Youth Climate Movement (IYCM).

The 14th edition of the conference was hosted in one of the schools of a local university in Katowice (Uniwersytet Śląski w Katowicach). I attended mainly on my own, as most of my organisation’s members would be coming later for just COP24, but I never felt alone whilst in there. I still remember how amazing the opening ceremony felt: it was so empowering to see youth from across the world coming together to mobilise for climate justice and to engage in UNFCCC and national/local climate policy processes!

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COY14 was mainly divided into two parts for me. On the one hand, I attended the conference sessions, which were on different climate change topics and were hosted by the participants themselves. I found this aspect of the conference very interesting and enlightening. My preferred session was one ran by a Canadian researcher with First Nations teens (indigenous people of Canada).

The teens spoke about their research on the effects of climate change in their natural environment, way of living, traditional knowledge, and indigenous communities. It was a very enlightening session, with a especially touching moment when an indigenous girl from New Zealand stood up and spoke in her native language, showing solidarity with their struggles. Another session I enjoyed was one about composting, as I had always wanted to learn more about the facts, science and procedures behind it.

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On the other hand, I got involved in YOUNGO’s work and activities. I first attended an introductory session about the constituency, and then joined a workshop with the UNFCCC Secretariat, with whom YOUNGO works closely. In the last day, I was also in the YOUNGO open meeting with the President of the United Nations General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa. It was a great opportunity to discuss with her the role of youth in climate action and other general global concerns, such as human rights and conflict of interest.

In addition, I was an active member of the YOUNGO Agriculture and Adaptation working groups (respectively). When comes to climate change, those are my key areas of interest and concern. Prior to COY14, I was already part of both groups, as a lot of work is done online and from the distance during the year. Even though the Adaptation working group was rather inactive at that time, I did some stuff for the Agriculture working group. I contributed to a UNFCCC submission on a workshop under the Koronivia joint work on agriculture (KJWA), the main avenue in the COP/UNFCCC to discuss agriculture in relation to climate mitigation and adaptation.

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During COY14, the main work for all the YOUNGO working groups was collectively writing a policy position paper, with each working group drafting their respective thematic position. I contributed to both the Adaptation and Agriculture working groups policy positions. I had the pleasure of working with youth from across the world whilst doing so (Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Canada, Italy, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Nepal, Afghanistan…), both those present in #COY14 and those working remotely. We worked hard on developing our visions and expectations for COP24. It was one of the most enriching and formatives experiences I have ever had! It was also nice to meet in person some of the people I had already spoken with online.

The above work led to me giving a speech at the COY14 closing ceremony, as I delivered the statement of the Adaptation Working Group, with a summary of our position. It was my first time doing that sort of public speech, in such an event and in front of that many people. If you know me, you probably are aware that public speaking (and speaking in general) is not my strength, due to both anxiety and a sort of speech disorder (I was born with tongue-tie). I initially put myself forward in a nonchalant way, expecting others to follow, but that didn’t happen, so I ended up having to do it. To be honest, a part of me really wanted to do it, whilst the other one yelled at it for such sheer audacity.

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In the end, I did my piece and it went well. Watching a recording of my speech, I realised I don’t look as nervous speaking publicly as I actually feel, even if I have an obvious tick (I keep touching my braids!). All the YOUNGO working group speeches were seen and heard by high profile attendees in the closing ceremony, including the COP24 president, the President of the UN General Assembly, and the Executive Secretary General of the UNFCCC. These attendees were also given a copy of our collective policy position, and subsequently, they gave speeches themselves.

To wrap up, there was a presentation of the local COYs hosted by participants in their home countries across the world, who did an amazing work organising them: mobilising youth at a local level is vital too. And like that, the conference ended. Overall, COY14 was great formative and empowering experience ever. I learnt a lot about others and about myself in a very inclusive, relaxing and heartening environment. It was great to hear and speak to youth from different places, particularly from the Global South. I had the time of my life there, and my only regret is not knowing about this conference’s existence before.

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I probably enjoyed COY14, the supposedly minor event, more than COP24, the supposedly major event. My experience in the later is what actually led to my conflicting feelings about the work I do, the work I want to do, who I am, who I am not, how to stand up for myself and how not to be confrontative. To sum it up: something I was very enthusiastic and excited about (attending COP) turned out to be rather underwhelming, making me feel very emotionally drained at the end. And, to explain how and why, I need a whole other post…

Song Lyrics: Faith in Fallacy

“VERSE 1

Read more sad endings today

I wonder if we will be next

All our steps are clumsy

We barely evade our prophecy

Living day to day

That’s so short-sighted they claim

Yet, what’s the point in planning

Will there ever be a new dawning?

The almighty and their pseudo care

Shaming what they never experienced

CHORUS

All we can do is have hope

Work for a better tomorrow

Yet, I distrust this belief

It is veiling a myth

Disciple of patience’s school of thought

That my pessimism claims is false

While all my life goes by

And I can’t even say goodbye

This is just faith in fallacy

VERSE 2

Distract yourself with TV or books

Escapism always feels good

Study hard, it might save us

Our illusions can’t turn again into ash

Despite things rarely ending right

We hold on to our inner light

Nurtured to be resilient

No matter how hard the fall gets

Sometimes we do see spirits and angels

Are they really the family’s ancient?

CHORUS

All we can do is have hope

Work for a better tomorrow

Yet, I distrust this belief

It is veiling a myth

Disciple of patience’s school of thought

That my pessimism claims is false

While all my life goes by

And I can’t even say goodbye

This is just faith in fallacy

BRIDGE

But mama says

Don’t worry

Everything will be fine

Maybe not today

Perhaps next time

We struggle now

Tomorrow we won’t, alright

Others have it worse

Ought to choose hope above all

Don’t eat that

It is for the youngest child

Less for you

Forced diet might be good

Toddler is hungry

Give him water, it is fine

Sleep tight

Don’t push each other much

OUTRO

So used to this past rhetoric

Embedded in me like a memory chip

Feel guilty for now being alright

When the rest of us still ain’t

But there is faith

And it is on me

They believe in it

Even if I doubt it

Climbing is a fallacy

No other resort sadly

Can’t give up

Must push up

I promise

To keep fighting

Even if I think

This is just faith in fallacy”

By Emilie F. Yaakaar

All Rights Reserved © 2019