Estimated read time: 15 minutes

“Imagine a theme park to celebrate culture, but also innovation and creativity. Imagine 190-something countries get together and decide to imagine a future for humanity. Imagine all that in a single place.”

While what Girl Up Alumni Valeria is asking us to imagine may seem like a far-off dream, she’s in fact describing a real place. For the last six months, Expo 2020 Dubai was home to a futuristic World Fair showcasing the best ideas and solutions for social change from across the globe.  

Home to pavilions from 192 countries and packed with special events, live performances, influential speakers, flavorful food, and interactive activations, Expo 2020 Dubai encouraged its excited visitors to imagine, innovate, and inspire. Why? To drive meaningful, unified action toward a better world.

Girl Up Leader Valeria with 192 country flags
Girl Up Alum Valeria stands with the flags of the 192 countries that created pavilions at Expo 2020.

Originally set to open in October 2020, Expo 2020 was delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the long-awaited grand opening was worth it when, in October 2021, visitors could finally begin exploring and experiencing the “greatest show on Earth.” 

By its closing one month ago on March 31, 2022, Expo 2020 had welcomed 24.1 million guests through its towering carbon-fiber gates. Three of those awestruck visitors were Girl Up leaders: Girl Up Alum Valeria, MENA Regional Leader Laura & Girl Up Istanbul Club Founder Selin. 

Lasting first impressions

The possibility of quarantining for two weeks in Dubai if she unexpectedly tested positive at the airport filled Selin with a bit of trepidation. “I’m a senior high school student, so staying in a foreign country for two weeks without my math book equals death to me!” However, this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity was far too great for her to pass up.

Selin had first heard about Expo 2020 from her father back in 2017 when it was still only an idea. “I thought it was going to be like Comic-Con, that they’re going to rent a building or host it at a Convention Center.” But Selin was more than surprised when she entered the 1,080-acre campus, an area bigger than 600 football fields or the size of Monaco!

Girl Up leaders Selin & Laura meet at Expo 2020
Although based in two different countries across the world from each other, Girl Up leaders Selin & Laura had the opportunity to connect at Expo 2020.

“When I was in Turkey, I was checking the [Expo 2020] website and I remember saying that if I’m at one pavilion and there is a pavilion in the opposite direction, I can walk for an hour or two,” said Selin. “But when I went to the Expo, it was impossible; you have to rent a car! I thought the country pavilions were going to be like exhibition stands. But each country has its own building; how is that even possible? I had no idea it was that big. I made the mistake of not bringing flat shoes, so I had to be at Expo with heels for 24 hours!”

What exactly are inside these massive country pavilions? “The pavilions do a very good job at showing the history of the country, what they want to achieve, what their interests are–they show you all of the good things these different countries have brought or will bring to the world and they show you areas of opportunity and growth [for the country],” explained Valeria “It reminded me so much of Epcot, but it’s not Epcot. It’s better!”

Girl Up Alum Valeria outside the pavilion of her home country México at Expo 2020.

Yet, the impressive scale of Expo 2020 wasn’t the only thing that shocked Selin. “They really put their minds and effort into creating something that has never been done before in the sense of diversity, inclusivity, and thinking about little details that no one really thinks about.” 

From the yellow Expo 2020 passports you can get stamped at each pavilion to the front rows of shows being reserved for families with strollers, Expo was an all-ages experience that helped anyone and everyone dive into whole new worlds, especially the many field trip groups of children. “It was such a cool and innovative way to use Expo as an educational tool for children to learn about different cultures outside of school.”

Expo 2020 was a place of learning for adults too. The wholly immersive country pavilions filled with local guides ready to answer any question gave visitors a chance to debunk the stereotypes they knowingly (or unknowingly) had and gain fresh perspectives, explained Selin. “Every country had their own unique way to approach [it] and I’m really glad to see that many of the countries’ [pavilions] were linked to sustainability, the Sustainable Development Goals, and other social issues.”

Creating this connection between education and tourism was something unique to Laura as well. But she believes doing this had a strong impact on promoting the SDGs globally and sharing information in a fun and understandable way that may help change people’s perspectives. “You’re seeing all of these people flying in from all over the world to learn about the SDGs for the first time, so how cool is that?” mused Laura. “I think it definitely inspired a lot of people to, if not start, then support and promote other initiatives.”

Girl Up leader Laura at a World Majlis event at Expo 2020.
Girl Up leader Laura at a World Majlis event at Expo 2020.

