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Ideas, Inspirations and Incites - with Phil Smith

May 25, 2022

Advocates 4 the Earth

Phil Smith - Deas Inspirations Incites

On and off for over 40 years, I have taught communications courses – including public speaking – for youth. No training or learning occurs in a vacuum. Karsten Schnack echoed that sentiment when he reminded those of us at an environmental education conference in Denmark nearly 20 years ago to… “Never teach like there’s nothing happening outside”.  My experience in teaching public speaking courses leads me to add… “or inside”.

Survey after survey tells us young people are concerned about the environment and worried about the future. A massive new study of 10,000 young people (16-25 years old) from 10 countries revealed deep anxiety.

 While 84 per cent of the young people surveyed were “at least moderately worried,” nearly 60 per cent were “very or extremely worried,” and 75 per cent felt that the future was “frightening.” More than half felt sad, anxious, powerless, helpless, and guilty about the climate.

The climate crisis is also a mental health crisis. Youth are more than concerned, they are frightened. More than half said, “humanity is doomed”. Their distress is directly affecting their capacity to function in the present. And youth said the problem is with their governments’ failures to take any meaningful action.

Youth marches and protests about climate change are expressions of their fear and demands for immediate changes in policies and practices. Youth are taking action and they want action in return. One positive thing young people can and are doing is improving their skills as advocates for the Earth and for their own futures.

I am currently in Viet Nam and running public speaking courses for youth, whose environmental concerns mirror those of youth around the world. As a direct result of this work here, I wrote the following piece (Dec 2021) for parents and other teachers of public speaking.

Why take a public speaking course?

A person has two reasons for doing something:  the reason they give, and the real reason.

Quotes of this nature have been ascribed, in recent history, to various people from different countries.

The message applies to our students. Our children.

Some students come with their reasons, and they know them – a competition, a good mark in exams, better performance in schools. For some students, the reasons for undertaking a public speaking course go far beyond achieving results or learning skills and techniques.  Important as they are, these skills are not the driving force, the motivator, the deep-down reason for taking the course. Others may not be conscious of their own ‘real reason’ when they start the course: that reason emerges as they learn to speak up.

In the course, speech topics are mostly chosen by the students themselves. Usually, they have a combination of personal and broader interest:  the challenges of online learning, the importance of science, or life in Viet Nam.

For a few young people, the topics come from a place deep within: LGBTQ, body shaming, bullying, the pressures of generation gaps and gender roles on a young woman in Viet Nam…

These young people give the speech that has been patiently waiting to be given voice. A speech they want others to hear. Close friends and family. The wider community and the whole world. In those few minutes, their screams are raw but structured, their passions demand and are given voice, their pain surfaces in detached anger, and their appeals become well-shaped, clearly-structured clarion calls to all.

If you listen not just to the structure and delivery – skills they learn in the course – but also to the content, you see a beautiful, powerful person calling for change, calling for help, calling for a better world. 

Whether they are talking about care and respect for self and others or making pleas to stop the damage being done to the planet, these young people are desperate to be heard. With courage, they step up and speak up: they want others to sit up and listen up… and to re-think, re-feel, re-do.

Yes, learning techniques and strategies matter. But the skills are not an end in themselves. They are the beginning.

The courses provide and create a safe space for these life-changing, life-beginning speeches. If the students did not participate, if they did not join the classes week after week, if they did not become a part of a community of public speaking learners, they would not have a forum in which to present and test their views, passions, needs, appeals…

The public speaking courses provide a platform, a safe space, an audience that might otherwise never exist. The pain and joy of giving voice to those inner feelings and thoughts might never happen.

For some students, the final speech is the one they have been waiting all their lives to make.

For others, their speech is powerful and moving and cathartic. For all, the final speech is a moment of change – a moment when the students stepped up and spoke up as a part of the next phase of their learning and growth.

Feature image: Young people attending the Speak Up Engage program run by Sunshine Coast Council. Photo credit: Sunshine Coast Council

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