What is the story that you would like to tell about Finland 100 years from now?
This was my school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The walls and the corridors are the same, but there are new teachers and pupils now – ans new types of schoolbooks. The name of the school has also changed, but its mission has not.
This is still a school, and a new generation is growing within its walls to build Finland.
A school is a building with four walls, which holds the future within it. I have often thought of my old teachers. Even more important than the subjects that they taught were their personalities, and their ability to support their pupils – sometimes in subtle and discreet ways. Each pupil is an individual, and school should support every single one of them.
In the auditorium of this school, applause was not reserved exclusively for graduates earning the highest marks – they were also given to a friend who had to repeat each grade in upper secondary school. The applause for this friend was the most enthusiastic. I was left with the sense that this is a school that gives its pupils full support.
Today we also need teachers who will put their own personalities on the line – who encourage pupils to look to the future while passing their own values and own thinking on to them. Inside these walls I learned that the world changes when people change it.
The past year marked the 100th anniversary year of Finnish independence. The year contained many reminders of how Finland took up arms in self-defence. Here in this school of ours we had a Suomi model submachine gun on display in a glass case. However, the emergence and preservation of independence has also required firepower of a different kin. Not much was heard in the past centenary year about people such as Lucina Hagman, the founder of the Finnish Martha Organisation and the women’s rights organisation Naisasialiitto Unioni, and who served as the first headmistress of the first Finnish-language coeducational school.
She was also one of the women elected to Parliament in the elections of 1907. The hate speech was deafening when Lucina toured her electoral district with other women candidates. Without the work of these pioneers Finland would not have the level of education, culture, and equality for which we now have a worldwide reputation.
Work on behalf of human dignity and justice is not merely something that has happened in the past; we need to make to the same choices again and again. We faced such a choice in 2015 when the number of asylum seekers suddenly surged in Finland.
Our officials were also not ready for this, but there were citizens who rolled up their sleeves and started bringing mattresses, clothes, and toys to reception centres and temporary shelters. While there were some whose only course of action was to call for closing the borders, others took action to help those in distress.
It is time to thank them profusely for the work that they have done.
Schools have an official curriculum but much is happening in the background. These coat racks were one of our “classrooms”, where my friends and I would spend hours talking about society, the future, nature, and philosophy.
Now I have visited many schools where practical peace work takes place in the form of peer mediation to resolve conflicts among pupils. When children learn to confront and resolve conflicts at school the skill is retained throughout life.
Values and ideals came up in the discussions I had back my school years which I still want to defend today. I support openness in all decision-making and politics. I oppose hate speech, discrimination, and attempts to silence others. Already at school we learned that the weaker ones need to be defended and we need to support those whose voices would not otherwise be heard.
The #MeToo campaign has raised issues of harassment and bullying at schools and workplaces. It is a matter that requires immediate action.
If peace work is learned already at school, the skills are needed today in resolving the crises in North Africa, the Middle East, Ukraine and Russia, or the nuclear threat in North Korea.
These corridors once had a nature week exhibition organised by the nature club Vanessa on what will happen if the pollution of the water, air, and soil continue. There was also a peace week exhibition on the conflicts in the world. Not everybody agreed on everything. At times doors of the teachers’ room were slammed, there was a queue to the headmaster’s office, and there may have been occasional sulking.
But this is how we learned freedom of expression, respect for the opinions of others, and democracy on a practical level.
Children and young people are not merely makers of the future – they are here among us right now, at this moment. Some of the most poignant meetings that I had this past autumn were with young people who do not seem to have the feel of solid ground under their feet. These kids feel that every step they take sinks them deeper as they walk along the path to marginalisation. The world looks frightening, and Finland appears to them as a cheerless country. We must do everything we can now on behalf of these young people. The Youth Guarantee is important, and so is getting it to work for everybody.
Loneliness is often the first step of marginalisation. Finland is known as a country where people do not leave friends behind. This should also hold true for every young person. I know that just one friendship can help a person get past the darkest of times. Civil society and the third sector can help ensure that everyone has such a friend.
I just returned from a tour of Finnish Lapland, and I was amazed to encounter the energy and optimism that many young people now have. The opportunities offered by the new economy, tourism, and other fields in the service sector create new jobs. Many have new opportunities now in their own home regions.
The new media is democratic, and the internet means that everyone has access to the same information. We have a youth that is better and more knowledgeable than ever.
Finland is now being developed in an open-minded way.
Another memorable event was my visit to the Ollinaho farm in Kangasniemi in South Savonia. The farm is more than 400 years old. Two farmers of the new generation, Maisa Juntunen and Tuomas Laitinen, have been active, making new investments, utilising new technology – and breathing life into organized village activities. Not all parts of the countryside are emptying out – rural areas can fill up with new ideas and a new approach.
It is with this kind of sincere faith that clears away barriers that Finland was once built. Now we need the same kind of open-mindedness for Finland’s next hundred years.
This used to be the auditorium of the Munkkivuori School. Today the building houses the Helsinki French-Finnish School. It is a reminder that internationalism is an important part of Finland. We have always been European. The first Finnish students to have attended university in Paris did so in 1313.
The current pupils of this school are also interested in politics and having an impact on society. When I met the pupils of the school, they expressed concern about climate change and thought about ways in which young people could better influence the way that things develop.
It will be years before all of the current pupils of this school are old enough to vote. In the meantime we adults need to make decisions that increase their opportunities in the world and to build a Finland that they can eventually be proud of.
Fighting climate change is one of the matters in which we have to do the right things. The great changes in the world climate are our greatest security threat, and they also add to conflicts while increasing the number of refugees. As wells dry and arable land is destroyed, people are forced to leave.
Finland cannot just stand by as these great changes take place around us. As the holder of the chairmanship of the Arctic Council we have great responsibility in the development.
We must develop and introduce low-emission energy production methods and better environmental technology and methods that enable us to bind more carbon into forests and the soil. With this kind of new environmental knowledge and skill we can also create global success stories.
Finland can be a vanguard.
Finland has been built with fortitude and heart, courage and open-mindedness, resulting in today’s success story. Now we must courageously look forward.
What is the story about Finland that you would like to be told 100 years from now?
We cannot add chapters to the past, but what we do today and tomorrow will become part of Finnish history some day.
May the year, 2018, be a happy chapter, creating new things for the history of Finland.