Priyanka Lalla
Priyanka Lalla Image Credit: Supplied

It’s easy to forget that Priyanka Lalla, a children’s rights and climate activist, is only 14 years old. For one thing, she doesn’t look the part – with a steady gaze, the tall advocate from Trinidad and Tobago projects an air of calm. For another, she is very passionate about her subject and will often refer to others her age as ‘young people’. But this demarcation doesn’t come across as condescending – just very, very practised. As she would be – Lalla, who spoke to Gulf news on the sidelines of an Expo 2020 event on World Children’s Day, on Saturday, has had this public figure gig for a while.

It began when she was just 10 years old. “I started my advocacy at age 10 when Hurricane Maria hit the Leeward Islands. I saw the devastation and the destruction, and I saw the young people on television, standing in the middle of it – their homes were destroyed, their schools were destroyed, their belongings were gone and I saw the devastation on their faces and this was so close to home – it was a few islands away … I soon learned from my parents that this was actually our own actions resulting in [climate change consequences] this,” recalled the United Nations Children's Fund Eastern Caribbean youth ambassador.

This event would be the turning point, causing her to look for micro solutions that she could implement. “I did my own research and came up with small solutions, and I think that’s the key that I’m trying to advocate as well – small steps that lead to great impact. One of them was zero waste living; so I created the idea of this lunch kit that I started to do for myself and my sister. Then I pitched the idea to my school and my friends and my peers, and other schools in Trinidad and Tobago. The idea was sustainable, reusable containers and utensils - you eliminate those wasteful items. And this was just one small step that was leading up to limiting my carbon emissions and the amount of waste that I was producing.”

Going it alone

Her parents and teachers understood that Lalla was onto something – and there was much support. But, when it came to her peers, it was a different story. “When I first started, this [sustainable living] was something entirely new. Almost alien to my parents, my peers, even my school. And my teachers were very supportive because I believe they understood what I was trying to achieve, but many of my peers they were like, ‘Priyanka what are you doing? You are not really helping anyone – these are small little things that you are doing, it’s not going to really make an impact’. That really made me [ask myself], ‘what am I doing?’, and rethink my whole journey. At times I didn’t have the support from my peers and my friends and honestly, it did make me feel left out,” she explains.

She also felt she wasn’t reaching enough people to make a difference in those early days. She explains: “When I first started my advocacy I had like five followers on Instagram and one person who would like that post and it would probably be a family member – I felt so discouraged because many people around me knew that I was doing this but they didn’t want to show their support or they didn’t understand it – which I can’t blame them for because the knowledge gap is huge right now. And there were times when I was like, nobody’s listening to what I’m saying so is my solution even useful?”

But, she’s quick to add, that a piece of advice her parents and teachers kept repeating to her kept her strong: ‘It’ll come around in the end,’ they said.

Learning the basics

Besides that, she says, “The support from my parents and my teachers and my mentors was key in this – because they understood it as well. They said, this is something that she’s passionate about and this is something that will positively impact young people as well, so we must push it and encourage it. I think having that support from my parents was huge, because not only did they play a role in supporting me, they played a role in teaching me. It was not only up to my teachers but it was also up to my parents and my household to do that job of educating me, like teaching me about recycling and teaching me small steps that were so important in my movement and today in my advocacy,” she says.

Finding your circle

There’s another life lesson that she learned along the way as well – if you look hard enough, you’ll find the place you belong. “After a while, going to panels and events and really becoming a part of this community, I’ve met so many people like myself. Hundreds of young people, in fact, who are so passionate about climate change, education, the rights of children and just passionate about the things they stand up for – I look at them and they are all unique … they face challenges just like me and that’s so important…for young people to know that even standing up for simple things will be challenging but of course, it’s so important that you do it,” she says.

Finally, it all boils down to keeping your eye on the end game. “Looking further than [dismissive peers] and at my true mission, having that support from my mentors, my parents, my guardians, and having my mission still at heart – remembering what I saw on television, remembering why I’m doing this is key. I just thought, ‘okay, this is much bigger than me’,” she explains.

But it is about more than one person, she says; it’s important to rope everyone into the conversation. “It’s so important that we have that intergenerational dialogue; I think a lot of what’s put on young people is that young people have the responsibility to take on the climate crisis and other crisis that face us, but I think it’s still important for us to understand that we need to have intergenerational teamwork and dialogue if we want to do better – we need the help of our educators, our mentors, our parents, our leaders in society, our teachers, policymakers and governments. And we can’t do this without them and they can’t do this without us.”

“Follow your passion because if you are following your purpose, everything after is so much easier to do – you are doing what you love,” she said. Told you, it’s easy to forget, she’s only 14.

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