Earth-friendly thinking, globally and locally

schandler@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2013 

Jenny Liu of Chapel Hill was named the first-prize winner of a local United Nations Contest for her presentation on the U.N.’s work on environmental issues.

COURTESY OF XIAOFEI WANG

  • Contest winners

    Here are the other award winners for the West Triangle Chapter of the United Nations Association’s contest, in which students could present individually or in groups:

    Second prize: Corey Risinger, a junior at East Chapel Hill High School, for “The Reform of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Refugee Assimilation and Protection.”

    Third prize: Senior Kristen Lee and junior Amber Johnson of Carrboro High School for “Carbon Emissions and the United Nations: An Examination of the Kyoto Protocol and the Future of Carbon Emissions in Developed and Developing Nations.”

    Honorary mention: Phuong Le and Tian Chang Zhang, sophomores at East Chapel Hill High, for “The U.N. and Its Role in Combating Malaria in Africa.”

The United Nations makes headlines all the time for its peacekeeping and humanitarian activities. But 15-year-old Jenny Liu was surprised to learn that the U.N. also has an environmental program, and she wanted to spread the word.

So she chose “The U.N. Role on Environment” as the title and focus of the 30-minute presentation she made in front of judges from the West Triangle Chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA, an organization that aims to inform and involve citizens in the work of the U.N.

The United Nations Contest, co-sponsored by the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, invited high school students from Orange, Durham and Chatham counties to research how the U.N. addresses a global issue and present not only their findings but also their ideas about how the organization could better carry out its work. That second angle is what got Jenny, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High School, excited about the contest when she saw a flyer for it on a teacher’s bulletin board earlier in the school year.

“I think it’s more interactive and gets you to think more about consequences or causes. You become more involved not only with the contest but more with the events around you,” she said. “It just brings a lot of brainpower.”

First, she dove into the research, learning that while the U.N. Environmental Program has a lot of plans and good intentions, a lack of funding and global support has prevented many of its aims from being implemented. After outlining some of the UNEP’s projects, many of which address greenhouse gas emissions, Jenny’s presentation pointed out the program’s lack of stature and offered a suggestion.

“I thought that the U.N. should educate more and they should advocate themselves more – they should say ‘we are important,’” she said.

Much of her talk was supported by a PowerPoint presentation, with a couple of U.N.-produced educational videos that had especially impressed Jenny added in. But what really set her presentation apart was a five-minute dance piece she choreographed and performed on video to illustrate ocean pollution.

“That was actually a part of the contest I really liked,” said Jenny, who takes ballet classes after school, “because a lot of the other contests have really strict outlines. ‘Have to write an essay. A thousand words. Can’t go over by one character.’” The U.N. contest, she said, was much more open to creativity, and when she saw an item in the instructions encouraging artistic expression as part of the presentations, she knew right away she wanted to incorporate dance.

It was a decision that pleased the judges, who had this to say in a statement about their choice for first-prize: “The Committee appreciated her very well thought out oral presentation and was especially impressed with her dance performance, which echoed the theme of her project.”

The U.N. contest wasn’t the beginning of Jenny’s interest in the environment, nor is it the end.

Inspired (and disgusted) by trash littering the side of a local highway, she and her friend Frances Liu (they’re not related) started a charity and affiliated club at their school last summer called Nature Way. While the UNEP works to heal the environment at the international level, Nature Way’s focus is much closer to home.

They’re envisioning projects where people can be the solution instead of the problem – educational videos, beach cleanups and a survey to find out what people in their community want help with to improve their relationship with the planet.

In a broader sense, Nature Way – just like the U.N. – knows that awareness is the first step toward action.

“We researched some of the environmental charities that already existed, and we noticed that a lot of them, they focus on getting people who already care about the environment to start acting,” Jenny said. “But not a lot of them focus on getting people to care.”

The charity is focused on young people, right down to its founders. Frances designed the logo, and Jenny filled out the paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office to make the organization official.

“This is a really, really wild dream,” Jenny said, “but we hope that it could be possible and it could be done.”

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