June 5, 2018
7 min read

Fireside Chat with Forest Whitaker at Ecosperity 2018

Forest Whitaker delivering a speech before the fireside chat

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am humbled to be here with you today.

Allow me first to recognize Temasek for organizing this amazing event here in Singapore. It is my first visit and I have to confess that I am truly impressed by the energy, the vibrancy that resonates in the air.

What I find fascinating as I moved around the city is to witness how this drive for innovation is deeply rooted in its identity as a multicultural environment where dialogue among religions is valued at the highest levels of decision. I was struck by the beauty of a recent speech of her Excellency President Halimah Yacob at the National Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circles Convention, where she said that "Regular, positive social exchanges between different races and religions provide the foundations for social cohesion. Like a rich tapestry, our Singapore story is alive only because of the fine, interwoven threads of social interactions." 

On peace and diversity 

Respect for diversity is key. Resilient ecosystems are generally those that host a wider range of biodiversity. I believe it is the same for human ecosystems: the more we have diversity among us, the more capacity we have to look at problems from different angle – the more incentive we have to inspire each other – the more creative and innovative we are.

To me, creativity and innovation do not happen in social voids – they have roots in the life of the community. 

I believe that peace is best supported by individuals integrated into open communities and that communities succeed when their members communicate. This implies that, today, in the age of the participative web, peace and connectivity must go hand in hand. Technology opens doors to new worlds of knowledge and opportunities to exchange with people a continent or a block away. In this sense, the ICT revolution goes beyond economic and technological gains: it pertains to our capacity to learn more on and to dialogue with more people. This is a deeply human dimension of connectivity that cannot be overlooked.

This is the foundation of the work I conduct in communities afflicted by conflict and armed violence with the young people whom you saw in the video. They are change-makers who aim to reconnect their communities with themselves and with the world as well.

Some were forced to flee their homes at age four or ten and walk for days before reaching a refugee camp. Some were forced to become soldiers and take part in combat.  Even when they have not experienced armed violence directly, they have lived within its grasp. This is the case for those who live in South Sudan. The country is currently in the midst of civil war since 2013. Whole parts of the country are now under the rule of military or para-military groups. Many young people I meet in South Sudan feel that the world has abandoned them. And yet, there they are, working with us to make peace happen around them.

One main goal of this work is to connect the dots between peace and prosperity, security and the economy, which I see as the foundations of healthy communities. The programs I develop around young people aim to help communities that have been shattered by conflict and violence regain resilience and to address their challenges by themselves.

Forest Whitaker with National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita

Cooperation among actors is key 

When the UN Secretary-General appointed me as SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Advocate, it was very clear for me that this agenda was different from previous ones because it did not presume that governments and international organizations are going to do everything and substitute themselves for people and communities. This is an important move from an era when international assistance was largely perceived as a prerogative of public institutions and international organizations either intergovernmental or non-governmental. To me, the SDG matter because they make room for initiative from the private sector. They constitute a strategic compass and a beacon to synergize and energize potential partners.

One of the main concern raised by the challenges of the world we inhabit today are complex not just because of their magnitude – climate change is a planetary challenge – but because they require that people from very diverse backgrounds work together.

I do not know what the future will look like but one thing I can tell is that a sustainable future can only be built on partnerships among very different groups and actors.

This is the reason why sustainability is always characterized as encompassing economic, environmental and societal issues. As UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, I am particularly sensitive to this last aspect – the social or human dimension of sustainable development that I view as deeply related to lasting peace.

Breaking the cycle 

Peace is not just about armed conflict – peace is a general approach we have to challenges facing us; it is, to me, a synonym of hope, hope that we can work for a better future, hope that we will find peers who nurture the same aspiration to positive change. It is a belief that we can address problems in cooperation with others, that the economy can be inclusive and that society can express a form of harmony. It is on such conditions that we can work together towards a common destiny.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

These words have a both deep and practical meaning to me. The film you just saw is precisely about that. Facing the challenge of change is central to the humanitarian work I conduct through my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). We build networks of young women and men from places that have been impacted by chronic forms of conflict and to support these young leaders as they develop educational and economic projects in the benefit of their communities.

We work in such places as South Sudan, a country which is currently at war with itself after decades of a liberation war.

We work also in northern Uganda, a region where the memories of the civil war of the last decade are still vivid.

We work in Mexico with young women and men who have grown up in neighborhoods battered by drug wars. I also work in my own country, the United States, where we reach out to children and young people from vulnerable areas.

For so many of these children, war and violence are all they have ever known, and if we do not take it upon ourselves to teach them something new, then they are just soldiers-in-waiting. And when another war breaks out five or ten years in the future, they will be back on the battlefield.

We must act to prevent this. Not only because these children deserve the chance to live normal, healthy lives, but also because we have an opportunity to create change or even prevent future violence. If we can make these children emotionally whole again and restore a sense of normalcy to their lives, then they will want to put down their arms for good.

I see a deep connection between peace and change. Peace always starts from within – for communities and people alike. The same with change: true change starts from within.

This is the path I follow with WDPI: to empower young women and men as social innovators. In their own communities

They have ideas on how to combat poverty and hunger or how to promote quality education and gender equality. They have ideas and we help them make an impact with these ideas.

We see them as partners who help us on the ground to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals.

In Uganda, one of our youths was a former child soldier. When we first started working with him, he couldn’t even stay in a room alone. Now he’s established a chain of electrical repair shops and trains other young people how to take on this profession.

Another one of our youths founded a hair salon where she trains hundreds of girls in this profession while she continues to grow her business.

In Mexico, one of our youth groups set up a workshop to teach other youth and children simple ways in which they could help take care of the environment, even from their own home or school. They introduced children and other youths to such issues as reusable energy and recycling. They even designed games that have attracted the attention of a private corporation who now supports their work. This initiative by WPDI young leaders is a good example of combining learning and empowerment in the sense that it is action-oriented.

As citizens, we need to have knowledge on peace, on the human rights as well as on the environment, but we also need to know that we can do something.

Young people as drivers of change 

Based on the model developed by WPDI, I believe that young people should be mobilized to do their part at the national, local level, including businesses through income-generating schemes and market based solutions. Environmentally they can help collect recyclable materials, depollute rivers, plant trees, all of which should be seen as services that governments and businesses would support as investments in the bottom line of the future.

In this perspective, we could think of “youth banks” or earmarked funds that governments and businesses would establish to finance projects designed and implemented by young people to serve the community and to generate income, including through mechanisms that offset the carbon footprint of large emitters.

These projects would contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. They would be systematically integrated to humanitarian initiatives or to projects addressing water issues, environmental degradations or climate change. This would be especially important for climate change because climate change is probably the defining challenge of the decades to come, which means that if we are to work at solutions, we have to realize that young people are part of this solution both today and tomorrow.

We know that humanity will face unprecedented challenges in the decades ahead – but these years could also be those of unprecedented innovation if we manage to impulse movements that promote lasting peace and shared prosperity. Young people should be in the driving seat with businesses at their sides. My call to support youth is addressed to business leaders in particular because I believe that the sustainability of our future will in the end depend on our capacity to embrace change and entrepreneurship.

Thank you for your attention.