Youth for change: alumna at the Y20 Summit

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Hannah Hopper, an alumnus of Stellenbosch University’s Undergraduate Diploma in Sustainable Development presented at the Sustainability Institute (SI), was one of three delegates – alongside Farai Mubaiwa and Oshea Roopnarian – chosen to represent South Africa at the 2021 G20 Youth 20 (Y20) Summit. We caught up with Hannah on her experience being a Y20 delegate, a student at the SI and local change-maker. Our conversation touched on the necessity of bringing a complexity lens to discussions on global crises, children as teachers in remaining lighthearted and curious, mental health, having a yes attitude, and overcoming imposter syndrome.

The Y20 Summit took place from 19 to 23 July, where youth from 19 representative countries gathered for their final discussions before putting forward policy recommendations to the G20. Three tracks were focused on: Digitalisation, innovation and future of work; Inclusion and equal opportunities; and Sustainability, climate and energy, which was Hannah’s track. With South Africa being the only African country represented at the summit, ensuring the voices of the continent’s youth were heard was of major concern for Hannah. “Being a white woman from a privileged background, I have a very different lived experience. It took me a while to move through those feelings of not being good enough for the role,” says Hannah. Each of the 20 delegates per track had to submit three policy proposals; Hannah’s focused on sustainability in education, the need to recognize the impacts of colonization on the global South, and biodiversity conservation in relation to vulnerable indigenous communities. For the last few months, the delegates have engaged in discussions to narrow down their 60 policies to eight per track. “It was a battle to find a balance between being too ambitious and being radical enough. We had to ask ourselves what was realistic, and what our final goal was,” says Hannah. “A lot of our discussion was figuring out how to water policies down appropriately. For example, we had a policy on education that asked for a reform to approach subjects with a complexity lens, whether that is science or history, which is a big ask. We found a leveraging point in the underutilized subject Life Orientation and asked how principles of complexity could be integrated there rather than asking for total reform.” When asked for her thoughts on policymaking as an agent for transformation, she responded to say that the policy space is tricky, but instrumental in creating new norms.

The Cape Town local is what you might call a change-agent. Having grown up in the Cape Peninsula suburbs of Kommetjie and Scarborough, she gained a deep respect for nature from a young age. Reaching her teens and an awareness of the realities of the world growing alongside a sense of powerlessness, she knew she wanted to have the tools to contribute to addressing the challenges we face. Yet, there wasn’t any educational institution that offered that, and so she settled on a business degree, taking an extra subject in geo-environmental science to try and bridge the natural world with the man-made. “After a year, I felt completely defeated,” referring to the way the content was taught as ‘not learning’. She reflects on her education: “The change in learning experience was incomparable going from first year of a business degree to being the first intake for the undergraduate diploma. All I can say, is I finally felt like I was learning for life. I can look back at the last three years of my diploma and remember exactly what I’ve learnt, the whole way through.”

After completing her undergraduate diploma, Hannah found herself involved in a project with an environmental group engaging local youth in environmental education where they gather weekly to gain a variety of skills and knowledge, from composting to the importance of dune conservation. The aim of the project is to prepare the younger generation to become custodians of the land. “I’ve learnt so much from their enthusiasm over the so-called ‘small things’ – it’s reignited my sense of awe with the world and my ability to see its magic. This line of work can be a bit depressing but seeing the potential in young minds to create change gives me new energy.”

How has your time at the SI given you a unique perspective in Y20 discussions?

Participating in discussions with my fellow delegates, I realised how unique the lens I’d gained from the SI really was. I feel like I can better understand the relational and layered nature of the issues we face; doing modules like complexity thinking, transdisciplinary design or social entrepreneurship help unpack very complex wicked problems with their interdependent components, and all the factors that are involved in bringing something to life, as well as the history behind it. Even just understanding the way reductionist thought works, and how it informs so many structures in the world shows what underpins these challenges. Feeling like I have the skills has helped me ease into my role because I know I am bringing that kind of perspective.

This lens has also really helped me understand my perspective in relation to others. For example, what I noticed in our Y20 discussions is how there are still narratives around climate change being a purely environmental issue rather than the intertwined challenge that it is. These discussions also reinforced to me how important it is having a global South perspective in spaces like this, seeing the different priorities between countries.

How did you get past your imposter syndrome?

I accepted that I was chosen for a reason; someone saw something in me that they thought was valuable. Don’t dismiss the doubt – asking yourself these questions of whether you’re right for the role is a critical process of self-awareness. But I remembered that we each bring something different, and we’re not supposed to show up with all the answers. And finally, not to take everything so seriously – all you can do is your best.

What words of wisdom would you offer fellow youth aspiring to be change-agents?

Firstly, it’s important to balance your work with looking after and nourishing yourself. If you are not okay spiritually, emotionally, or mentally, the impact you can make is going to be limited. Many people are suffering from anxiety, depression, and a great sense of uncertainty; we need to keep humanising mental health issues, especially those of us working to create better futures. Before you can begin to be a change-agent you need to find peace within yourself.

Secondly, I’d say to just take every positive opportunity that comes your way. Have a yes attitude. Regardless of how scared you are, just go for it, especially if it terrifies you; the learning that comes from failure is rich and important. Regardless of how small an opportunity might seem, building connections with people and building your network is really where your power or ability as a change-maker can grow. Throw yourself in the deep end, get out your head, have good intentions and if you mess up, you’ll learn from it.