Barbara Heinonen on the power of listening to youth

At this year’s ReGeneration Summit, the participants got to spend the first day at Mariehamn City Hall. Barbara Heinonen, the City Director of Mariehamn, addressed all the participants in a speech focusing on the importance of youth and how, as a politicians and a person with decision-making power, you have got to lead by example to bring about change.

After her speech we got a chance to sit down with Barbara and talked about engaging youth in municipal decision-making, her own passion for sustainability and she shares her advice for how to get involved as a young person.

ReGeneration (RG): Thank you for talking to us! First of all, we would like to hear a bit more about your thoughts on why you support the ReGeneration 2030 movement and wanted to invite us here to the City Hall?

Barbara Heinonen (BH): I think it’s important because everything starts from the children and the youth. They are the ones that can change us older people. I have a good example from yesterday. A 12-year old girl had her birthday but she said she didn’t want any presents because she thinks she has enough stuff. Her parents explained to me how she, their daughter, had taught them to think about consumption differently. So you have to start with the children and the young people because they want to do the right thing. I know how people your age, how you care for the environment and the future. Here in Finland there was actually a research saying that at least 25% of the whole population are concerned with how we take care of the future and the environment. This shows how important it is. Young people are so enthusiastic and see the opportunities, not only what’s hard to do. They are able to stay happy and excited while trying to make change.

RG: I think a lot of people want to do something and are feeling this climate anxiety, but might not know where to start or feel they have any power. We just heard you talk about the importance of engaging youth in the plans and ideas for Mariehamn, can you tell us more about that?

BH: We have been planning the city centre, so therefore we had children representing three different schools here in the City Hall to discuss their input. They were also walking around the city centre discussing how they would like the area to be like. They would like not to have any cars in the city centre. That’s hard to change, because people want to be able to drive all the way to the place they are going. On the other hand, we need to remember that the city centre is supposed to be for all inhabitants. If you don’t have to be afraid or aware of the cars all the time then you can use this space much more freely and if you can use the space more freely, people will gather and that’s social sustainability. We consider social sustainability in city planning too because it’s a really important, often neglected, aspect of sustainability.

RG: Is there something specific that has shaped your way of thinking when it comes to including citizens and hearing different perspectives? BH: I think it’s partly inspired by our architect here in the house. In the city planning we have had a lot of participatory elements. That has developed into more democratic projects regarding different topics. We have had a discussion about whether people should be able to vote at 16. In the end it wouldn’t be possible to change the legislation, due to Finnish law. But for this project we went to the schools to discuss with youth if they wanted to lower the voting age. They had a lot of good points and arguments, not only supporting the idea but also against it. What we have noticed is that there are a lot of great arguments and insights that we don’t see ourselves. That’s why we need different age groups in decision-making. Usually it’s only older adults who have a say and they might say they have talked with the youth. But sometimes I wonder if they have really gone and had a dialogue with youth or they think they “know” what youth think.

RG: So obviously you’ve really tried to invite people into the City Hall and the decision-making. What has been your overall approach in including different population groups in the everyday work?

B: I think, it’s always about the people you are working with. Here we have a lot of engaged people, who are good at remembering these different perspectives. For example when it comes to gender perspectives, if it’s snowing, should you first remove the snow from the streets or the bike and pedestrian lanes, mostly used by children and women. When you think about this, maybe the priority should not be the car, maybe the need is bigger for the people going by bike, foot, with a stroller for example. So it’s crucial to consider different views, because otherwise we just do what we have always done. We have had many inspiring lectures and workshops, but it’s hard to get people to come, because they have to do it besides their work, it has to be a priority for them personally.

RG: What’s your advice to young people who want to get involved?

BH: Don’t be afraid to take contact. If you have an idea, I think most people want to listen and hear that idea. At least if people bring their ideas, it gives the chance to have a dialogue, and as a decision-maker you also get the chance to explain why maybe something can’t be done. Maybe due to legislation or certain processes. But most of the time these ideas are really implementable. When I was going to the schools, what the students wanted was quite small things. It was not expensive things that young people wanted. These things can be done.

RG: How do you see your role in encouraging youth to engage?

BH: You have to be a good example as a leader. I have a competition to not use the car; only for long distances, but 5 km is not a long distance. Here in Mariehamn the longest distance is maximum 11 km and mostly much less, so I can go by bike anywhere. I think of how I can be an example with these kind of actions. When it comes to food I try not to throw anything away, because it has a big impact. Everybody can do something in this area, we can all use our nose! Don’t just look at the expiration date, we can use our eyes, nose, our common sense.

RG: That is very true, we can all do our share! Do you have any final thoughts you want to add?

BH: I believe people want to change. We know we have to take care of each other and the environment and we have to have hope! There’s always something to be hopeful about, even with Trump, Brexit and all the things happening in the world. I had one group coming here from England right after the Brexit vote. The youth here was really shocked about the result, they didn’t think it could happen. My children also talked about it and even though they didn’t always like the EU, they talked about the possibilities of studying abroad, collaborating on science, all these benefits. The young visitors from England was also shocked but said to us, “it’s our fault, because we didn’t go vote”. You have to go and vote if you have that democratic possibility and the freedom to say what you think. We should remember how important that is. Here in Finland we didn’t have high voting percentage in the EU elections either, but it’s so important. It’s really important to engage younger people about why the EU is important. You have to make it relevant to them, think about the free roaming system or studying, traveling. It has to be something relatable for them, something that is relevant to their lives.

Thank you so much Barbara for inviting the youth of ReGeneration 2030 to the Mariehamn City Hall and for taking the time to talk to us!

Author: Stinne Friis Vognæs

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