As a university student in the UAE, Laura had many opportunities to attend Expo and soak in all the inspiration that often came from walking through its winding brick paths. One of the most powerful Expo experiences for Laura was attending “World Majlis: Everyday (S)Heroes: Leading the Charge Towards the Global Goals.” The event featured world-renowned “sheroes”, or female heroes. Successful women in politics and leadership positions –such as the former Prime Minister of New Zealand–talked about their careers and their experiences as women. “There was a connection between the audience and the speakers, seeing us reflected as young girls in them–it is possible [for us] to get to those places,” said Laura. 

With the imminence of climate change and discussions about its disproportionate impact on girls and women taking center stage at many world forums this year, Laura felt she could also draw many parallels between the Expo’s Sustainability Pavilion and her activism. “I feel like the time has come where we cannot see these as two different issues–climate change and gender equality–because they’re not unrelated. They had a lot of daunting things [in the pavilion], that this is what’s going to happen if you make these decisions. But then it also had the other side of it where if we make the right decisions and stop doing this, we will be able to thrive in the future. So that connection between our actions and our future and that connection of our future with the future of girls and women, really connected to my activism.”

With Expo 2020 centered around the three main themes of opportunity, mobility, and sustainability, Selin discovered how all of them play a unique role in achieving positive change. ​​”Mobilizing because creating real change is a team effort. If you want to do something, you have to surround yourself with people who are passionate about the same cause. Sustainability because at conferences, sometimes when people walk out of the room, the conversation ends there. We need to take concrete action in a sustainable way with sustainable blueprints. Opportunity, young people want to do something, especially Gen Z. With social media and technology, we’ve had the chance to be more aware of global issues, but we need to be given the opportunity by world leaders to connect and share our ideas. We want to do something, but how can we if we are not given the stage and the spot at the decision-making table?”

Girl Up Leader Laura with SDG 5 (Gender Equality) at Expo 2020
Walkways listing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are scattered throughout Expo 2020 to help raise awareness about the goals humanity should be striving to achieve by 2030. This includes SDG 5: Gender Equality for which Girl Up Leader Laura is passionately advocating!

In fact, one of the issues Selin is wary about when being invited to speak on major stages like Expo is the sometimes unintentional tokenistic approach to youth engagement. Yet, to her delight, she didn’t find any tokenism at Expo. “I met with incredible young people from all across the globe, not only on my panel but on the street, at different pavilions–there was youth everywhere. Expo was inviting young people to be on the forefront and demand change.” 

This is hopefully just “one of the first steps towards actually listening to young people” and increasing non-performative youth representation at global events like Expo, said Valeria. “Thank you for inviting young people. Let’s keep doing that!” 

What do the Global Goals have to do with Expo 2020?

The first-ever Global Goals Week outside of New York City was held at Expo 2020 Dubai last January in association with the United Nations. “The UAE is definitely becoming the new center for promoting the SDGs and promoting youth activism,” affirmed Laura.

Invited to speak at the “Sustainable Development Goals Storytelling Lab“, a panel discussion that focused on the intersection of sustainability and storytelling, Selin’s mission was to “humanize the [activist] experience.” Speaking about her own advocacy journey, Selin shared how she started the first Girl Up Club in Turkey, the ways we can work together to achieve our 2030 Goals, and the importance of leaving nobody behind on our path toward change. The key is creating what Selin calls an “Action To Do List.”

“One of the biggest issues for humanity is that we see a problem, we acknowledge the problem, we’re irritated by it maybe, and then we just leave it. We don’t do anything afterward. Instead what we need to do is recognize a problem and start digging. Do our research, learn more about the issue–with a global and local perspective around it–and then explore what we can do. In my case, I sent an email to UN Women and started the first Girl Up Club in my country, but it doesn’t have to be that. You can protest on the street, you can do something on social media, and you can work with a youth group–which is my favorite because as youth we need to stick together and empower each other! But there are so many things you can do to just raise awareness about the issue you’re passionate about, just find your people and expand your view.”

Girl Up leader Selin speaking at Expo 2020
Girl Up leader Selin sharing her Girl Up journey at the SDG Storytelling Lab event at Expo 2020.

Valeria was also invited to attend ​​Global Goals Week all the way from her current location in the United States. As a guest at the Programme for People and Planet and the Global Best Practice Programme Assembly, Valeria heard from various social entrepreneurs and activists who are helping turn the 17 Sustainable Development Goals into reality by 2030.  

Her biggest takeaways from the sessions? 1) “Remembering that the global goals are for everyone. There is a way in which we all can relate to the goals and that the goals have an impact on all of our lives. 2) “The interconnection between the goals. By connecting with other activists that attended the Expo, I realized how their work related to mine. Even though we were in different parts of the world, we were still doing very similar things.”

