When Ela Gokcigdem ’24 sees an opportunity to make a difference, she wastes no time. In less than five months, the climate change activist completed a whirlwind of activity, shepherding an idea from conception to the world’s foremost climate conference.
“I never would have ever anticipated for me to be on a global stage like that based on what I’ve experienced,” said Gokcigdem, whose work has been motivated by witnessing the impact of climate change on her family’s home island in Avşa, Turkey.
In June, the Babson College Presidential Scholar and Babson Sustainability Intern represented Turkey as a youth delegate at the UN Ocean Conference Youth and Innovation Forum in Cascais, Portugal. Gokcigdem was one of only five other delegates (out of 180 participants) representing Middle Eastern and North African countries. “We noticed that there is a huge kind of disconnect in terms of youth in our region advocating for the issues that are facing the Middle East and North Africa,” she said. “It’s a really dire situation.”
So, like she always does, Gokcigdem and two delegates from Egypt took action. They immediately began creating MENAeco, a youth organization focused on ocean conversation in the region. The ambitious activist also applied for their fledgling organization to speak at the Climate Action Hub of COP27, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in November at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
MENAeco was accepted to COP27 in September, and the trio accelerated their efforts to conduct a survey of youth in the Middle East and North African region as the centerpiece of their COP27 presentation. Based on a Middle East Institute research paper, MENAeco conducted a survey of young people (ages 11 to 25) in the region on categories such as drought, water scarcity, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. They curated the results—data and individual stories—from 1,500 respondents for their Climate Action Hub presentation November 16.
We caught up with Gokcigdem when she returned to campus and asked her to reflect on COP27:
How was your experience presenting MENAeco’s findings at COP27?
“At the time, I’m not gonna lie, it was a very nerve-wracking experience. As far as we know, we’re the first youth group that was ever able to present at the Climate Action Hub. It’s usually companies like Google or Nike or established organizations, and then we come in as youth activists. We also were presenting at the Blue Zone, where the world leaders were in attendance. I was lucky enough to be able to attend about six days prior to our presentation, so I got to see the COP venue and meet other youth constituents there. We were all there for the same mission, and everyone was really curious to learn from each other, so that created a safe environment to present in. That also mixed with the frustration of the outcomes of the conference, and really motivated us to speak our truth and make sure that we’re being heard by the right people. So, it was a lot of emotions all at once.”
“I never would have ever anticipated for me to be on a global stage like that based on what I’ve experienced.”
Ela Gokcigdem ’24
What reactions did you hear afterward?
“A lot of reactions. I’m super grateful for it. About a week before my presentation, I met with Cheryl Kiser from the Institute for Social Innovation and asked if she had any tips. I’ve known her since Summer Study (for High School Students) in 2019, so I really value her expertise in terms of presenting in the social impact space. She said to focus on what calls us. So, instead of starting with our accomplishments, I began by saying, ‘My hometown in Turkey is going under water. There’s no fish left. It’s an urgent situation.’ I passed it on to my two other teammates, and they started talking about what calls them. So many people came up to us afterward saying we were the first presentation ever to put aside our accomplishments and connect with the audience on that level. It created a more personable presentation. We all come from different areas of the world, but we’re all there for the same reason. So, changing the foundation of that was pretty impactful based on what the audience told us.
“Also, we heard a lot about how we made the statistics more digestible. We were talking about the statistics but also pairing it with youth voices. We had a QR code, so people could see the pictures and background of the stories that we’re telling. It’s a lot of information to fit into 40 minutes, so we wanted to make sure we’re picking out the most important and getting our message out there as efficiently as possible. And, I think the audience really noticed that.”
President Biden was among the world leaders in attendance at COP27. Did you get to see or meet any world leaders?
“I was able to attend Biden’s speech, which was interesting, and I was able to briefly see Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), the new Brazilian president(-elect). I attended with the Turkish Ministry of Environment, so I met the Turkish minister of environment (Murat Kurum), which was amazing, because I was able to talk to him about what my community is going through. Also, the Egyptian minister of environment (Yasmine Fouad), because we’re trying to find ways to partner with them in terms of bringing youth voices to their ocean conservation plans. We’re trying to do that in Egypt and Turkey, and hopefully expand that to other countries, as well as Africa, because we have a lot of momentum right now, and we don’t want to let that go to waste.”
What was your favorite moment of your time in Egypt?
“MENAeco partnered with a beach cleanup organization, specifically for the Red Sea, and we were able to organize a group of 20 people to go to this neighboring city, called Dahab, which is an hour away from Sharm El-Sheikh, and we were able to clean up the beach. A lot of people came up to us after that, saying that we were one of the only organizations that actually had an event that went out into the community. Dahab is a small fishing community, so you really got to feel that sense of community. They gave us free snorkeling equipment afterward to reward us for cleaning up the beach, and I got to see corals for the first time, which was emotional at first, because coming from Turkey, I haven’t seen that much life under water ever since I was a kid. Growing up, the ecosystem of my home in Turkey kept decreasing. Seeing the bright, vibrant colors gave me the motivation to advocate for as much as I can.”