SDG Street mural painting by high school students in the Philippines promoting SDG advocacy (2030 Youth Force-Philippines)
Ecojesuit is happy to share this interview of its Project Manager, Brex Arevalo, by Telmo Olascoaga, Junior Ecology Officer at the Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC) that publishes Eco-Bites, the JESC monthly ecology newsletter. This Eco-Bites interview with Brex is the first in a series of stories and aspirations of those who fight for a greener world.
Our Eco-bites team interviewed Brex Arevalo, Project Manager at Ecojesuit, who actively advocates for ecology by engaging with Jesuits and global partners and by promoting ecological action through sustainable development.
Eco-Bites (EB): Who is Brex Arevalo? Tell us a bit about your background.
Brex Arevalo (BA): I’m an environmental planner working together with faith and youth-based organisations on integral ecology and sustainable development. On the faith-based side, I work with Ecojesuit in promoting ecological action and collaborations among Jesuits and partners globally. On the youth side, I work mainly within the 2030 Youth Force in the Philippines (YFPH) in advocating for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through policy interventions, education, etc.
When I am not working, I can usually be found buried in a book or doing some form of martial art. I used to be a very dedicated collegiate fencer, but now my passion has flowed towards muay thai, mixed martial arts, and jiu jitsu. With all the busy work, it is these things that help me pause and listen to myself.
EB: How did you first get into ecology affairs?
BA: I don’t know if it was me who chose ecology or if ecology is something I was naturally drawn into. For me, ecology is also about inclusion and participation.
When I was in college, the term ‘community participation’ resonated with me deeply. So much so that my graduate thesis revolved around community participation in informal settlements along waterways in Metro Manila. This was my first “serious” foray into ecology, and it inspired me to become a volunteer and to advocate for SDGs.
At the same time, I began working in disaster risk reduction and management for one of the bigger cities in Metro Manila. There, I was pleased to find that, even at that level, community involvement was seen as an essential indicator of a project’s success.
Another experience that pushed me towards ecology was spending some time at a farming community in Hacienda Luisita, Tarlac. This is a place with a lot of history of struggle behind it: land disputes, abuse, unfair treatment, and other injustices. Their struggle wasn’t mine per se, but I felt a deep sense of responsibility once I shared their reality. Two weeks after I left, one of the houses I visited was bulldozed by the landowners to make way for a shopping mall. I did not have the courage to ask if there were people still inside when this happened, but it is not uncommon.
EB: How has getting initiated into ecology shaped your advocacy focus? Has this affected your lifestyle too?
BA: It has helped me in terms of being able to look into things deeper, and in a more systemic and interconnected way. It has also helped me to become more grateful and assertive.
One interesting lifestyle change I had is how I look at and experience food. Now that I understand better where my food comes from, I always make it a point to pray before, or even as I eat. On a metaphysical or spiritual sense, I think of food as part of Creation, and hence of divine origin. So when we partake of food, we partake of the divine and all that comes with it – the sweat and hardship of the farmer, the journey of a fish upstream, the blood spilled during a slaughter, and so on.
EB: During last month, you contributed to organise the dialogue Reimagining Development: Youth Perspectives for a Better World. What inputs did you draw from its different panels and discussions?
BA: First of all, I’d just like to point out how thankful I am that the participants were willing to share their thoughts so passionately, and how open to hearing and learning from others they were. It was not the inputs of the participants that struck me the most, but rather their willingness and energy to engage.
In particular, I was happy to see participants like September who lives in Papua New Guinea. Even though these events took place near midnight in her area, and with her limited internet connection, she still found the time to join. This shows that she valued the process.
This last week I have been working on our shared document of recommendations. There are way more suggestions and comments than I expected. A very good problem to have!
EB: Attending at this wider context, what is the role of the youth in shaping international environmental action?
BA: In a practical sense, they tend to have more time as they likely have fewer work- and family-related responsibilities. On a deeper level, they have a greater daring to hope and to dream. The role of the youth, I feel, is to be crazy enough to think they can change the world – and to be stubborn enough to stick to that dream.
To me, the role of the youth is perhaps most evident in terms of climate action. The movement and hopes that people like Greta Thunberg inspired are very real, and clearly there is something significant happening when thousands of people of different ages make the decision to hold climate strikes.
Even the Church is listening, as we are seeing several stories of divestment and other climate actions springing up. One of my favourite climate action stories comes from a parish in New York that I heard gives equal amounts of attention to Laudato Si’ and the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
EB: Is this generational legitimacy taken into account by policy?
BA: I think it is, but a lot of work still needs to be done. This generational legitimacy can be seen in terms of how governments are increasingly willing to listen and work with youth organisations.
For example, I was involved in a group within YFPH that drafted some policies for the Philippine Senate in order to help translate SDGs into policy. Even the UN is taking notice as we now have the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth in the UN to formally represent the voices of young people around the world.
Also, in 2019, I took part in the UN Youth Climate Summit, the first of its kind.
EB: Alliance building is one of the most crucial tasks for eco-activism. Given your experience on this area, can you share some tips about how to better engage with other organisations and the wider public?
BA: First, it is absolutely essential to listen. This is the first step in what I call “genuine dialogue.” A lot of meetings and interactions happen, but they are not always genuine in the sense that one part is not willing to work things out through solidarity and empathy.
Second, be patient, very patient. Sustainability issues take a lot of time. When you deal with sustainable development, you deal with people, environments, and situations that are always changing. We also tend to fall into the ‘planning fallacy’ and become overly optimistic about our timelines. I wouldn’t call it a terrible thing though, as this means we remain hopeful despite the challenges ahead of us!
Third, be prepared for politics. There will be people out there who will try to derail you and your agenda. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing dirty. But don’t do it. You can fake a smile, but you cannot fake integrity. Ultimately, in the end, it is integrity that will bear fruit.
EB: On a more personal note and addressing the current state of affairs, do you believe that necessary change will take place within your lifetime?
BA: The necessary change is already happening. The problem is that it’s not happening fast enough and at a great enough depth and scale. Added to this is inertia, and unexpected situations like the current pandemic.
As an example of progress, there was minimal civil society involvement in global processes like those of the UN not long ago. There is still a long way to go, but it is clear that steps are being taken so that civil society has more of a say.
EB: What message would you like to send to those who do not share your urgent and integral approach to ecological thinking?
BA: If there’s anything that the pandemic is showing us is that the fate of others is also our business. Ecological injustices are at the root of why things are the way they are. How we treat others and our environment rightfully deserves our attention and reflection.
One of the participants during the symposium on Reimagining Development, Francisco from Colombia, said it well when he described the pandemic as an opportunity to pause and to reflect.
Developed after months of dialogue with Jesuit Conferences to deliver a joint response to the COVID-19 crisis, Ecojesuit’s Lead Actions to build a better normal also illustrate this very well.
The more we get into things, the more we realise how ecology is deeply ingrained within many of our problems. Ecological thought cannot be interpreted in isolation.
EB: Thank you very much for all your valuable input, and thank you for accepting the inaugural slot within this new interview series.
BA: Thank you. And to my fellow youth: I know it’s difficult, but please stay crazy enough to dream and be hopeful.