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Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit

By Mariliis Eensalu, CIEE and Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Research Scholar

The Ocean unlike countries has no borders hence it is called Our Ocean. Working toward a sustainable future whilst trying to end polluting the ocean has resulted in collaboration between many countries with the intention to increase the amount of maritime protected areas and focus on having One Future despite a widespread problem in the form of the Tragedy of the commons.

My name is Mariliis Eensalu, I am from Estonia, and I have been fortunate to receive a fully funded scholarship from the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation for my research internship at Northern Illinois University.

On September 15.-16., 2016 I had the pleasure of attending Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit hosted by Secretary of State, John Kerry in Washington, D.C. An important part of the Summit was to engage the next generation of political leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, and civil society to identify solutions and commit to actions to protect our ocean so it can continue to sustain us all in the future. The Leadership Summit at the Georgetown University was held in parallel with a high-level Ocean Leaders’ Summit at the U.S. Department of State.

The first day started off with a welcoming panel by Joel S. Hellman (Dean, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service), Judith G. Garber (Acting Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State) and Evan Ryan (Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State). The panelists gave a warm welcome to the young participants and congratulated everyone on their success in making a real difference in regard of protecting Our Ocean. After that the competitively selected group of 150 university students and young professionals representing over 50 countries was divided into six groups for breakout sessions.

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Young professionals a student participants in front of Healy Hall, Georgetown University

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, a trailblazer of marine biology and ocean exploration was absolutely one of my favorite speakers at the panel. She has been rightfully addressed as "Her Deepness" by the New Yorker and New York Times, having lead over 100 expeditions and spent more than 7,000 hours underwater. She is also the founder of Mission Blue. One of her favorite expressions to use at the conference was “the nature of nature”. Her message was loud and clear that the nature of nature is changing having seen it up close for many decades now.

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Mariliis and Dr. Sylvia Earle

Our Ocean Concert was a perfect way to end the first day of the summit. The U.S. Department of State hosted an amazing concert at the Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater featuring a rock musician and Grammy nominated recording artist Grace Potter, ABC’s Scandal and Tony Award Nominee Norm Lewis and Grammy-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre along with short inspiring remarks from John Kerry, David Rubenstein (Chairman, Board of Trustees, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) and Adrian Grenier (Actor and Environmentalist, Co-Founder of  the Lonely Whale Foundation). The performances were all water-oriented and enhanced the message of the Summit quite well.

Day two of the Leadership Summit began at the Riggs Library, Georgetown University. Three Youth Summit participants shared their thoughts and ideas for their ocean pledges that was followed by an enlightening speech by a very special guest, Admiral Robert Papp (Special Representative for the Arctic, U.S. Department of State). The admiral spoke of his 40-year career and emphasized that the changes Our Ocean is going through nowadays are truly worth focusing on. He told a vivid story of how the sea has changed and where it had led him. It was truly inspiring.

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Admiral Robert Papp and Mariliis at Riggs Library, Georgetown University

Later in the day, there was a panel conversation with Adrian Grenier and John Kerry, moderated by Joel S. Hellman. Much to my surprise one of the few questions answered by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was the one that I came up with on the previous day. My question was: “What has been the most challenging part of dealing with ocean protection?” and Kerry’s answer was quite evident – the two main key phrases that he emphasized on were “people’s ignorance” and  “trying to use science as a proof of what is actually happening”. All in all this summed up how quite many participants at the summit felt. Nowadays that there is too much information about everything, it is hard for anyone to filter out the scientifically proven reasons for what has caused Ocean to change, unless the person knows exactly what to look for.

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Adrian Grenier, John Kerry, and Joel Hellman at Gaston Hall, Georgetown University

Shortly after I had the pleasure of joining Lynette Evans-Tiernan (Public Affairs Specialist, Office of Policy and Program Support, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State), Kevin G. Saba (Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State) and five other exchange students for dinner at The Garden Café in D.C. The dinner was an amazing setting to exchange thoughts and views about different programs as well as getting to know the participants in person. It was also a good way to discover the effort that the U.S. Department of State has put in to giving an opportunity to experience living, working and/or studying in the U.S. to so many young and talented people. Each year around 300,000 participants from over 200 countries and territories visit the U.S. on J-1 visas through one of thirteen different types of privately-funded program categories.

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Dinner at the Garden Cafe in Washington, D.C.

It has been an absolute privilege to have been selected to attend Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Having all these young professionals and students together made many us understand that we all work for the same goal and that of how our research fits in to the bigger picture. As Secretary of State, John Kerry said, comprehension of scientific facts is the first step towards understanding climate change. Therefore, all those young people will hopefully help see it through that data provided by the scientists will be adequately used in policy making.