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The Importance of Acknowledging the Elephants in the Room: ICFP2022 Closing Plenary

At the Youth Plenary on November 17, 2022, the final day of ICFP2022, TabuTabu founder Laura Ramos Tomás joined fellow speakers Dr Abdulhjabbar Hassan, Alison Hoover, Béniel Ulrich Agassou, Fura Gelzen Sherpa and Nzisa Irene Kioko and moderator Francis Oko Armah in sharing stories and lessons in innovation and collaboration in Adolescents and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (AYSRHR). Laura stepped in for Patricee Douglas (Dr. Pat), who was originally going to represent the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region and was unable to attend. These are the words Laura shared on the main stage:

Thank you, Oko! It’s an honor to represent LAC on the plenary, but I do so with some reservation: I have lived in Latin America for 5 years, but I am not from the region. I was born and raised in Germany, but my parents and home culture are Spanish. One might say I am used to never quite belonging - in Spain I was the German, and in Germany, I was the Spaniard. Now, I simplify and say I am European. And furthermore, I am white, literate, cis-het.

I set up a social business called TabuTabu and I work with communities in Rio de Janeiro and Honduras. We are all about dismantling the taboos around sexuality and SRHR that are linked to the inequities and injustices we see in the most marginalized –and not so marginalized– communities. We do this through creating safer spaces for conversation, exploration, learning and unlearning. We mainly work with communities living in favelas (shanty towns) in Rio, and in a rural community in Atlántida, Honduras. Most of the people we work with are women and youth, they are bipoc, they may not be fully literate, and they live in geographically, ethnically, socially and educationally marginalized communities.

I have thought long and hard, and I continue to do so, about what it means to be a white person working with communities of Color. A descendant of the colonizers who works with people who are descendants of the enslaved and the oppressed. Of stepping into these spaces as an educator, and avoiding the dynamic of being a “teacher”, and instead being a participant in an educational exchange. I listen to what the youth and women I work with say when they are given a space to consider information and topics they had been excluded from previously. Everybody has a voice, it’s a matter of taking a beat, or maybe two, to create enabling environments for them to find it and voice it.

In my community work, I’m aware I arrive as an outsider… I am aware I don’t quite belong. Letting it turn into an elephant in the room can feel like the easier thing to do. But I’ve found that there is a lot to be gained from acknowledging one’s differences and limitations. Doing so creates space for others to consider how their own lenses are going to influence their perspectives and the conversation. And so the elephants in the room are named, and they disappear, and they make space for more effective communication and collaboration.

So we are on the last day of ICFP2022. This has been a space where we have faced the age-related elephant head-on. As a youth participant, it’s been an incredible opportunity to interact with many of you. As we think of stepping outside of this ICFP space, to returning to our usual contexts, and even as we look towards the next ICFP, my call to action to all of us, is to make a conscious effort to take a step back, acknowledge our lenses, our limitations, and listen with purpose. Actively seek to bring in other people’s voices who can bring other lenses into our conversations.

The call to action I bring to us all, but especially to the non-youth in this space: recall that you cannot impose or prioritize your views to design solutions for others. Your lenses count, your experience and points of view are valid, but you cannot design for someone without them. You cannot implement without them. What you can do is leverage your experience and your privileges to design and implement with them.

ICFP2022 was not a space for youth. It was not a space by youth. It was a space with youth. Let the dynamic that we have created in ICFP2022 be taken on beyond this week of sharing - let us remember what we have shown we could unlearn, and continue to collaborate with the stakeholders most impacted by our efforts, beyond these walls.

Gracias, obrigada, thank you.

It was all smiles at the pre-plenary meeting with speakers and organizers!