Three days in, and the University Scholars Leadership Symposium is remarkable to say the least. Each day there are speaker sessions that share motivation and insight, continuing to deliver the theme of "building life, giving hope." These speaker sessions have featured world renowned humanitarians, social entrepreneurs, and members of the United Nations. These sessions took place in the ESCAP Hall of the United Nations Conference Center. The ESCAP Hall is the size of an auditorium, and features diplomatic desks with microphones and earpieces. If you were to ever sit behind one of those desks, you wouldn’t be able to help but naively think to yourself, “I wonder what famous world leaders have sat in this chair.” The microphones were disabled for the duration of the symposium, because on the first day a delegate spoke for almost three minutes when he was allotted thirty seconds for a question. There are also earpieces behind the desks, and they were set to Mandarin (for any delegates that do not speak English and needed a live translation). I was surprised to find that translations would not be provided for any other languages.
It was the third day of the symposium and I had yet to ask a question. There were times that I considered getting in line for the microphone, but I always seemed to have a reason not to, and that reason always seemed to be better than the question I had in mind. Whether it was, "time will run out before I get to speak," "my question isn't good enough," or "I can think of a better question for a different topic," I couldn't seem to gain the confidence to stand up and speak in front of 907 delegates from 78 different countries (not to mention the United Nations regional directors in the building).
The last speaker of the day was in the process of the question and answer segment, and again, I found myself fixed in my chair. This speaker session featured a presentation from Michael Brosowski, the founder of the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. Michael Brosowski gave a compelling speech on his organization, which is in Hanoi, Vietnam. The organization is dedicated to helping keep poor rural children educated and off of the streets where they are victims of abuse and human trafficking. Michael Brosowski is originally from Australia, and in 2003 he began helping children in Vietnam by teaching English, math, art, and yoga to children age five to ten. As of 2014, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation has over 65 staff and care for over 1,500 children in Hanoi. The organization has since grown to provide residential facilities, offices, gyms, and apprenticeships. Students who have graduated from Blue Dragon have moved on to receive scholarships to attend international Universities, and children that do not continue education gain the necessary skills to enter the job market. Michael Brosowoski went on to receive multiple awards and honors from Australia, CNN, and many more.
Who would have known that Michael Brosowoski would be the first speraker to take a swipe at Donald Trump? When a delegate asked a question about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and how that impacts Blue Dragon Foundation’s ability to serve the youth, the speaker made an off-handed comment about Donald Trump leaving the Paris Climate Agreement.
“This is my chance to say something.” I thought to myself. “Does the crowd know that multiple states across America have formed an Environmental Coalition to uphold the Paris Accord?” I wondered if I could say anything to redeem the United States delegates in the crowd who felt the wind get knocked out of them when they heard the name “Donald Trump” echo throughout the ESCAP Hall.
After some personal debate, I heard the MC of the speaker session announce, “Delegates, I just wanted to update you all that it is pouring down rain outside and all of our transportation back to the hotel hasn’t arrived yet. We will be staying in the ESCAP Hall for an extra 15 minutes today.”
I didn’t need another reason, and as I watched a handful of delegates get in line, I joined in at the end of the line. The MC called out to me, “The delegate in the back with the blue shirt. Yes, I’m looking right at you, you will be our last question of the evening.” Well, looks like there’s no turning back now.
The line inches closer to the front, and I anxiously begin to feel 907 pairs of eyes staring at me. As I start to rehearse what I am going to say in my mind, I hear a Delegate say over the microphone, “Hi Michael, I’m from Texas, and I just wanted to say, can we not take any swipes at Trump or anything.” He speaks with a lot of distaste for the last comment, but I’m not sure if the distaste came from environmental concerns. He continued, “this conference isn’t supposed to be a political discussion, we could talk about a lot of things, Brexit for example, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t take swipes at Trump or any other politician for that matter.” He returned to his seat without the usual applause from the crowd that follows a Delegate’s question.
“Great, now I’m going to piss someone off.” I thought to myself. “How can I ensure that the concerns I voice don’t potentially harm anyone’s experience at this Symposium? And I can’t turn around I’m already singled out as last question.”
As I get to the front of the microphone, both of my knees crack. I feel my stomach sink a bit lower, and I open my mouth, unsure of what I will say. When I take a breath in, I feel my chest rise, and my body stands straight up. This moment comes together, and suddenly, I know exactly what I’m going to say.
“Hey Michael,” I know, what an astonishing beginning.
“Last question,” he confirms before I begin.
“Last question,” I repeat back. “My name is Spiro, and I come from Seattle, Washington- from the United States, and I actually also came without a question. To my fellow American from Texas, I really appreciate your courage coming up here. Texas is a beautiful state full of beautiful people. I just wanted to say, that from the State of Washington and many other states across America have actually come together and created an Environmental Coalition- to stick to the Paris Agreement, regardless of what Donald Trump says.”
And the audience erupted with applause, and the reaction was much louder than I expected. For the rest of the conference, Delegates approached me to thank me, greet me, and ask if they could add me on Facebook.
“Thank you for redeeming us Americans.” -Delegate from Florida.
“I also have problems with my Prime Minister, but I wish I was brave enough to voice my opinion.” –Delegate from Malaysia.
“Dude, that was kick ass.” –Delegate from Spain.
“Are you the guy from Seattle? Thank you for saying that. You inspired me to talk about politics on Facebook for the first time. Can I give you a hug?” –Delegate from China, who has Facebook blocked in her country (China also has Instagram and other social media platforms blocked).
“That was beautiful. I love freedom of speech.” -Delegate from South Carolina.
“Oy Oy! Noice werk man!” –Delegate from Australia.
I wouldn’t have been able to guess that those brief moments would resonate with so many Delegates in so many different ways. I was called brave, courageous, inspiring, but I am none of those. I simply used my voice to say what I wanted to say, but I quickly came to the realization that many Delegates in their home countries do not have that privilege.
“Where’s my friend from Washington.” I heard behind me. It was the Delegate from Texas. He came up and shook my hand right away, thanking me for my words. His forearms were covered with tattoos, some combat related, and he even had the State of Texas tattooed. Turns out that this delegate is almost 30, and he served 13 years in the Marine Corp, fighting in Afghanistan. He and his wife have also sponsored two innocent families from Afghanistan to come to the United States, who were seeking refuge after war struck their village. This man should’ve been called brave, courageous, and inspiring. I thanked him for his service to our country, and thanked him for standing up and voicing his opinion, and finally thanked him for thanking me. Some of the most polite people I have ever met came from Texas, and although I am unsure what his political opinion is, it is clear that we can come together and share an environmental conscious.