Salt Lake hosts U.N. Civil Society Conference

By Barbara Pioli

The goal: to achieve inclusiveness and sustainability at the grassroots level in our communites

This August, as a board member-representative of U.S. Servas (pronounced Sir-vahs), I was lucky enough to participate in one of the most important international meetings in the world: the United Nations’ 68th Civil Society Conference. Traditionally held at the UN headquarters in New York City, this year’s conference was in Salt Lake City. Thousands of people from over 130 countries and almost every U.S. state gathered to address the topic of global sustainability.

On the first morning I headed to the plenary session where dignitaries—from deputy undersecretaries to directors of various UN committees—welcomed the morning crowd. There were also in attendance local and Utah officials including Mayor Jackie Biskupski, UVU President Dr. Astrid Tuminez, and Ambassador John Price (who recently served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros). Nearly every speaker underscored audience members’ role of listening and sharing ideas. They encouraged us to put the ideas and tools we would acquire over the next three days to use in our communities.

I was eager to find out if the UN might have ideas I might take back to the Servas board. Servas is a global network for international travelers that connects people for homestays. It prides itself on being a peace-building organization, using these cross-cultural travel experiences to build peace and social justice. Sustainability is a top concern for Servas, especially considering the effect of travel on our planet’s resources and health.

The conference schedule was packed, with up to 30 sessions each hour, offering new concepts and networking potential with people from around the world. Topics covered infrastructure and natural resource uses, climate change, emerging technologies, social impact investing, creating opportunities and economic success for youth, and recovering from conflict.

One inspirational story came from Amanda Nesheiwat of Secaucus, New Jersey. Ten years ago, as a college student majoring in environmental studies, Nesheiwat took an internship with the town of Secaucus and, while there, wrote three grants for environmental initiatives. They all received funding. No one in Secaucus’s administration better understood the intricacies of the grants than Nesheiwat so she was hired to oversee the projects. Her initiative turned the town of Secaucus into a leading environmental enterprise. With her guidance, this town of 18,000 residents, in the shadow of New York City, now self-identifies as a sustainable place to live for future generations. Their initiatives include environmental issues and education; community gardens and food waste programs; electric vehicle charging stations;  and residential solar access.

Another brilliant idea came from Nabeela Omarjee with ActNow, the UN Climate Action Campaign. Using the ActNow app, Omarjee hopes to establish an online social reward system that encourages individuals to make small changes to benefit the environment. Users track their daily low-impact consumption choices and share their actions on the app.

For me, as a U.S. Servas board member, I learned that travel, peace-building and environmental stewardship do not have to be at odds with one another. As an organization, we can continue to foster peace through cultural exchange and adopt energy-saving actions to counter the environmental impact of travel.

After the conference I spoke with Vicki Bennett, director of Salt Lake City’s Office of Sustainability. Her main takeaway was to think of sustainability more broadly. “While our department does more traditional environmental programs, we need to remember the other legs of the stool that include the economic and equity components,” Bennett said. “Our department is starting a new program that will be reaching out to our less-advantaged populations to include them in our planning efforts, especially as a part of our food program.”

The city is also seeing potential population impacts from climate change. There is a very real possibility that some time in the not-too-distant future we will be taking in climate refugees. Some may come from other countries but many more will come from cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas as hotter temperatures and fewer water resources force them to seek alternative places to live. While the city is ready to welcome anyone who comes, they also want to help people stay in their homes. “It will affect us in the near future,” says Bennett, “if we don’t slow the rate of global warming immediately.”


Barbara Pioli is a board member of the peace-building non-governmental organization US Servas and a founding member of the Wasatch Food Cooperative. She works as a consultant to nonprofits.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.