Pope Francis set the stage, cruising through the park less than 24 hours earlier for his U.S. visit, but it was Beyoncé, activist Malala Yousafzai and First Lady Michelle Obama who stole the show.
After a stunning performance by Beyoncé, U2 rocker and international AIDS activist Bono introduced Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, along with four other young women activists from Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria — setting a new “squad goal” for women everywhere, as writer and activist Janet Mock tweeted.
The 18-year-old Nobel Laureate spoke passionately of the importance of equal access to education, especially for young girls, and how it plays a major role in eradicating poverty.
“It’s not that there is lack of money in this world,” she said. “We have billions and trillions of dollars, but where the money goes is military; it’s things that are useless and that are not useful to society.”
Calls for gender equality, education, sanitation and climate action stood out among the United Nations’ 17 other “Global Goals,” sustainable development milestones that the event organizers hoped the 60,000 people who gathered there would memorize and share.
Millions of others tuned in through YouTube and MSNBC to watch performances by Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Ed Sheeran and to catch a glimpse of hosts and attendees such as Stephen Colbert, Kerry Washington, Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. It was the fourth such festival organized by Global Poverty Project, a nonprofit that began in 2008 with the ambitious goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.
Tickets were free, but attendees earned them through online activism, such as signing a petition, emailing a leader or tweeting a message.
First Lady Michelle Obama, who leads “Let Girls Learn,” a global initiative to improve girls education, appeared on stage to launch a new campaign, #62milliongirls — a reference to the number of girls who are currently not enrolled in school. Obama asked the audience to spread the word by tweeting or Instagramming a photo of themselves with the hashtag and a line about what they learned in school.
Commitments from policymakers on stage went beyond tweeting and what some may view as self-congratulatory “slackivism,” or armchair activism. After speaking about the rise of environmental refugees, Leonardo DiCaprio handed the mic to the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who spoke of the pressing need for clean water and sanitation with Sesame Street’s Big Bird. The World Bank committed $15 billion over the next five years for sanitation and water programs that are projected to reach 150 million people.
The festival was made of moments like this — an incongruous mixing of policymakers and pop stars. Economist Jeffrey Sachs shared a stage with actress Olivia Wilde, and Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin introduced Vice President Joe Biden as the “handsomest man in politics.” Biden went on to deliver a rousing, optimistic speech, thanking the audience for “rejecting the false premise that our challenges are mere fate with no solutions.”
He added: “At no time in history has so much power been available to make such a big difference for so many people.”
The connections organizers made between audience members sending a tweet and “holding leaders accountable” were tenuous at times. Instructions on the event page website included such hyperbolic phrasing as “tweet now to end extreme poverty by 2030” and petitions vaguely addressed to “World Leaders.”
Still, few other events marry the massive crowds of pop and power of policy so nicely.
You could see it in the way Beyoncé, co-founder of Chime For Change, a global campaign for girls’ and women’s empowerment, weaved in themes of gender equality to her performance. Her hit song “Run the World (Girls)” was punctuated by recordings of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism, and the Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal,” on the power of womanhood. It was by no means a new feature of a Beyonce show, but it felt particularly fitting at this festival.
As the organizer who booked Beyoncé told us, “for some, this could be a way of introducing them to become more committed and do more.”
If all it takes is a little Beyoncé, then so be it.