I was lucky to have the chance to attend the YMCA change agent global gathering, held in Setubal, a town about an hour out of Lisbon in Portugal. Young people (aged between 19 and 34) from all regions of the world came together, with the exception of Canada and the US. It was a chance to re-connect with some familiar faces from the regional training in Japan and get to know another 120 odd energised young people.
It occurred to me pretty early on, just how lucky we are to come from a developed country and even more so, Australia. Especially when I learned, despite rigorous preparations there were change agents that were not able to obtain Visa’s to enter Portugal, thus denied the experience. As a big traveler myself I’m so used to wandering off to whichever country I please, without any significant barriers or fear of crossing borders. This reality is something I must continually remind myself not to take for granted.
This gathering brought a real excitement from the very beginning. When you put young people together from countries like Nigeria, Palestine, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Armenia, Serbia, Myanmar, Finland, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Madagascar, France…(it goes on - there were 49 countries) there’s this kind of contagious energy, it really feels like your about to be part of something pretty special. I had never experienced this scale of social diversity in my life and I’m embarrassed to say I learned my geography is quite pathetic. There were some countries I wasn’t even certain of which continent they were from… (Like where in the name is Easter Island?!) And yes there really are people living in Madagascar, turns out it’s not just a DreamWorks movie!
The 10 days were amazing - however exhausting at times and not without challenges. The schedule was jam-packed, you were continually thrust in front of new faces, cultures and changing environments. You needed to be always on from about 8am until 10pm every day. You also had to consciously remind yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, away from familiar faces to get to know as many people as possible in order to truly embrace the experience. Living conditions were very cosy, with only a few places to escape and ponder ones thoughts and digest the days learning. On the upside everyone was in the same boat - and there’s nothing like overcoming adversity in order to bring people together, mission accomplished YMCA!
Our days consisted of large group discussions, smaller workshops, excursions to local communities including community service, constant cross cultural learnings and exposure. We visited Parliament in Lisbon, which was an incredible historical building. I can safely report politicians in Portugal appeared to be just as slippery as ours at home. They did the same predictable somersaults and backflips, unable to provide simple answers to simple questions. One minister detoured for so long she finished up looking confused herself.
With 150 young people from all different backgrounds I was impressed by how few topics were left untouched. We delved into a diverse range of global issues, always remaining conscious of cultural sensitivities. Our Why Not campaign issues were right on the mark, clearly relevant to young people across the board, mental health in particular repeatedly surfaced in discussions. We discussed unemployment, sustainability and climate change, human rights (sustainable development goals), civic engagement, immigration and social integration, economic instability, terrorism, political extremism, radicalisation, issues of inclusion/exclusion, social, cultural and sexual diversity.
It is impossible to share the depths of all discussions had, but I do want to mention some particular highlights and eye opening learnings for me personally.
- Hearing from one change agent, whom had migrated to a neighboring country due to conflict and political instability and founded a new YMCA. She proudly noted this YMCA had grown from 20 members to well over a hundred in 5 years, serving a community who was in desperate need of familiarity, refuge and support.
- Discussing the challenges of youth empowerment for young people in parts of Africa. Here, there are countries that culturally abide by respecting your elders without exception. The young people in these countries are at times without a voice entirely, silenced out of respect - yet they still appear overtly optimistic they can make positive change.
- I learned of what’s described as the “African Elephant”. In many parts of Africa, people do not have the freedom to outwardly express their sexuality. This law directly conflicts with the YMCA mission of inclusion and is a frontline reality in parts of Africa every day. I was saddened to hear that there are young people in our world that are legally prohibited from expressing their sexuality and who they want to be in this world. This was yet another reminder to be grateful to have Australia as my home.
- There were many young people that had travelled far and wide to attend this gathering. That had overcame financial strains, social obstacles and physical challenges to be there. One amazing change agent stands out to me in particular for her bravery, she is almost 100% blind and attended without an aid or designated support person. Her courage gave me strength for the entire week.
- We gained many new cultural perspectives as such a diverse group of young people living side by side. The rich history of Easter Island stands out as something to remember, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. The Rapa Nui people were the earliest inhabitants over a thousand years ago. Only 45 years ago, their people were enslaved and almost completely wiped out. The change agent from Easter Island lived and breathed this culture, he provided a passionate account of ancestral stories, songs and dances in full costume (see pic). His life ambition is to share the history of his people with the rest of the world, to ensure Easter Island stays on the map and its future is protected.
These change agents bravely stood up and called out some painful realties. They did so whilst remaining loyal and proud of the counties they’d come to represent. They spoke with such humility and courage, optimistic and motivated to provoke change and proudly connected to their YMCA’s. They are invested in getting young people off the streets, feeding the homeless, tackling the rapid rates of suicide and calling out discrimination and violence. Some are committed purely to providing basic human rights - including water, food, safety and shelter. This gave me an unbelievable perspective of what our organisation is capable of on a global scale. The YMCA really is a lifeline for more people than I could’ve ever imagine.
I have enormous respect for the World YMCA, whom ran the entire week. They are a tiny team, running a huge operation on a shoestring, responsible for bringing the world of YMCA’s together.
The world Y staff attended the entire 10 days, including the General Secretary Johan, our own Andrew Mckenzie and Romulo Dantas, whom we call 007 of change agents because of his relentless commitment to the change agent program and young people in general. I saw a lot of our office in their efforts, tirelessly trying to facilitate cooperation and collaboration. Their team graciously welcomed ongoing feedback, willing to change and always find ways to do things better. General Secretary Johan noted “We have a unity now that we have not seen for a long, long time” they too, like us have their sights set on the value of working as one.
The biggest learning for me is hard to describe, it relates to a shift in my perspective. There are people in the world that are experiencing war, discrimination and violence everyday single day. People that live without access to safe water and sanitation and are without a roof over their head. I met some young people that see this first hand in their country far more often than they should. Sometimes in the comfort of the developed world, the nature of these issues can be too big, too overwhelming. It’s easier to compartmentalise problems of this scale and put them somewhere else in our minds. It’s easier sometimes to tell ourselves that these people are different to us, because it puts some distance between the discomfort that nags at our conscience.
The greatest learning for me was the reminder that these people are no different to us at all. The young people that flee one country in order to live a safer existence elsewhere are just the same as young people battling mental health issues in Australia. They are resilient and they are brave. Perhaps their resilience has been tested more than some, but they still love music, wear jeans, laugh and enjoy a drink or two, just the same as any young person. When we distance ourselves from the extremism of these issues, the pain we know exists but seems too farfetched for us to comprehend, we inadvertently distance ourselves from the solutions we can offer the world, the solutions that sit readily in our hands. This was the biggest learning for me. Empowerment is contagious, the small steps made by many of us is the only way the big things can change.
I saw many parallels throughout the week relevant to our Fit For Purpose journey. YMCA Europe’s General Secretary said “Europe’s capacity is huge, but we are not organised”. They too face the same challenges we do - if only we could ALL just get organised! We are the biggest youth organisation in the world. Our widespread global footprint is our greatest weakness as well as our greatest strength. Identifying commonality is how we embark on the path to unity. Unity is the only way we can unleash our collective potential.
I’m incredibly grateful to of had this opportunity. Be the change, Communicate the vision, Inspire action. That’s the job of a change agent. I had the privilege of meeting some incredible young people undeniably committed to this cause.