Wednesday, 13 September 2017

My Story of the Global Gathering of World YMCA Change Agents

I should've mic dropped - next time.

150 plus young leaders, proudly representing 49 different countries from the regions of Europe, Africa, Middle East, Australia and Asia. So many personalities and values but we all share the same common love and common goal – the YMCA and empowering young people, we are ONE MOVEMENT. 

Our time in Portugal lasted 10 days in total, but those 10 days went by too fast, well I say 10 days, my time was extended to 13 days but more about that later oh, and the culture night that will come later too. The days involved stories, experiences, culture, sessions and interactive workshops. On Day 2, I myself presented a workshop on the theme of Young People and Civic Engagement which aligns with one of World YMCAs key areas of advocacy along with Health, Employment and Environment. 

I arrived in Lisbon a day earlier and took in some sights with another Change Agent from Czech Republic. The next day we travelled to our hosts in Setubal. YMCA Camp Alambre, a beautiful fit-for-purpose camp that was surrounded by the naturally beautiful Portuguese scenery and local vineyards that have produced award winning wines – what more would I need.

The Camp at YMCA Alambre
It was so uplifting to see familiar faces from previous Change Agent training in France, but more importantly the excitement of meeting and making new friends and networks was even more enriching. We were seen to our rooms and through prior information, I knew I was to share a bungalow with 5 other Change Agents from England. However, what some of us didn’t know is that they were to practice for the BBC Proms every night and on Day 2 they were dubbed by Joe as ‘the Sn-Orchestra’ - which still makes me giggle. Nevertheless, it was great to share a bungalow with some of the funniest people I have ever met. 

After the formal opening ceremonies and greetings, we dived straight into sessions around YMCA Research, the expectations of the gathering in addition to looking ahead to Word Council in Chaing Mai next year. 

Opening statements from Johan Eltvik, Secretary General, World YMCA

Environmental Immersions and Social Action was the main theme on the Monday. We were split up into different groups and split up around Setubal. As a total, we gave 19 days of volunteering and took part in cleaning up areas in the national park, renovation of Santa Margarita Chapel, restoration of the “Patience Fountain”, recuperation of a hiking pathway and where I was stationed, the rehabilitation of the oceanographic museum. 

Alli - Painting in Setubal
After our volunteering, we had free-time, and what a way to spend it, on the luscious golden beaches of the Setubal region. The heat of the sun was melting, but if you were crazy enough you could easily cool down in the water which was at an estimate around -50 degrees – Baltic.

Thanks to Igor; my face tells the picture of the freezing waters
Health and Employment was the focus of the next day, which took us into some of the social injustices that face young people today. Employment issues that were risen from the previous day steered us nicely into the topic of the next day where we would visit the Portuguese Parliament and meet with MPs of the Portuguese Government. Just like domestic politicians they evaded most of the questions but it was still an experience I will never forget, especially being given the honour to ask my groups question to the parliamentarians.

Portuguese Parliament
Question Time

Thursday was all about the 19th World Council which is held next year – it will also be the graduation of our Change Agent cohort. We also looked at the roles most of us may play next year from facilitating more sessions and workshops, being able to play a part in the opening ceremony and much, much more. I can easily say I am already looking forward to World Council.

Friday and Saturday was the backdrop for Youth Empowerment, we visited the region of Cascais, specifically Estoril. The region is to become the European Capital of Youth In 2018 – Stoke’s turn soon, maybe? The last full day began with more sessions being led around youth empowerment. In the evening, we were treated to locally produced sustainable food that was cooked and presented to us by the different YMCAs from the Setubal region. 


The cultural night is by far one of the highlights for me. Every time I have been on international gatherings they never fail to amaze me. This cultural night was the best yet in my opinion. Like I said at the start of this blog, we were representing 49 countries, 49 cultures of food, dress, drink and 49 arts of music and dance. The different foods that burst the palette of your tongue into joy, the drinks we sampled – some you needed to be courageous to even smell never mind taste.

The night started with a fashion show that featured different countries traditional clothes, most countries paraded down the red carpet, Cambodia, Japan, Cameroon, Malaysia and Ghana just to name a few. We were also graced with the presence of Hotu who hails from Easter Island – he showed us a traditional war dance of the Rapa Nui people. It was so captivating to learn the history of his home. Near the latter part of the night we all engaged in something that is turning to be a tradition from Team England, we got everyone in a circle and brought the Hokey Cokey to the people once again and this time it was bigger, better and more chaotic than ever before. 

Hotu (middle) - Easter Island/Rapa Nui

By now we have all reached home with the learnings and stories we’ve all shared, new friends and new connections that spread across the globe. We are better prepared now more than ever to empower young people within our respected communities. ‘Be The Change’ a term we all know, use and all endeavour to be.

