By Nicky Clark.  Posted 25th March 2023.

I was intrigued by the idea of the Intergenerational Conversation Café, initiated by Abi Riley, Student Climate Leader, being held at St. John Lawes School in Harpenden last week, and I was not disappointed. It was a debate style event, in which a panel of six students, and three ‘Elders’ were invited to respond, in 3-5 minutes, to the question, “What does the generation passing through our schools have to do differently to make a better job of ending the Climate Crisis and protecting/regenerating the Natural World than previous generations have?”

The content of the students’ speeches was, not surprisingly, extremely diverse; from the youngest, at 11 years, encouraging us to embrace technology in our schools and homes, and to combat the scourge of micro-plastics in the oceans, to calls for citizens assemblies and more positive engagement in democracy from the sixth formers. They were all well informed, well prepared and incredibly sincere. Interspersed amongst the student’s speeches, we heard from the three ‘Elders’; David Woollcombe from Peace Child, who spoke about his work with the UN, HEART Community’s Kimberley Hare, telling the truth and introducing the idea of transformative adaptation and community resilience, and Dylan Katawawala, Luton’s Climate Officer, talking about how Luton’s Net Zero plans are shaping up.

As an aside; in spite of the fact that the students on the panel knew Kim’s message in advance, I felt a sense of apprehension as it was delivered to the intergenerational audience and I was expecting someone to challenge at any point. However, the audience proved just as receptive as the panel and were engaged throughout, the pointed quotations which punctuated the presentation drawing mumbles of agreement. It was really well received and, I believe, an integral part of the evening’s success.

After the speeches, the panel then came to sit among the audience at round tables, to listen to their thoughts, responses and ideas for actions/policies. At this point, I can only speak on behalf of my table, but I was really impressed by the conversation that took place. The students were adamant that they didn’t like the ‘passing the baton’ story and made it very clear that they want their parents’ and grandparents’ generation to step up now and set an example, rather than leave it to the young people to ‘solve’. Education on the climate crisis and biodiversity loss was very important to them. A parent spoke about how disengaged everyone is from politics, and there was strong agreement that trust has been lost, and there will need to be drastic changes to the system in order for people to feel their voice is heard and their vote counts. One student brought up lobbying and how the fossil fuel industry and big money has so much influence over decisions, even at the COPs, leading into a conversation about inequality, both global and national, and how the climate crisis impacts most those least responsible for the damage. Another parent shared her worries about the safety and effectiveness of Carbon Capture and Storage, and offsetting schemes, expressing frustration at the lack of clear information. Suggestions were made for a simpler life with less consumption and how it could be a better, more fulfilling life. It was a rich conversation that could have easily continued for many more minutes than allowed on this occasion.

The panellists then returned to the front to share feedback on all the conversations and throw it open for questions and comments from the audience as a whole. One student expressed her feeling that Kim’s speech had felt like a breath of fresh air, and there was absolute agreement that we all, young and old, want and need to hear the truth, however difficult it may be. A parent admitted that when she spoke to her child about this she hadn’t given the conversation the attention it deserves, acknowledging that her child is probably better informed than she is. One of the youngest children in the audience stood up and pleaded with the adults not to keep sweeping it under the carpet, prompting the youngest panelist to suggest that rather than educating children in this subject, we should be educating the adults. If the children at this event are anything to go by, I wholeheartedly agree!

I have to say I found this event extremely informative and enlightening. It was well organised and the students were fantastic – the only shortcoming was the attendance wasn’t as high as hoped. The intergenerational conversation is so important and this café setting seemed to enable all participants to speak confidently and freely and to listen to each others’ views. Young people want to talk about their future and they deserve the opportunity. It is definitely a format I consider worthwhile and would love to see it in other schools and multi generational settings.