Author: Gabriel Dunatov
Former President of Finland Tarja Halonen visited campus Oct. 19. She led three events over the course of the day, engaging students on the topics of global sustainability and gender equality. The events centered on the diplomat’s role at the political level and students’ roles at the civil society level.
Halonen’s visit began at 11 a.m. with a small group conversation with students. Afterward, students from the Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) Major Association and World Talk were invited to lunch with Halonen, her staff, visiting dignitaries and Occidental professors. Her visit culminated in a conversation in Choi Auditorium. Rather than a lecture, the session was an extended question-and-answer session with students.
Halonen, co-chair of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, opened up her talk by discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — 17 goals covering everything from ending poverty and hunger to improving health and education — the UN approved in September. Halonen compared the SDGs to a wedding: although everyone generally knows that the bride and groom will say “yes,” the follow-through is the real test of their commitment. She emphasized her belief that these goals are close to students’ lives and futures.
“What the industrialized countries like [the] U.S. and Finland forget very easily is that this is not [just] for those [developing countries],” Halonen said. “It’s for us too, and it is in these countries we can work to repair or to reform.”
Tying the discussion to her current work establishing indicators to track the SDGs’ progress and with the relationship between gender and sustainability, Halonen made clear that sustainability campaigns were incomplete without 100 percent of “human capital” participating. She emphasized the importance of greater social, political and economic equality.
“But it’s a much broader issue of course, that certain systems can be, if we say the legal basis, can be ‘working equal,’ but they are not if the backgrounds are different,” Halonen said. “This is not only concerning gender, it can be ethnic background, it can be many other issues.”
DWA Professor and former U.S. ambassador to Finland Derek Shearer was present throughout Halonen’s visit and moderated her discussion in Choi Auditorium.
“She’s not just a feminist,” Shearer said. “She’s a strong woman, but she cares about social justice, making globalization more equitable and lots of issues that go beyond just strictly feminism.”
In bringing Halonen to campus, Shearer hoped to give students a role model in a strong leader concerned about the issues they are studying.
Claire Van Fossen (first year) was impressed by Halonen as the first female president of Finland and her recognition of sustainability’s importance.
“I enjoyed the way she incorporated women, sustainability and the United Nations into a comprehensive and informative discussion,” Van Fossen said via email. “One of the most powerful things about Ms. Halonen’s visit was her point that change, both physical and mental, takes patience.”
Shearer echoed Halonen’s focus on the student role in promoting sustainability and equality.
“Obviously, no one Oxy student will solve climate change, but clearly you can be a part of the debate, the dialogue and the politics,” Shearer said. “And then depending on your future, you can play a big role. Any one individual or group of individuals can find a way to make a difference.”
McKinnon Center student worker William Butenschoen (sophomore) was also impressed with Halonen’s visit. He saw a concrete tie between the work he can do everyday on campus and Halonen’s global commitments.
“If I can do one thing today that contributes toward one of those sustainable development goals, then I’m contributing in some way,” Butenschoen said. “[But] I don’t think that one person can solve the SDG today, [as they] are supposed to carry on for the next 15 years.”
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