Where do you draw hope from was the first question I asked the Catholic educators and formators who gathered at the 2023 National Justice and Peace, Ecological Integrity, Engaged Citizenship, Poverty Reduction, Gender Equality, and Youth Empowerment (JEEPGY) Conference convened by the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP).
When I received the invitation to speak about Engaged Citizenship and Youth Empowerment, I thought about what I could bring to the session.
I do not consider myself a youth climate activist but then I realized that youth empowerment comes in different forms. Even the simple act of listening is a form of empowerment.
The conference theme is Moving Forward in Synodality to Address the Climate Emergency, and since synodality refers to journeying together, I shared ESSC’s (Environmental Science for Social Change) efforts in accompanying Indigenous youth in the marginal uplands, in listening to the voices and concerns of climate vulnerable communities in the Oceania-Asia biome, and sharing these voices in global platforms.
Local Stories: Journeying with the Pulangiyēn youth
The Pulangiyēn are the Indigenous People of Upper Pulangi in Southern Philippines who are known for their culture of peace and their spiritual relationship with the gaup (ancestral domain).
As with many Indigenous communities in the country and around the world, they face many socioecological challenges.
The proliferation of high-yielding variety (HYV) corn in Upper Pulangi contributed to landscape degradation.
HYV corn is used for the animal feed industry and has trapped small farmers in a cycle of debt and poverty due to unjust trading and financial schemes.
The impacts of local climate change further exacerbate food and nutrition security concerns. Further compounding their vulnerability is the precarious peace and order situation in the uplands that has increased feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
In a sense, this context tends to contribute to a weakening sense of cultural identity among the youth as some prefer to migrate to the city but often end up with high-risk and low-paying jobs.
Yet, despite the challenges, the community continues to uphold a sense of gratitude and hope for the future.
The youth – Guardians of Ecological Services – are accompanied in responding to integral concerns.
They learn about forest and water management and organic farming and further hone their skills through technical-vocational programs.
Through the Jesuit Worldwide Learning Program, the youth learn English which helps build their confidence in sharing their stories globally.
Apart from the training, they also deepen their understanding of their roles in the community through reflections on Laudato Si’ and Querida Amazonia.
Regional Stories: Listening to the concerns in the Oceania-Asia biome
Another level of listening I shared is the River above Asia Oceania Ecclesial Network (RAOEN) which facilitates discussions with local churches, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), and the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania (FCBCO), in caring for forests, oceans, and people.
The Oceania and Asia regions share a common image of the River Above. Wind patterns and precipitation generated from the Pacific Ocean, the largest climate determinant in the world, flow westward and give both life and destruction to the land. This forms a large biome of interaction.
The Oceania-Asia biome sustains a diversity of forest, coastal, and marine ecosystems with local and Indigenous Communities living in harmony with these ecosystems.
Yet, the biome is threatened by the ecological impacts of expansive economic interests.
Local churches and faith-based groups are at the forefront with communities as they bear the brunt of the threats.
Working at the community level, they know the extent of their vulnerability and the response needed.
RAOEN continues its efforts of dialogue and discernment throughout Oceania-Asia in seeking actions and sharing the lives and concerns of the most vulnerable in the biome.
Global voices: Youth thinking and sharing globally
With local and regional voices calling for urgent action, how can we now work towards shared advocacy on climate justice? This is one of the main efforts of the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network (GIAN)-Ecology or Ecojesuit.
Indigenous Youth are at the forefront of climate action. For the Pulangiyēn youth, climate action is about forest regeneration, sustaining clean water, and securing local food security. These practices are deeply rooted in their culture of care for the gaup and the life it sustains.
Through the On the Way to Change virtual pilgrimage to COP26, the Pulangiyēn youth shared their stories and hopes for an ecologically just world, similarly shared by other young people around the world whom they engaged with in dialogue through the pilgrimage.
Global youth movements such as the Economy of Francesco bring together young people from different walks of life to work towards an economy that cares for all.
These are the voices that need to be uplifted globally and part of the advocacy is to raise greater awareness of their concerns and ensure that they have a space in the decision-making table in global climate summits.
The role of Catholic education institutions in youth empowerment
Catholic education institutions have an important role in helping shape young minds. How can these institutions empower youth voices and empower them to partake in the call for climate justice? I highlighted five points:
- Reach out to communities in the margins and learn about their daily lives. Schools have exposure and immersion – better phrased as engagement – programs, but these programs need to be restructured into community engagement: learning about the story of people, their challenges, and their hopes. This helps foster a genuine connection and understanding.
- Raise awareness of local, regional, and global concerns. Advocacy begins with awareness. Catholic education institutions can help broaden perspectives of young people on different realities, and accompany them to act with courage.
- Break out of the silos through networking and collaboration. Each one of us has the heart to do something, yet with the gravity of the challenges, we are often left disheartened. This is where networking and collaboration comes in. The CEAP as an association of schools is a great platform to foster an exchange of programs and activities, and collectively discern possible collaboration for greater impact.
- Foster spaces of youth exchange and dialogue. It is valuable to bring together young people from different walks of life in a shared space for an exchange. Youth also tend to find consolation in each other’s struggles which then empowers them to act.
- Uphold faith and hope. We are aware of the urgency of the climate crisis and how we are part of the problem, but if we get too caught up in this, we tend to get bogged down. This is why we need to uphold faith, as this gives youth a sense of hope and courage to act and dream for an ecologically just future.
Where do you draw hope from? Reflecting on what I have experienced and what I shared, I find that being able to listen to fellow young people is what gives me the most hope.
Understanding their struggles and their sincerity to act is what inspires me to keep journeying with them while remaining hopeful for a better world.
Criselle Mejillano is the Networking Coordinator at ESSC and was invited as a session speaker during the 2023 National JEEPGY Conference that CEAP convened at Saint Louis University in Baguio City from 19 to 20 April 2023.