Tackling sustainable development: Merit360 in New York

Recent MSc graduate, Laura Blackett, who participated in the World Merit programme over the summer, reflects here on her experience.

In September, I was privileged to be part of the inaugural Merit360 programme in New York, run by World Merit and working on action plans to tackle the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I spent 16 wonderful, challenging days getting to know many of the 360-strong cohort who represented 85 countries and brought a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion to meeting our goal: to address the ways in which the World Merit movement can impact each of the 17 SDGs, through campaigns, scaling of existing projects, and new ideas.

Having recently completed the MSc International Development at Northumbria University, and with a strong interest in making change through sustainable architecture, I joined the group working on SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Our group began to chat online a few months before the programme, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in New York, nervous and jet lagged; I started talking to people, and was completely overwhelmed by the incredible stories I heard. Everyone had their own reason for being part of Merit360 and choosing their SDG; they brought different priorities from their own countries, different ideas and specialisms, and an unbelievable commitment to making change.

…we left with a desire to make a change in our communities, a plan of action, and an incredible global network of new friends

Once we’d registered at Hostelling International in New York we headed out to Indian Head Camp in Equinunk, Pennsylvania to spend 12 intensive days working on our SDG plans whilst being immersed in workshops and talks from international leaders and experts. The camp was beautiful and the owners Lauren and Joel, along with their fantastic team of staff, ensured we were well cared for and could focus completely on the work we needed to complete. Every day we had the option to start the day with yoga, a lake swim or a trail run; later we could take part in activities including paddle boarding, canoeing, ropes courses and a huge variety of ball games.

The speakers invited to join us at the camp were inspirational and brought valuable lessons from their international work. Most were able to stay with us for a few days, which allowed us opportunities to speak to them in greater depth. The camp kicked off with Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and a great supporter of World Merit whose enthusiasm and work ignited a flame in us all. It would be impossible to name all those we heard from, but the stand-outs for me were Sir Ken Robinson (educational specialist), Lisa Kristine (humanitarian photographer), Haile Thomas (The HAPPY Organisation), Deepak Ramola (Project FUEL) and Patrice Madurai (The Cupcake ReSolution). In addition to this, we had a two day workshop from Wanderbrief focused on accelerating our new projects into viable social enterprises, and a wonderful two days about storytelling from Ashoka.

Over the 12 days at camp we worked closely in our SDG groups, who became like family. Our team of 19 represented New Zealand, Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, Yemen, Slovakia, Germany, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Canada, USA, South Africa, Kenya, France, UK, Colombia and Brazil; it was an intensive crash course in group working to figure out our dynamics, overcome differences and learn to compromise for the greater good. We worked on four projects: a campaign to bring the SDGs to cities all over the world, scaling up of Green Offices and Project for Public Spaces, and developing Ubuntu Design Group, an innovative approach to slum upgrading.

Our two weeks concluded with a whirlwind stop in New York City, including a fantastic day at the United Nations headquarters where each group pitched one of their ideas and closed the programme with more inspiring talks. All the work was collated into Action Plan 001 and we left with a desire to make a change in our communities, a plan of action, and an incredible global network of new friends.