But with 2030 fast approaching, how can we truly inspire collective action and drive tangible progress towards achieving these goals? By remembering the very specific impact these big concepts have on each of our lives. “The Sustainable Development Goals I believe are very accessible,” said Valeria. “They’re very easy to understand. But I feel like sometimes, because they’re so easy to understand, we forget how specific they can get and how they have a very real impact in our lives. Understanding that impact is what really creates the passion and the energy that is necessary in a person to actually contribute to the SDGs and take action. Ultimately that is the best way to inspire people to contribute to our common agenda and create the shared future we want to live in.”

One of the most important questions many of us are still struggling to answer is what that shared future we are creating is going to look like, not only for ourselves but also for the next generations. This is a question Valeria ponders often, “not because we should restrain ourselves from living life, but because we should ask ourselves how we can make better decisions–different decisions–than the ones we’re making right now.” 

Girl Up Alum Valeria at the Expo 2020 front gates during Global Goals Week
Girl Up Alum Valeria standing with street art highlighting the Global Goals at the Expo 2020 entrance gates during the first-ever Global Goals Week outside of New York City.

We still have a lot of work to do if we want to achieve the SDGs by 2030, but Expo was a great example of how humanity can work together to achieve a common goal. “We have almost 200 countries [in the world] with different backgrounds, different policies, and also different economic and social structures,” said Laura. “But I like that Expo provided this platform for collaboration and for sharing ideas and inspiration for many people.”

One example of this increased exposure to the SDGs was at the Opportunity Pavilion. Filled with stories of local changemakers who are successfully helping their small communities achieve the SDGs, the Pavilion reaffirmed Laura’s belief in the important impact any ”general” person, just like us, can have in transforming local change into global action. “Sometimes ​​it’s really hard to see the changes that you’re advocating for and it can feel powerless. So, even though I work with the UN, I still do local actions because they’re the most powerful and they’re the ones that we have control over right now.” 

Even though the state of the world also sometimes feels “chaotic” to Valeria and global cooperation seems like the furthest possibility with so many different perspectives and interests at stake, that’s not necessarily the case for her anymore. “I left Expo feeling hopeful. I left thinking this is exactly what we can achieve if we all work together towards one thing that we want. I left thinking of hope for my generation, hope for future generations, hope for rejuvenating multilateralism, and hope for a more positive and open-minded attitude towards the challenges in front of us. Those are the type of ideas that I want to share with my community and the type of messaging that I want people to take away from Expo. Yes, the world and the future in front of us are uncertain, but there are people working to make it a better place. There are people working to make something meaningful out of the challenges in front of us. And if that is not inspiring, then I don’t know what it is. These are some of the world’s most difficult challenges and people are doing something about it. If they can, we can too.”

Walking through the country pavilions and seeing the hundreds of innovative solutions and technological advancements countries have created (or are creating) to address our current issues imbued Valeria with confidence. “If this is what we have been able to design as humans right now, then there is so much more we can bring to the table and so much more left to bring for our generation and future generations to live their lives.”

So…what next?

In addition to increased youth participation, Valeria hopes that future Expos prioritize more ways for fellow attendees to meaningfully interact and engage with one another. Before any event is about to begin, Valeria has a habit of looking around and asking herself how difficult it is to get all these people in the same room at the same time–and then makes an effort to have a conversation with someone she may have never had the chance to if they weren’t invited to the same event. At Expo, it was no different. “Millions of people from all over the world were in the same place at the same time and I’m wondering, ‘When else in my life will I be surrounded by all these people with all these different life experiences and ideas?’ It’s a unique value that not every event has in front of itself. Opening a Zoom and hearing what a very impressive person has to say on the Expo stage is something any of us can do. But for the people that are there physically, there is this opportunity to make it even more meaningful by making it personal, so that they leave the event inspired to take action.”

An overhead view of a group at the workshop after Girl Up Leader Selin’s panel at Expo 2020, where audience members discussed issues & solutions to making the Sustainable Development Goals a reality in less than a decade.

Indeed, the most eye-opening part of Selin’s speaking experience at Expo was actually the workshop after her panel, where she had the chance to sit down and have “real conversations with the audience, find solutions with them, and unlearn and learn from each other’s experiences.”   

“Expo is a center for meeting people with different backgrounds and promoting your work, but also just having fun at the same time,” said Laura. “I’m going to miss it a lot for sure. It should not go. It should just stay for years and years.”

Missed Expo 2020? You can catch recordings of various shows, performances, activities, and talks throughout its entire 6-month run here.

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