Top 30 Under 30: What they are Saying (part 1)

In February of this year ACGC launched our 6th Top 30 Under 30 Magazine at Bow Valley College in Calgary. We were honoured to have two current Top 30s—Noelle Jaipaul and John Skene, as well as 2016 Top 30 Fartoon Siad—speak on their experiences as young leaders in international cooperation and community development. The responses we received from those in attendance were so positive that we decided to share their stories here. First up is Noelle Jaipaul of Edmonton. Here is what she had to say when she took the stage on February 7, 2017.

I would like to first acknowledge the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta where we are gathered, which includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuu T’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations. And a giant thank you to Heather, Leslie and all the ACGC staff who put together the magazine and this event. It’s a huge honour to be here with all of you.

So, I’ll admit: The past few weeks have been pretty tough. I’m sure we have all been watching the news and if you’re like me, have been feeling pretty deflated and worried about what is going on in our world. But, amidst all the devastating news coming to us from near and far, there is something else that we’ve seen. The news has been full of powerful people making bad decisions, but there is also something even more powerful. And that something is our collective solidarity. So often we see and have to deal with the outcomes of bad policy, poor advice, and just general ignorance. And in our solidarity is the coming together of people who are countering, fighting, and building. And I’m really honoured to be here talking to a room full of builders.

But I feel like there is an important caveat to be made. We need to understand, in a very real way, how we can be an ally. And while we can all find much hope and solace in the solidarity of marches and rallies and vigils, there is so much work for us to do to be true allies.

There are a lot of buzzwords around right now in the social and community development sphere: like empower, collaborate, engage … but in practice, how we do we actually construct environments that allow us to do these things?

I think the foundation of this is reflection. We have to be willing to take a critical look at our own power and privilege. A big part of being an ally is using and exploiting the positions of privilege we have, and figuring out our strongest “leverage” points. But at the same time, we need to be really critical, and seriously reflect on the ways that our own power and privilege may replicate systems of inequity.

The SDGs are a good example of how we put this sort of reflection into practice. Gone are the Millennium Development Goals, which have often been criticized as being so quick to point out the social and economic ills “over there,” without looking at how even in the so-called Global North we live with a huge amount of inequality and underdevelopment. We don’t have to look far in Canada to see homelessness rates, higher than ever use at food banks, and even undrinkable water and dilapidated housing on Indigenous reserve lands. But now, with the SDGs, every nation and community must acknowledge that we have so much work to do. The SDGs force us to think about how we build a world where “no one is left behind.” Part of this is acknowledging that despite (or maybe because of) our privilege and power on a global scale, we deal with poverty, gender inequality, environmental degradation, xenophobia, inadequate health, and the list goes on.

So in the spirit of the SDGs, as builders, I ask you all to do this reflection personally, and in your organizations. And as builders, let’s hold each other to account. Are we making decisions and taking action on behalf of others? Or are we truly listening to what those around us need and want? Are we making sure we are helping to provide other builders with the tools they need— Instead of trying to build everything ourselves?

I have a personal and in fact pretty painful experience with this. I once was living abroad and working with a health clinic in a rural area that was very underserviced. Myself and a few other volunteers had come from Canada to “help”—we created seminar presentations on health issues that were prevalent in the area. The scripts we had were translated into the local language, and the presentation was done by our interpreter. Us volunteers literally just stood in the background, holding posters with really dumb drawings of what we thought would be useful diagrams of these health issues. And I just stood there wondering, what on earth are we doing here?? Was there really not a single person in that community who could do what we were doing?

We unintentionally were recreating age old inequities of the west saving the rest; of telling people in that community that they were incapable; of creating reliance on what, at the end of the day, was neo-colonialism.

Did anybody actually ask the nurses at the clinic what they need help with? These are such hard questions to ask ourselves, especially because we are trying to do what we can to ease the suffering of others. …And we should never lose sight of this. We just have to make sure that we are challenging ourselves, holding ourselves accountable, and reflecting on whether or not we are perpetuating sys-tems of power and privilege.

We are in a time of transition globally—people are not okay with the status quo, and traditional power holders are being challenged by this different kind of power—collective power. So I think that now it’s more important than ever to make sure that our actions are intersectional. We know in our hearts that we want and need justice for all, but we need to truly listen to others, and reflect on our actions. Are we considering the wants and needs of those we most try to serve? Are we aware of, and holding ourselves accountable to, our own privilege and the way we occupy space? Are we actively making room for more builders? We need to consistently reflect on our work, find every opportunity to listen compassionately, and seek out those who will share their stories and struggles. And it bears repeating: in the words of Indigenous Australian activists: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

So I thank you for giving me your time and your ears, and I am very honoured to be a part of this collective of builders. I humbly encourage you to keep doing the excellent and vital work that you are doing. We have so much work to do.

Read Noelle’s Top 30 story and the entire magazine here.