Why Forest Whitaker Is Making the UN Goals Famous

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This was a big week for the United Nations, which came out strong on climate and the sustainable development goals and witnessed major milestones in recent months. First, on climate, post-Paris, there were over 160 countries signing the deal at UN headquarters on Earth Day, April 22. This is an unprecedented number of signatories, higher than ever before in UN history.

Second, we witnessed the 2016 kickoff of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which articulate the UN's agenda for the next 15 years. These goals will be essential for ensuring that we can sustain and survive our way well into this century, with population growth inching toward 10 billion by 2050. The goals are all about providing economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability for everyone. No nation and no individual left behind. No small feat.

Amid this week's hoopla, however, just north of UN headquarters in the Bronx, a much more unusual chat occurred between SDG Advocate and actor Forest Whitaker and 400-plus students from the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a New York City public school set in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

Whitaker's task, with a banner backdrop of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals on stage, was to connect with Bronx students on the bigger UN agenda now through 2030, which he did humbly and eloquently. Having grown up in South Central Los Angeles during the Watts Riots, the Black Panther movement and the Vietnam War (which, according to Whitaker, completely changed his cousin, who served, to the point of unrecognizability) he identifies with the needs spelled out explicitly in the goals and noted, rightly, that if we don't fulfill the needs laid out in the SDGs then conflict occurs as a result.

Whitaker is right. You can see this anywhere, from America to Angola, from Argentina to Azerbaijan. As long as the goals go unmet -- whether poverty, hunger, or inequality -- we will continue to see conflict and violence manifest globally. It doesn't matter where you live or how high your neighborhood's or nation's walls are, there will be unrest, there will be conflict and there will be violence.

Whitaker knows this better than most, working with gangs in Los Angeles and child soldiers in South Sudan. As an actor who tries to empathize with every character and role he assumes, even the dictators (finding that "they're just like me" after you peel off all the layers), he knows what drives conflict. He's seen it. And he knows the kinds of peacebuilding approaches necessary to transform it. He's investing in them. This is a man who is clearly walking the talk, which is why he chose to be on a high school stage in the Bronx while heads of state were on stages in UN headquarters.

Joined by the UN Assistant Secretary General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, Thomas Gass, and another SDG Advocate, Ambassador Dho Young-shim, this Bronx school visit is part of a bigger UN agenda to popularize the sustainable development goals, to "make them famous," as Gass put it. The goals are a "declaration of interdependence" since they apply to every country and require every country's active participation to meet them. And the students got it, especially when Whitaker talked about how intertwined the 17 goals are, how they're all interconnected. ("You can't get a job without proper housing," he noted.)

But how can Bronx Center students contribute, since they are not yet operating the national political or policy levers of control necessary to meet these goals? That was the question constantly being asked of Whitaker by the bright minds at the Bronx Center: What can I do? And this is where Whitaker's answer was powerful and poignant, not just for the students but for anyone watching the high-level UN events this week. This isn't a nation-state game only. This is every person's game. Everyone has a vested interest. Everyone has a stake. Everyone has something to do to get us closer to the climate and sustainable development goals outlined and adopted at the UN. Without everyone on board, we won't even come close to meeting these goals.

That's why Whitaker encouraged the Bronx students to try something simple: Tutor some younger kids in the neighborhood, walk instead of transit, use water more efficiently, align school assignments -- reading and writing -- with one's bigger global agenda and mission (as Whitaker is doing for his thesis at New York University). Do something.

Again, this is where Whitaker walks his talk. As a global Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation at the UN, Whitaker isn't forgetting his roots or his reality, as he is about to pilot a conflict training program in LA schools (something that should be rolled out in every school nationally). In doing so, Whitaker's point to the students is this: Start something, anything. And if we all do that, it adds up quick. That's how we meet the goals and make them famous. All hands on deck. No one left behind.

Michael Shank, PhD, teaches sustainable development at NYU's Center for Global Affairs and is head of communications at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.