Portugal it has been a pleasure, special thanks to YMCA Alambre Camp for the hospitality, the smiles, the music, the coffees and your service. Also, special appreciations to the staff and volunteers of World YMCA for their knowledge and challenging work over the weeks and months; Romulo, Adi, Karina, Sharnelle, Maricris, Jose, Andrew and Johan, you guys are inspiration to us all.

There are no goodbyes in YMCA – only “see you again soon”. Thailand is our next gathering but the work and the CHANGE has already begun.

Look how close i got to the cancelled plane :(
P.S I mentioned 13 days instead of 10. My flight got cancelled, the reason, oh and what a reason it was, it beggars belief. RyanAir couldn’t locate the Pilot – seriously.

Change Agent……. over and out.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Passion to create spaces for young people to grow

Recently I have had the privaledge of travelling to Sweden with my colleague Lisa and Ken from YMCA England and Wales. The main aim of the study visit is to learn about social enterprise that takes place in YMCAs across Sweden with a view to taking key tunes back and implementing them within YMCA Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Is it social enterprise/enterprise/social or something else?
This has been one of the questions we have been asking and wondering since registering our interest for the trip. How is it different to what we do in our YMCA? Is it more than what is on paper? The answer is it's a bit of everything and sometimes it's not strightforeward to put it neatly into a box. The  big thing that comes across is their passion for young people and their passion for creating spaces for young people to grow and making it happen so they have an impact.

Hotels, holiday camps, festivals, skateparks and sports
Various projects create capacity and space for the young people to grow. Some of the projects such as Kom Hotel ran by YMCA Central, Stockholm are straightforward enterprises to generate income to run the organisation however there are opportunities for young people to get involved with leadership programmes to grow in the hospitality industry which has lasting impact for future careers.

Some prospects such as basketball are the foundations on which the YMCAs such as JKS have been built. Memberships and grants have helped an organisation grow from 1945 to an otgnaition today that have over 60,000 participants each year. Basketball is s social enterprise project they generates enough funds through membership as grants  to break even and allow others who are less fortunate in the community to play basketball for FREE. But Basketball has become much more than that in the community it is a way of life and has made a community of many cultures and backgrounds inclusive so young people and grow. Not only in basketball but as leaders in their community to make life for everyone better. The chairman of JKS is only 26 but his story is truely inspiring thanks to the opportunities the chairman before him made possible through his own passions for making things happen for young people. Basketball has also changed the community by helping to found a community 6 week summer festival that turns over £2.4 million. Again this could be classsed as a social enterprise as it generates opportunites for the community to take part for FREE. How? By raising funds through grants and sponsorship from local businesses. How have they've accessed this amount of money? By taking time to build their relationships with key organitions and learning from their mistakes. Did it come over night? No it has taken 7 years of hard work and dedication but their passion and support of each other has helped them 'fill big shoes'.

Youth leadership - social project or social enterprise? 
One of the most interesting things that has come out of the trip has been how much Sweden YMCAs put emphasis on allowing young people to grow thorough leadership whether it's going on youth leadership programmes to work in summer camps or training young people to support in projects or involving young people in the design of spaces. All the opportunites availabile are giving young people the chance to 'fill big shoes'. But importantly because the young people they are involved in decisions they use the services to their full potential.

One project 'Calm Streets' that isn't run by YMCA but another organisation that has developed out of a YMCA called Fryhuest trains young people to become role models in their community to keep the streets a safer place. These young people then go out into the community with the project to keep the streets of Stockholm safe at night which is paid for by the transport department. Surplus generate from this contract goes back into the programme to allow more young people the chance to go through the programme. This is values to both the young person and the community.

If we invest in young people in this way this project and many others also has potential across our YMCA and others across the world but we need the same passion and patience that YMCAs have here to make it work over a period of time.

What can we learn ? 
- Passion
- Patience
- Investment in youth leadership
- Involve youth in creating their spaces to grow

'We create spaces for young people to grow' - we also need to give our organisations room to grow into big shoes!

Enterprising the way we think

Food for thought...

As we reach day 2 of of the Sweden study visit, it has been fascinating to explore the way in which our colleagues in Sweden see social enterprise and how this drives their work with young people.  We couldn't have started this without 'Fika' , the traditional morning and afternoon coffee and cake breaks. We soon learnt that this was a large part of Swedish Culture and certainly set a core and underlying theme behind their success. The main difference between culture and styles was space, to think, do and be. Key principles in allowing for the creation and flow of key ideas, "we create space for people" was an important key message which YMCAs could adopt, not just in their work with young people, but an approach that could be utilized within staff culture.

