I have just returned from the first-ever I CAN Children’s Global Summit supported by the Vatican and attended by over 3,000 children from 40 countries speaking 17 languages, who assembled in the Di Congressi Hall in Rome on November 27 last year. The summit simultaneously celebrated a decade of Design for Change (DFC) and Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary. Gandhiji had famously advised the leaders and people of India: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
The annual DFC programme of the Riverside School, Ahmedabad was launched in 2009 to give effect to Gandhiji’s advice. School children in the 8-13 age group in countries around the world initiate social impact initiatives — social infrastructure development, waste management, reafforestation, adult literacy, sanitation and health awareness programmes in their neighbourhoods.
The I CAN Global Summit at the Vatican was born out of an opportunity in 2016 when I was invited to the Vatican to speak at the Global Congress of Catholic Schools. The Holy Father was interested in ‘seeding’ service learning into the Church’s vast network of over 200,000 schools, and found the DFC programme with its ‘feel-imagine-do-share’ (FIDS) framework, simple and effective. That was the start of the relationship between DFC and the Vatican.
A year later, I was invited to sign a collaboration agreement by Pope Francis himself, and that’s when the idea of inviting children to Rome in 2019 to honour Gandhiji’s anniversary as well as to demonstrate the power of the I CAN mindset to inspire children to design a more compassionate, equal world, was born. A bonus is that this joint programme is in sync with the World 2030 Education Agenda which places student agency and well-being in the vanguard.
To elaborate on the inaugural I CAN Global Summit held between November 27-30, Rome was witness to the remarkable spirit and agency of students from around the world. Working in collaboration with FIDAE (Federation of Catholics Schools of Italy), the OIEC (International Office of Catholic Education) and the city of Rome, our DFC programme was able to make a major impact in spreading the core I CAN message to Church schools in Italy and worldwide.
On November 27 at the inauguration of the summit at the Palazza di Congressi, 3,000 young agents of change who had come to Rome from little villages of the remote Amazon forest, streets of New York, public schools in India and special needs schools in Malaysia, got a glimpse of a unified world without borders, sans language, demographic and political divisions, representative of our common humanity! The air was filled with the sound of children singing, dancing, laughing and forming contagious friendships.
Over the next two days of the summit spread over 13 venues in Rome — the young superheroes of DFC shared their stories of change to inspire children from around the world that they don’t need permission to make the world a better place! Children’s initiatives showcased ranged from eliminating bullying, building pet shelters, homes and inculcating humane values such as empathy, kindness and constructive compassion without any sense of competition or judgement. Over 207 solutions to attain the United Nations 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals) were presented, the takeaway being that most problems confronting people and communities are common and can be addressed by children.
On November 30, the last day of the Global Congress, the chief guest was Pope Francis himself who greeted child delegates in the special Aula Paulo hall. Here is where we presented DFC’s gift to Il Papa — a quilt representing 40 countries communicating the words ‘I CAN’ in different languages.
The closing ceremony also witnessed the launch of our I CAN Marketplace — an initiative that addresses the SDGs with curated solutions of children that can be scaled up, and a new Rainforest Kids Challenge that offers children in the 8-13 years age group an opportunity to be in the forefront of rainforest protection, developing projects and solutions while using the Design for Change methodology.
Looking back, the I Can Children’s Global Summit at the Vatican provided important lessons. First, it demonstrated that children have capabilities to change the world. Second, child delegates went back believing that they have allies around the world working to make Planet Earth a better place. They returned home with confidence that they can collaborate to implement SDG initiatives encouraged by Pope Francis’ message to children everywhere. “Don’t just observe life from the balcony! Meet challenges… You must make noise; You are the seeds of change of this society.”
In my four days at the I CAN Global Summit at the Vatican I witnessed stories spreading; I witnessed the formation of new friendships and I witnessed child empowerment.
Kiran Bir Sethi