“May we have a great time in Cebu!”
Those were the first words that I heard after initially touching down in Cebu and passing through the two hour customs line at the airport. Immediately after clearing customs, the entire GV staff and I were greeted by a cultural band and a group of employees at Cebu's tourist organization that endowed us with necklaces flashing the words “Cebu” with a festive theme. It was only as they were placing these necklaces on me did it hit me that they had been waiting the extra two hours for us to pass the line in order to greet us at the gate. From that moment, I knew this was going to be a phenomenal experience.
During the first few days of the internal summit, I was able to understand GV's concept of family and what it meant to be a part of the GV staff. Despite my age (I was the youngest person to ever attend Global Voices’ bi-annual summit), I was almost immediately accepted into the community by authors and board members alike. Subsequently, I was given the ability to actively participate in crucial discussions that would determine the fate of the organization.
For example, we started out the summit with a discussion on how we would advertise Global Voices if it were to start today. People pitched ideas such as a larger outreach, more widespread social networking, a radio station, etc. I thought it would be interesting to build an app for Global Voices in order to expand its outreach to younger users and viewers like me. My idea was not only immediately praised by the group, but it was written down and ultimately added to a long list of items that the editorial board plans to utilize when revamping GV. From the start, I truly felt like a contributor to the summit and I knew that I couldn't use my age as an excuse.
Coming from Chicago, an area which is largely stereotyped by the media as a place ravaged by violence and thugs, I have done a lot of work similar to Global Voices in order to break the negative stereotype that is unfortunately associated with my city. For the past four years, I have been working with a Chicago-based organization named Young Chicago Authors. While I may not be on the ground in Syria or Lebanon writing about pressing issues concerning the political structure of my country, I have been a part of a program called “YCA Chicago Beat,” where I have been given the opportunity to travel to these heavily stereotyped neighborhoods in Chicago and interview some of their community members. Whether it be on the issue of school closures, public housing, gun violence, or even why there is a parade running through the street on that day, the chance to interview different members of the community has given me the opportunity to look past the negative portrayal of Chicago and see it as a city which is vibrant with a multitude of unique cultures and ethnicities.
In addition to working with several rights-based organizations such as Amnesty International and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, I have been given many gracious opportunities to make a local impact in my community and shed light on certain stereotypes throughout my city. But I've never done something as big as this.
Traveling halfway across the world on my own. Participating in an international conference. Meeting individuals from over 70 different countries with the purpose of discussing internet freedoms across a multitude of governments. It's a concept virtually unheard of for high school students. At the same time though, this was my dream. And I was prepared to get the most out of this experience that I could.
The public days of the event were undoubtedly the most enriching aspect of the conference for me. It's one thing to hear about revolutions in Bahrain, Ukraine, and Hong Kong but its another to speak with these active promoters of human rights in their own governments. In fact, the opportunity to speak with individuals from over 70 countries alone was a conversation that truly provided me with a “global perspective.”
A woman from Azerbaijan who was forced to flee her country following public scrutiny on national television for her anti-government blog. A man from Lebanon who made the tough decision to write a story on Israeli soldiers shortly following his friend's posts on Facebook on the incident and subsequent total disappearance. A man who was so concerned about threats from the Taliban in his home country that he was willing to send his material over to me so that I could publish it under a different name. These were some of the dozens of stories that I heard from people around the world. Sure, I might not be able to understand the logistics and the politics regarding all of the advocacy work that was accomplished during both the internal meetings and the public events of the summit. But, as a high schooler witnessing hundreds of global citizens converge to make a change in their home countries, I feel that my main goal in that summit was to sit back and observe the proceedings.
The internal meetings and the conference itself exposed me to an entirely different atmosphere of news. While most mainstream media outlets focus on every major breaking development during an ongoing revolution, none take the time to thoroughly analyze the initial causes of the revolution. A perfect example would be Ukraine, where mainstream media refused to pay attention to the country during their local protests against their president but had journalists flying in to the region when the fires started to break out. As a local Ukrainian said during the summit, “Sometimes it’s good to complicate things.”
Coming back from the summit, I can confidently say that it was the best experience of my life. The nights were probably as fun as the days. The chance to interact with people from across the world and gain a deeper understanding of international politics was one that I definitely took for granted. I honestly can’t thank the members of the Global Voices community enough for not only inviting me to attend the summit but also actively interacting with me once I got there. It was definitely an experience that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.