Social Vs Enterprise...

A further reflection has been to consider the differences between the two. For those YMCAs who are thinking more 'business minded' are we taking the time to consider whether our ventures are purely enterprise and there to create a surplus, or are we creating programmes which have a social purpose, or both? Why is this important? Well, it allows us to continue to remain focused and not mission drift. It also ensures that we remain aligned to our values, again important in culture setting and strong leadership. Finally, it ensures that we recognise successes and failures and build upon learning to be stronger and more successful,  "when programmes go down, make room for others...we build them, others follow". To be entrepreneurial in our thinking we have to allow ourselves to be flexible, we can't place boxes around everything, all of the time.

"Big Shoes"

It struck me how strong a emphasis was placed on leadership, perhaps a further indication of their success. Young people and staff play a large and important role in community engagement and this has led to long term relationships which have generated funding. Social enterprise through sport has been a huge success and has engaged  thousands of young people each year, including an annual festival where 200 young people are employed to plan and run the event, and through the provision of non traditional sports. Whilst these do not generate a surplus they provide the community with a significant amount of support and create opportunities for youth. Social and community driven initiatives have allowed YMCAs to engage positively in the community and increase their visibility. The staff, through their altruistic approach have acted as positive role models and this raises the aspirations of their young people..isn't this what  its all about in the end? Our Swedish colleagues have a great saying "give them too big shoes they have to fill" which is all about giving young people responsibility and watching them grow. And finally I wanted to end on this quote which I felt every YMCA could relate to "the door is open, but not wide open, you have to know how to open  the door yourself". This is an empowering message which we should be delivering to create resilience individuals and a thriving community.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Change Agent Global Gathering, Portugal

We’re just over halfway through the YMCA Change Agent’s Global Gathering at YMCA Setúbal, in Portugal. There are 149 young leaders from YMCAs representing 49 countries.

While I have been reconnecting with those I met at our regional training in Avignon (read my post about this), I have been discovering new stories about the people around me and hearing from those around me about the impact, challenges, and work of the largest youth movement in the world.

Outside the Portuguese Parliament in Lisbon
We have participated in workshops delivered by World YMCA, YMCA Europe, the Asia Pacific Alliance of YMCAs alongside a programme of workshops and sessions led by Change Agents working and volunteering at YMCAs around the globe.

What has really stood out for me is despite the vast differences in what our different cultures would traditionally find acceptable and familiar, and the potential for barriers in communication that this presents, there is an overwhelming amount of understanding and respect that is unifying us.

A contemplative moment
The other night after dinner YMCA Setúbal arranged live music for us, and while I started writing this blog, I looked across the outdoor area and noticed that regardless of our backgrounds  people were dancing together, cheering, laughing, sharing their experiences and stories as if we had all been working together for years.

We also spent time in different parts of the region undertaking activities supporting the local environment, clearing invasive vines, improving community spaces and historical monuments, in the heat of the Portuguese sun it was hard graft but impressively in three hours - as a collective – 19 days was given back to the local community.

Social impact volunteering in the local community to benefit the environment.
Since we arrived, Johan Vilhelm Eltvik, Secretary General of the World Alliance of YMCAs, has spoken to us about YMCA’s journey and the untold story of injustice towards young people and the Portuguese Government’s Secretary of State and Minister for Youth and Sports welcomed us to the country. We’ve attended workshops on everything from how YMCA India engages young people in Global Citizenship; YMCA’s 2018 World Challenge; YMCA Norway's Stop Poverty campaign; YMCA Victoria’s Bridge Project in Australia, working with young offenders to support them into employment and much more besides.

Alongside this, the seven English Change Agents have also been presenting on Civic Engagement, our mental health campaign #IAMWHOLE and sharing information about our work in Birmingham, Derbyshire and Sutton Coldfield.

English, Scottish, Swiss and Greek Change Agents in Lisbon.
Karina from YMCA Fairthorne Group, who trained as a Change Agent in the previous cohort, has been supporting the facilitation and getting up just that little bit earlier than most to make sure people start the day the healthy way!

Today we visited the Portuguese Parliament, in Lisbon, welcomed by politicians from all the political parties. They hosted a panel presentation, where Change Agents put questions to them on how they are empowering young people, and what more can they do.

Cultural evening and party
While we are not yet finished I want to extend warm thanks to the staff and volunteers at YMCA Portugal, and especially YMCA Setúbal (notably Antonio and Tiago). Also to my colleagues and friends from around the world who have made this experience of discovery and learning so far such a poignant one. Over and out, more to follow once I return home.