At a young age, Charlotte Bertin couldn’t help but notice the pain and destruction that surrounds her life in South Africa. At just 14, she is already skillfully using her voice to create a world where we can trust each other.
When I was in grade one, I had a rude awakening: There was a homeless man standing on the corner outside our school, and some of the kids were shouting at him, “Kefir! Kefir!” I didn’t understand what was going on, so when I got home, I asked my mom, “What does it mean?” She looked very stressed and said, “Charlotte, that’s a very bad word that people used in the old days for black people.”
I’m of-color myself—my dad is of-color, too, and my mom is white—so I saw it from a different angle than my mostly white classmates. It made me wonder, What are those kids learning at home? I was very disturbed, but decided to try to educate them, to influence them a bit.
People say I have the gift of the gab—that I can honestly just say something to someone without hurting their feelings. In a situation like that, someone has to say, “This is wrong!” And so I just talked about it—and some of the kids realized that what they did wasn’t right. Seeing that transformation felt wonderful. It was the start of realizing the power of my voice.
In grade 7, I joined my school’s mini-council, which connects members with different people struggling in our community, like the elderly and people with HIV. When the secretary general of CIVICUS heard about my work on the mini-council and saw the passion I had for all these issues, he asked me to speak at their annual meeting.
When I walked up to the podium at the conference I was shaking with nerves. At first I was stuttering a little and my mouth was dry, but then something happened. I began to talk about my friend, who had recently died of AIDS, and I found my voice. As I described how he had struggled to come to school—the way he would shuffle along, needing to stop every few steps to catch his breath so that he could get an education, even in the face of death—I looked out at the audience and could see them respond to my words. My class had been traumatized as we watched our friend suffer and then pass away, but the real tragedy is that young people are dying every day because they are not getting the things they need, like antiretroviral drugs in the case of HIV/AIDS, and mosquito nets in the case of malaria.
As I asked the audience, “Why is it that governments can find money for wars, but not to save children’s lives?” I locked eyes on a man who was listening—and crying. All I could think was, Wow! What I’m saying is actually hitting home. I wasn’t scared anymore because I could see that all of those faces cared, and they were listening. They were ready; they were prepared.
That speech was just the beginning. I will continue to use my words to help create a world where we can trust each other, where Mother Nature can trust us and we can trust her. I hope to live in a world where I’m not always understood, because I’m human and we can’t always understand each other, but where I’m trying and you’re trying and he’s trying and she’s trying—we’re all trying. Because ultimately we really are in this together—and that’s the only way we will all succeed.
By Charlotte Bertin, as told to Leslie Heilbrunn