Challenges as Opportunities? How to be bold, build bridges and move forward in transitional times

In November 2016, just after the results of the US presidential election, I was invited to speak at the Erasmus Mundus Association (EMA) General Assembly Forum of Inspiration. EMA is a global network of alumni who have participated in European (joint) Masters and PhD programmes, via Erasmus Mundus. (My masters,  the Master of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, or MESPOM, is one such programme). EMA has enriched my life, demonstrating greatness and strength in our global diversity. The Forum was held at EMA’s 10 year anniversary, to offer hope and inspiration. Selected alumni were invited to share their struggles, triumphs, lessons and hope. I was honoured to share my story. And given the recent transfer of power in the country of my birth – a country very close to my heart, even in its crazy – I wanted to share my speech. And my continued hope.


Universit della Svizzera italiana (Lugano, Swizterland)

26 November 2016

Challenges as Opportunities? How to be bold, build bridges and move forward with integrity and openness in transitional times: the role of EMA

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

I would like to start with a quote:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

Howard Washington Thurman

Professor Thurman was an African American philosopher and human rights leader. He was a man of conviction, who persevered in trying times. He was a civil rights leader who advocated for radical non-violent residence – a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and a peer of Mahatma Gandhi.

In this quote, Thurman does not suggest a particular education or career trajectory; he simply calls for us to come alive. TO COME ALIVE!

To contribute to this beautiful, mad crazy, complicated and fascinating planet with our full selves.

Likewise, my parents offered only one piece of professional advice when I was a child: to find a career that I love, as much of my adult life would be dedicated to this…

Well, finding that “magic career” or turning passion into a career does not come automatically. So instead of focusing on a career, I decided to concentrate on where I came alive.

As a child I was uninterested in cities, wanting to spend all my time in nature: hiking a winding mountain trail, swimming in a glacier-fed lake, or exploring a forest of moss-covered trees. In my childmind, cities were equivalent to suburbia, which I loathed.

I cried when a cookie-cutter like development would eat up the natural places I loved. I found no mystery in these spaces: houses with matching doorframes and perfectly manicured, chemically induced lawns. They lacked spaces for exploration or imagination.

I grew up in the United States, but we travelled often, especially to Sweden to visit family. From an early age, comparing and contrasting living environments became status quo.

Historical cities fascinated me: I would touch ancient stone buildings, damp with history and mystery. We sat in cozy cafés with low ceilings and smoky fireplaces, or alongside rivers or canals.

I would observe: watching how people interacted in and with these spaces.

I began to love these cities as much as my wild places. I remember thinking: why are European cities so much more beautiful than US cities? Boiling it down to history was too easy. US cities have some history.

Then it dawned on me: parking lots! Instead of market squares filled with fountains, vendors or public spectacles, US cities were filled with cars.

Instead of the narrow winding streets of Barcelona or Stockholm begging to be explored, US cities prioritized wide arterials for vehicular convenience. Undoubtedly this is far too simplistic. But then, these were the ponderings of a childmind.

In a roundabout way, these early thoughts influenced the environmentalist and urbanist I would become: an environmentalist to protect the natural spaces I adored, an urbanist to attain this childlike wonder in a city.


In 2005, I enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, or MESPOM. MESPOM remains one of the most important decisions of my life.

What struck me most about MESPOM was its sincerity. MESPOM was more than an education. It was and is a family. My professors became my friends; my classmates became my mentors.

The phrase “in my country…” took on an entirely new meaning.

It was no longer about learning of water privatization in Bolivia – it was learning about a struggle that my best friend experienced as a child.

It was no longer about the consequences of big hydro or e-waste contamination, somewhere “out there.” These issues affected me personally, because they affected my friends.

I’ve since returned to my child ponderings (regarding cities and environmental considerations) albeit now in a more professional way.

I’ve worked for local governments, for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, and as a PhD researcher in urban climate governance. Currently I coordinate WWF’s City Challenge.

I have unpacked my suitcase and my life in Amsterdam, Budapest, Nairobi, Shanghai, Seattle and now Stockholm. I’ve switched stakeholder roles, but my focus has been constant: cities as both a problem and solution space to address climate change.

We live in a world of increasingly complex and interconnected problems, such as climate change; but never before have we been better prepared, or better informed, of how to address such problems, and to see the value of doing so.

Allow me to digress:

In 2009, the world’s eyes were fixed on Copenhagen at the UN Climate Change Conference. And we failed… or were we just not quite ready for success?

In 2015, the world’s eyes again became transfixed on climate change – this time on Paris. And the mood had changed.

Compared to the cautious hope of Copenhagen, Paris encompassed emboldened hope. Different stakeholders “owned” this hope, offering tangible climate actions, from the top-down and the bottom-up…

Then in the late hours of 12 December after 20+ years of debate and compromise, of research and demonstration projects, of melting icebergs and super storms – the Paris Agreement on climate change was gaveled into reality.

They say there are moments in your life that you will never forget. And for me, to be standing in that room when the gavel struck is one of those moments. I remember the way the room reacted in slow motion – in shock, in disbelieve, then after a few seconds, in standing applause, tears and hugs.

Suddenly the world felt a little closer, a little more hopeful. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.

Two weeks ago, nations met again in Marrakesh to debate the finer details of the Paris Agreement. Again, the world watched, however less the climate negotiations, more the US elections.

After the result became clear, a gloomy orange cloud hung over Marrakesh for several days. There was fear that progress on climate change was suddenly at stake.

But some days later, that Parisian hope was restored.

  • 365 US companies called on the President-elect to move forward on climate change;
  • Countries reaffirmed their pledges, calling climate change “the priority diplomatic and economic issue” as well as an environmental one;
  • The importance of “non-state actors” to address climate change was more pronounced than ever, and lauded by nation states.

Listen, I am not naïve of the challenges ahead.

And I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I was sometimes afraid, even angry. But those are fleeting moments. I take from Marrakesh this forward momentum.

The road ahead is long, uphill and anything but easy.  But I have hope, because I have seen – in communities like EMA – what is possible.

In closing, I’d like to emphasize what a deep privilege it is to be part of EMA. And with this privilege come obligation: to all of our different areas of expertise, to our own communities.

But obligation, to something you love, to something you live for

This is the greatest form of privilege.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s