Last month, we virtually hosted our inaugural President’s Address with our President, Marvin Rees. Marvin became President of British Exploring Society in August 2019 and is also a Member (Young Explorer Svalbard 1990) and the Mayor of Bristol. His address focused on the central theme of the urgent need to ensure that young people, particularly those most excluded and disadvantaged, have the chance to develop resilience – a critical skill to help them tackle difficulties and thrive in times of stress. This is core to our work.
“So, key to me, really, is this question of resilience. Because as a mayor this question of how we overcome trials, how we keep it together, is increasingly important; not just as some kind of abstract idea, but for the lives of individuals who end up in our public services too frequently because of the circumstances in which they were born or the challenges they face.”
Marvin describes himself as the mixed-race son of a Jamaican father and a white single mother. Born in Bristol, he still lives there and is married with three children. He joined us as a young man on expedition in 1990 to Svalbard. During his President’s Address, he commented on the impact of awe in the wilderness in helping him to find his place in the world – or as he put it – finding his significance in his insignificance:
“The sense of being in a place that was untainted, climbing mountains that no one had ever climbed before. It’s very difficult to put into words – it just felt like we were breaking new ground. The real possibility of falling down crevasses and never being seen again. The experience of awe. All through our expedition we could hear the crack from the snout of the glacier on the edge of our camp. The freedom of that space.
It gave me a sense of the scale of the world – and how small the world I was rattling around in was. I come from the inner city, single mum, not much money. We didn’t really go outside our area very much. I think going up to Svalbard just blew my mind, just how vast the world was.
I felt very, very vulnerable. Small and very insignificant. The irony was that, in that moment of insignificance, I knew I was alive in a way that I hadn’t felt before.”
Post-expedition, Marvin went on to obtain a Master’s degree in political theory and government at the University of Wales, a Master’s in global economic development at Eastern University in the States, and later completed the World Fellows Program at Yale University. In 2016 Marvin Rees became Mayor of Bristol, the first directly elected Mayor of African descent of a major European city:
“As a Mayor, it’s so important for me to tap into the sources of resilience for individuals and for wider society. I’ve used a proverb in Bristol a lot and it says: we don’t despise our sufferings because sufferings produce perseverance, perseverance character and character hope. Finding perseverance was the key to me to overcome a fear of failure that had paralyzed me for years. And not just overcoming alone but overcoming together.
But there’s a broader challenge in this which is about wider society, and again, as a city leader, I am frankly quite terrified about the levels of resilience in our society. I’m particularly concerned about the way our civic discourses are conducted on social media. We’re not building relationships as a society when mediated through social media.
The old methods of building personal resilience, trial, overcoming failure, suffering, are being substituted by likes and reposts through social media. I’m not saying to go to war with social media but we need alternative opportunities for people to build their resilience. If we don’t, we will build increasingly fragile individuals and fragile societies.”
Reflecting on the greater-than-ever need for independence, freedom of thought and resilience in young people, Marvin explained why he believes there is an urgent need for diversity in the outdoor sector and beyond.
“We have future climate shocks coming towards us. We’re about to go into the biggest economic depression in decades and we are experiencing increasingly divisive language around identity and belonging. We need individual resilience. We need community resilience. I am of the absolute belief that organizations like British Exploring Society can help make up for this deficit.
If certain sections of society are getting these opportunities and others are not, then those already advantaged are getting phenomenal opportunities to build more resilience into their lives. We’re strong as our weakest link. It’s important that we give opportunities to everyone in society to find significance, and to build resilience. Finally, we need to make sure we don’t kill the planet. The more people we can create the opportunity to engage with the wider planet, the better.”
Like so many of our Young Explorers, Marvin’s life since first joining us as a young man is an inspiration. He is a motivating role-model for the young people we are lucky enough to work with, too. His advice to our Young Explorers is:
- Do not let fear of failure paralyze you
- Make good friends – and take your time with it
- Serve to lead