Penn and Temple students attend UN Global Engagement Summit

Written by Anastasia Shown, board member of the Global Philadelphia Association and the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia, and a lecturer at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice

On Friday, February 23, a dozen students from Philadelphia participated in the United Nations Association’s Global Engagement Summit at UN Headquarters in New York City. The Global Engagement Summit unites world leaders with America’s leading grassroots change-makers. Students had the rare opportunity to sit in the UN General Assembly Hall and participate in critical global policy discussions on climate change, peace and security, human rights, and much more. This group included undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and Temple’s Fox School of Business.

Anastasia Shown, board member of the Global Philadelphia Association (GPA) and the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia (UNA_GP), and a lecturer at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), led the delegation of students. She had visited the UN years ago in graduate school at Penn for the Commission of the Status of Women and had a profound experience networking with NGOs, grassroots organizers, government officials and activists. This trip was equally special. Anastasia found that the speakers lended advice for her work as a social worker, educator and community activist.

In a panel session on taking action for the Sustainable Development Goals (the UN member states international development agenda), Clayton Ferrara, Executive Director of Ideas for US, said “Teachers and scientists need to get out from behind the desk. We can’t stay in the publish or perish state. We must evolve as activists.” In that same panel, Soffiya Elijah, Executive Director of Alliance of Families for Justice, said, “Tech can only take us so far. People to people connections are what make movements. Make sure your campus organizing goes beyond using your thumbs.”

It should be noted that the Sustainable Development Goals referred to the role of cultural heritage for the first time in 2015. Safeguarding and promoting cultural heritage, also known as World Heritage, can contribute directly to sustainable development in communities. Philadelphia, the first World Heritage City in the U.S, is doing just that. Through a comprehensive strategic plan to promote preservation and appreciation of our cultural, historical and geographic heritage; stimulate economic, social and educational activities; and inspire pride throughout the region.

The Global Engagement Summit takes place at a critical moment for the world. U.S.- UN relations are strained and several UN priorities are under threat from the White House. The world is facing the worst refugee and humanitarian crisis since WWII and serious threats from terrorism and climate change.

The effectiveness of the United Nations depends on the participation of 193 member states and the backing of citizens around the world. The United Nations Association of the United States, works to support the mission of the UN by connecting Americans to the work of the UN and advocating for strong U.S. leadership within the UN. A nationwide poll, released in October 2017 by the Better World Campaign, found that the vast majority of Americans believe it is important for the U.S. to maintain an active role at the UN. 1,800 UN advocates attended the Summit and it was the largest assembly ever of Americans gathered in support of the UN.

Ashleigh Alexander, a graduate student at Penn, remarked, “This was the first conference that truly embodied and understood the strength in diversity. I gained so much insight and encouragement from all of the different speakers, particularly Soffiyah Elijah who said, “unless we provide justice in this world, there won’t be any peace. And there’s no way around that.” These are the words that will stick with me as I embark on my post-graduate journey.”

Sarah Bunjo, a graduate student at Penn, said, “The panelists’ focus on social justice resonated deeply with me...Jeffrey Sachs, the world renowned economics professor and senior UN advisor, highlighted the need for economic equality and identified war as the primary threat to social justice and peace. A panel on Advocacy through the Arts focused on empowering marginalized communities to tell their stories through art, a process that can raise global awareness and initiate social changemaking. I was inspired by hearing and seeing my academic lessons be put into practice at the UN.”

Cindy Luo, an economics major at Penn and intern with the UNA_GP, said,“This was one of the most rewarding and motivational experiences I’ve had. The most important thread of the Summit was humanity’s common values and our power as human beings to share our stories. It is crucial to share multiple narratives and work with those directly impacted to start shaping policy. Speaker and former NY Senator, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, put it best by saying “if you are disengaged, you are disenfranchised!” We choose how we solidify our democracy everyday by the decisions that we make and the actions that we take or don’t take. Having a personal interest requires us to be political, and that’s a powerful thing that we should not shy away from.”

Hannah Menzies, President of Penn’s Social Work Advocates for Immigrant and International Rights (SWAIIR) and graduate student at SP2, was profoundly moved to be surrounded by hundreds of scholars, learners, and global citizens. She said, “This summit gave tangible means to the discussions, research, and dreams that my graduate studies have been established on. As we sat in the seats of many courageous leaders, past and present, the resiliency and ambition of our global community came to life. For myself, a deep-seated hope was restored simply by the presence of every person in the room. Just as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home,” and just as the conference represented many types of homes, we were all once again reminded that we, too, can make a difference-- at home.”  

The Summit ended with closing remarks from Perrin Ireland, the great-granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt. “Ireland prompted us to remember the unfinished ethical agenda of human rights, to put ourselves to work, and to critically analyze leadership,” said Luo. Ireland reminded the audience of Eleanor Roosevelt’s work in and outside the U.S. Known for being a champion of human rights and key to the creation of the global framework- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Roosevelt also worked tirelessly at the local level for civil rights, women’s rights and social welfare reform. Shown hopes that the Summit lit a fire under her students and will propel them to action now rather than later. For Roosevelt said in 1963, “The world of the future is in our making. Tomorrow is now.”

Click here to view photos from the trip in our photo album.