The following acceptance speech was given by Saskia Vaisey upon receiving the John Gibbard Memorial Award for youth at the Vancouver Unitarian Church Sunday November 3rd 2013.
I’m extraordinarily honored to be here today. Receiving the John Gibbard Award was a big surprise for me and comes from an organization I very much admire.
The UN has been an inspiration to me while growing up, for its – for your – work towards equality, peace, justice, and sustainability. You have shown me how much can be accomplished through negotiation and education on a global scale. This makes today’s recognition mean a lot to me.
Through my leadership and volunteer work, I have striven to live up to the values role models such as you have provided. Therefore, as environmental causes are those closest to my heart, I’ve dedicated myself to education around this topic, using endurance sport as my forum.
This time last year, I ran an ultra-marathon across Botswana as a Youth Ambassador for the organization impossible2Possible. During the expedition, we sought to raise awareness about water issues by connecting with classrooms worldwide through video technology. Then this summer, I biked 1,700 km from Vancouver to Inuvik, holding environmental workshops with youth groups to discuss the impacts of climate change in the Arctic and teach leadership skills.
I sometimes wondered about my motivations for such campaigns, for instance when I woke up to the twenty-seventh morning of porridge in a row, along the Dempster highway in the Northwest Territories. I can’t complain about university caf food after that. I might have also questioned my choices when blisters from running caused two of my toenails to fall off somewhere in Botswana’s sandy Kalahari Desert. It’s a good thing it wasn’t sandal season when I got home. But ultimately, these journeys became the most transformative and meaningful experiences of my life. They taught me many important lessons, some of which I hope to share today.
Firstly, I believe that we need to make education relevant. During these expeditions, we connected directly with youth. In Botswana, we video-conferenced with classrooms in the evenings following our runs to share with them the discoveries we made with our eyes, ears, and fingertips. We discussed meeting San Bushmen who still live traditional lifestyles, exploring a borehole for water, and crossing livestock checkpoints. When biking to Inuvik, I wrote blog posts and gave presentations about food security, melting permafrost, and Arctic greenhouses.
The students following us online and attending our workshops in turn seemed engaged in the topics we covered in a way rarely seen. By sharing our experiences live, we gave young people a personal connection to these topics, inspiring them to do more than memorize facts – to also identify with these matters. My peers started fundraisers for wells and made green commitments. This type of real-world education is the most powerful form of learning. It makes people care. Teachers and program organizers, take note.
Furthermore, I believe that we need to build dialogue between groups of people. By personally meeting youth across Northern and Southern Canada and discussing environmental concerns with them, I found out how much the perspectives and realities of people changed in different regions of our country. In Metro Vancouver, youth described Tynhead Regional Park as their favourite outdoors place. By contrast, in Inuvik, several kids sitting in a circle at their Youth Center mentioned their families’ whale camps, where they caught a Beluga in July. Arctic peoples have a connection to the land unlike anything I’ve felt in my suburban home. Yet their social and economic barriers make taking action for their needs and sustainability difficult. How can one find effective solutions to problems or draft policies without first understanding the place and the people?
When we set out on our biking journey, we asked southern youth to write questions for their northern peers on slips of paper that we brought with us. The questions and their answers were poignant. We need to build these human connections and start dialogue, to bridge the regional divides both nationally and internationally so that meaningful and appropriate action can take place to address challenges. In Canada, this is especially the case for issues impacting indigenous peoples.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to push our limits and take risks. Running a 182-kilometer ultra-marathon in four days and biking 1,700 km in a month weren’t easy, to state the obvious. Even more than public journeys, these each became deeply personal ones. Despite my blisters and sore muscles, I realized that it didn’t matter what my body felt like, my mind defined the distance I could cross.
I’m not a professional athlete. A year and a half ago, I’d never run more than 10 km at a time. Six years ago, I was a Make-a-Wish kid battling Lupus. Truth be told, before beginning each of these expeditions, I genuinely feared I would fail. Yet I didn’t – thanks to the support of my team and because of an inner strength I never before knew I possessed. While the exertion pulled sweat from my skin, it instilled something much firmer into my psyche: a conviction that success is not so much a function of one’s circumstances as it is of one’s commitment to keep going and one’s mental will. This is a lesson I tried to share with my peers. It is also one that applies to each and every one of you here today.
Even more broadly, this lesson also applies to the global challenges that organizations such as the UN are working to overcome. You see, this is not really a story about endurance sports. At times, confronting problems such as climate change or water shortages may seem insurmountable, but they are not unachievable when tackled with willpower and tenacity. We need to push limits for more effective social justice education, for cooperation across regional divides, and for innovative solution seeking to the issues of our day.
As Lester B. Pearson so rightly stated, “failures are made only by those who fail to dare, not by those who dare to fail.” I have learned that it is by taking risks so big that failure is a possibility that we can make the biggest impact, that we can achieve accomplishments beyond our wildest dreams. That we can make the impossible possible.
This is a worldview I’m sure most of you here are already embodying, but I hope that you will continue doing so. Certainly, I will try to always push personal and social limits as I move forward in my life, that I may contribute to a better world.
Once again, I can’t thank you enough for honoring me with this award. I will do my best to pay your generosity forward through my volunteer and leadership involvements while attempting to live up to the actions of John Gibbard and the ideals of the UN.
I would also like to take the time to thank everyone without whom I would not be here today – most important my mentors who guided me, my peers who worked with me on these projects, and my mother who has always supported me.
Saskia Vaisey was the UNAC-Vancouver branch, 2013 John Gibbard Award winner.