Leading with courage, vision and passion

Vanessa Nakate and Francesca Bria, photo by Phil Dera


Leading with courage, vision and passion

Our program director and jury member Francesca Bria on Vanessa Nakate

Good evening, everyone
It is a real pleasure to be here with you tonight for this special occasion.

There is one line in the book that Vanessa Nakate wrote, one sentence that struck me and stayed with me.

“Leadership also means empowering people to reject fatalism.” It stayed with me, because it is clear, and wise: We need to reject fatalism.

This is different from the quest for hope. What can we hope for? This is what Vanessa Nakate teaches us: We need to connect people, we need to refuse to give in, we need to be present on the ground, and active. We need to reject fatalism, but we also need to fight power, we need to organize, and we need to have a plan.

It is this voice, this clarity, this humanity that is characteristic of Vanessa Nakate, the first recipient of the Helmut-Schmidt-Future Award: Her ability to combine a clear and loud “no” with an inviting, encouraging “yes”. Her ability to vividly describe the catastrophe and at the same time paint a picture of a more just future.

But the catastrophe is here: Our house is on fire, that’s the title of the German edition of her book.

The deepening impacts of human activity on the Earth's climate and ecosystems have brought us to the climate emergency we are living, which is an existential tipping point.

This decade will be key for the transformation we need in order to tackle the fundamental challenges we are facing today: ecological, social, economic, geopolitical, and democratic.

To tackle proactively these multiple crises, we need to put forward radically new visions, we need to empower people.

People who drive change for the common good, people that show courage and perseverance.

People that combine sharp systemic thinking with strategic action plans.

People able to communicate clearly to the entire society the uncompromising intertwining of the climate issue with the issue of social and economic justice, putting the empowerment of communities and the fight against all kinds of inequalities (old and new) first.

These people could often use more attention, visibility and support.
And the Helmut Schmidt Future Prize tries to deliver exactly that. It is an award for a better society, stronger democracy, and innovation that works for the many and not just for the privileged few.

It looks for changemakers and innovators that nourish the common good, for the Robin Hood of our times, who in the face of tyranny and corruption, robs from the rich to give back to the people.

And the award has a global perspective. It wants to encourage systemic change and consider the impact on the communities that are on the front line of the multiple crisis we are living in. It is motivated by the need to empower communities, to protect the environment and our democracy.

The jury thus looked globally - and found consensus on this woman from Uganda: determined, visionary and extremely committed to the climate justice cause.

One who already has changed climate activism in the South and in the North, by contributing to changing the narrative of what is today’s most urgent global issue.

The jury was impressed by her persistence, her tenacity, and the determination of her demands.
Vanessa’s work and activism starts from the tangible poverty, injustice and inequalities she sees around her. And she understood how these inequalities are directly or indirectly related to the climate emergency.

Francesca Bria, photo by Phil Dera

Vanessa makes it very clear: The burden of climate change is today mainly impacting underprivileged communities in the Global South, while wealthy nations bear the vast bulk of responsibility for cumulative carbon emissions, Africa has contributed just 4 per cent.
Vanessa often points this out.

“We need to spend more time listening to the people in those communities, and get to know the stories beyond the statistics”. she said “Climate change is more than statistics.”

It is climate justice that she wants – but for her, climate justice is social justice, and industrialized nations must support the countries of the Global South (yes, also financially) to adapt to the changed climatic conditions. But climate-related financial assistance should be provided in the form of grants — not loans that will add to a debt pile that is already eye-watering for many African states. “When climate finance comes in the form of debt,” she told the Financial Times, “It is only harming the communities that are already on the front lines of the climate crisis”.

Vanessa is not alone, far from it: Through social media, she came across other young activists in India, Zambia, Colombia, Togo, Brazil, Kenya, people even younger than her, that are “stepping up to fill the gap left by older generations who had failed to prevent the climate emergency”.

Today, there are also many members of this new generation sitting in this room, and probably asking: Since the facts have been on the table for so long, why did policy makers not recognize the urgency of the problem and keep postponing it, hoping that some technical solution would somehow solve it?

For Vanessa Nakate, activism does not stop with demands to policy makers. She goes beyond technological solutionism; she doesn’t see electric cars and new high-tech gadgets as the solution.

This catastrophe is a global one that affects us all - but we will not be able to fight it fast enough on a global level, with top-down initiatives alone.

This is what Vanessa’s activism teaches us: We need drastic decisions, but a magic formula doesn’t exist: many small, and local solutions are needed from the ground-up, to be developed with the engagement of the most affected communities.

So, Vanessa gets involved with her peers on the ground.

Alongside protest and direct actions, she also works on concrete projects and solutions needed, compatible with nature and the climate: from solar panels in schools, to new education projects, reforestation, and sustainable agriculture.

Vanessa is also firmly convinced that climate education and climate awareness play a crucial role. She has personally experienced the importance of education, because she ran away from home as a small child in order to be allowed to attend classes. She persisted - and was allowed to receive education.

Vanessa often emphasises that she is just one of many young climate activists who has been put in the spotlight by the media somewhat by accident.

Leadership for her involves taking collective action, shaping a social movement, the project of a generation.

In her book she writes “we could all learn more and learn from one another. I’ve discovered that listening is as important as speaking out. I’ve learned that the more voices you listen to, the more effective you’ll be as a speaker“.

With this award, we recognise these achievements. her committed, passionate activism, that she carefully builds on scientific facts, and that she leads with courage, vision and passion.

She succeeds in doing just that: Vanessa combines foresight with local, immediate action, she combines consistent demands with a willingness to engage in policy dialogue, she knows how to find allies and by acting this way she is an inspiring role model for others.

She emphasises again and again how important it is to really tackle this kind of historical challenges together: A better, more just, solidarity-based future is only possible if we all shape it together. And now, on behalf of the jury I now would like to congratulate Vanessa Nakate for receiving this prestigious award. We wish you and the climate justice movement unlimited success.

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