On January 30-31 2018, sophomore biology student Aisha Bilal attended the seventh annual Youth Forum of The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as the delegate for Rutgers–Camden.
Aisha was first attracted to Rutgers–Camden by its location, compact size, and the attendant opportunities to build personal relationships with other students and professors. Those relationships have proved their worth already, providing her with opportunities she would not otherwise have had. The ECOSOC Forum was first brought to her attention through Dr. Kwangwon Lee, Associate Professor of Biology. At his suggestion, and with his and Dean Kriste Lindenmeyer’s recommendations, she sent in her resume and a personal statement explaining her interest in sustainability and desire to attend as a delegate.
The forum works to involve the youth of today in sustainable development goals for the coming millennium, bringing delegate youths together from around the world, not only to listen and learn, but also to contribute. The goal of these yearly forums is to inspire and support the young generation to solve current global issues so that they can make the world a better place without compromising the livelihoods of future generations.
Each year the forum has a different theme focusing on a few of some seventeen “Sustainable Development Goals” ranging from gender equality to affordable and clean energy. This year the theme was “The Role of Youth in Building Sustainable and Resilient Urban and Rural Communities.” The emphasis lay mostly on the youth involvement in environmental issues, such as access to water, sanitation, and renewable energy.
The forum’s concentration on social, environmental, and economic solutions are what attracted Aisha. Ever since she was little she has been environmentally conscious. It came naturally to her to pick up trash and be caring toward animals. The instinct strengthened as she grew, and when she reached high school she became increasingly involved with her local environmental organizations. Aisha was president of the Environmental Club at Burlington Township High School, and whilst there she not only assisted in informing her peers of environmental issues via school-led events, but helped divert tons of waste away from landfills by spearheading a district-wide composting initiative. In addition, she helped to sell hundreds of reusable water bottles and lead cleanup efforts in several local parks and communities.
Her enthusiasm grew rather than diminished, and in 2016 she embarked on a bachelor’s degree of biology at Rutgers–Camden, with the goal of pursuing a career in environmental science. Upon entering the campus community, she immediately joined the Green Team. Most of her involvement has to do with the environment in one way or another; it’s her passion.
Rutgers began helping her to fulfill her environmental goals within her first year, allowing her to obtain an internship during the summer of 2017 wherein she served as an Organic Recycling Account Coach. She trained the workers in various locations throughout Philadelphia to effectively participate in recycling and composting programs, thus avoiding the emission of several metric tons of greenhouse gases.
The one anomaly in her catalog of environmental organizations and leadership roles is her position of secretary for the Muslim Students’ Association at Rutgers–Camden. Yet, even this ties in with her environmental interests. Aisha believes that her faith is at the heart of her sustainability efforts. In common with most faith systems, Islam instills in its followers a sense of responsibility to care for and appreciate all of God’s creation. However, where people of all religions acknowledge this in theory, Aisha works hard to put it into practice. Apart from caring for the environment in general, she believes that “Islam teaches us to respect all living creatures, especially animals. We are forbidden to treat an animal cruelly, or to kill it except as needed for food.”
The matter of food and slaughter is one of the major ways in which respect for animals is demonstrated in Islam. Various standards of care must be adhered to make meat Halal, or permissible. Islam requires that all animals be provided with adequate space, food, water, and fresh air. When it comes to the actual slaughter, Islam provides several more guidelines, stipulating, among other things, that animals cannot be killed in front of other animals.
With this background of information and environmental consciousness, Aisha was in a position to glean the maximum benefit from the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum. She believes that Rutgers–Camden’s representation there is especially important, because Camden is an urban environment that can be easily left behind as sustainability initiatives progress in other, wealthier regions. Urban areas with limited funding and resources are more vulnerable the effects of climate change, and the youth of such urban areas are surrounded by unsustainable levels of pollution and waste every day, making it harder for them to see their community’s true sustainable potential. Aisha wants to work with other youth to change this mindset by coming up with sustainable solutions on a global, as well as a local level.
The Youth Forum employs both large assemblies, and smaller breakout sessions. On the first day these discussions were divided by environmental topics, and on the second by region. Aisha’s choice of breakout sessions reflects her individual knowledge and interests: on the first day, her enthusiasm for youth involvement and sustainability was fed by attending the session on the up-and-coming technological resources used for renewable energy. On the second day, she investigated how Arab regions were empowering youth, particularly refugees and women, to implement the forum’s sustainable development goals.
One of the main take-aways for her was the complex and layered nature of the issues that countries are facing. Where one part of the world has the resources to make a difference, they lack youth enthusiasm and involvement. Elsewhere, the problem is reversed: the youth are as involved as they can be, but they lack the resources and support to make a meaningful difference.
Particularly eye-opening for Aisha was the disparity between population and representation. In most developing countries the majority of the population consists of youth, yet they are the least represented in government and leadership. Another disconnect is seen with gender inequality, particularly in the technological and governmental areas working toward sustainability. An overwhelming majority of law-makers and leaders in the developing world are older men.
With all of this to absorb, Aisha came away feeling empowered and motivated. She was eager for action and the change yet to be accomplished. Mixed with this was a sense of reassurance as she saw the relentlessness of her generation as it strives for change. The forum served to show her that, no matter what world leaders are failing to achieve, there is a network of young people, just like her, working on both a local and a global scale to protect the environment and create a sustainable future for all.
Aisha returned to Camden, “determined to do more work on the regional level in New Jersey to solve these pertinent issues with sustainable solutions. I aim to attend more forums and conferences similar to the UN ECOSOC, so I can continue engaging with the global conversation on sustainable development in order to apply it to my surroundings. I recognize that the immense privilege I have for contributing in this event equates to responsibility, so I will strive to work even harder when collaborating with others to resolve the impending global environmental crisis that many young people. like myself, are facing.”
Written by Victoria Wroblewski