International Youth Day: Reflections from #YMCA175

From Harriet Knox, Director of International Programmes

I was fortunate to take part for three days, so here are my top three inspirational takeaway moments from the YMCA175 event.

1)Young women leading change

Nathalie Chueng at YMCA175

Last Monday, alongside 3,000 delegates, I heard inspiring personal stories of change told by two incredibly motivating young female speakers. First up was Christine Souffrant Ntim, a young Haitian-American digital entrepreneur. She talked about her journey, from her childhood in Haiti working alongside her family of street vendors to setting up the first Haiti Tech Summit and being on the front cover of Forbes magazine as one of the 30 under 30 in 2016. Christine returned again and again to the same question. What do you want to be when you grow up? The answer: [insert your name here!]. We should all be aspiring to be the best version of ourselves. A powerful story that left me – albeit slightly off-message – wanting to become as half as inspirational a leader as Christine when I grow up!

Next up was Natalie Cheung, the first Ted-Ed speaker, who talked of overcoming barriers to excel in STEM. Natalie is a former ICS volunteer with Y Care and YMCA Togo and a member of our Youth Engagement Panel. It’s great to see how she has grown as a young leader, awarded Young Leader of the year by YMCA England and Wales in 2018, and now under the spotlight in front of young YMCA leaders from over 100 countries. Later, Natalie told me that her ICS experience leading a team of young volunteers in Togo helped her to identify that her passion lies in coaching and supporting other young people.

2) Inspirational partnerships: a never-ending source of motivation

Partners from Nicaragua and Togo

As Y Care’s old-timer, a global YMCA event can often feel like a reunion of old friends, with great opportunities to make new ones. This is a privilege and a pleasure; and makes it near impossible to finish any meeting or task without the distraction of another warm greeting and a promise of a(nother) meeting! Two moments stand out for me among many great conversations.

Meeting with East Jerusalem YMCA colleagues never fails to fill me with energy to increase our efforts to do more with young people in Palestine. The response to the opening question, ‘how are things?’ was a sad and frustrating reminder of the incredibly challenging environment the YMCA works in. An event hosted at the YMCA HQ in Jerusalem to commemorate an elderly former sports star had been closed by the Israeli army. I saw photos of a group of older men being awarded certificates in the street. Another example of the incredible resilience of Palestinians who find a way to overcome obstacles they are presented with and carry on, more often than not with a smile.

From Palestine to Togo, where I joined the YMCA’s session on youth justice, which is an area of work I have personally been involved in since 2009. I was asked by Gérard, YMCA Togo’s NGS, to reflect on our partnership at the end of the session. I thought back to 2005 when Y Care first responded to the YMCA’s request for support to provide legal assistance and support to young detainees. Prompted by one of the YMCA’s Board members, a lawyer, who kept coming across cases of young people detained without trial for months and often years and saw an opportunity for the YMCA to tackle this injustice. 14 years later and the YMCA is a highly respected organisation working with young people in the justice sector, supporting 1000’s to gain a fair trial, re-connect with their families and re-start their livelihood outside prison. As partners, we have come on this journey together, finding new ways to scale up the work and inspire others by sharing stories of impact and innovative models for youth justice.

3) Lasting impact of ICS

Harriet, Togo ICS participant, Nick

Two brief but memorable meetings with young change agents were also inspiring – and moving – moments for me. Nataniel from Togo and Silvana from Guatemala both visited Y Care’s exhibition stall and proudly told us that they had formerly been ICS volunteers with Y Care. They talked about the ICS programme being a founding moment in their journey to become leaders within their YMCAs and wider communities. Silvana, who took part in ICS in 2014, told a very personal story of ICS being her first interaction with the YMCA , which she believes brought her to where she is today – as the only representative of her YMCA at a global gathering of young leaders. We became emotional when she talked with passion about her experience and how moved she was to be able to meet us in person to thank us for the part that we had played in her journey. Thank you, Silvana and Nataniel, we have no doubt you’ll continue to make a difference for other young people and we look forward to following your leadership journey!

From Jackie Garcia, International Programmes Co-ordinator

YMCA175 polling station

The best part of attending YMCA175 was meeting so many young people from YMCAs around the world. We engaged visitors at our stand with our polling station, asking them to vote for what they think are the main barriers for young people to get into decent work in their countries. Talking to a group of young leaders from Ukraine they highlighted “discrimination“ as the key barrier. Another group from Sweden unanimously affirmed that a skills mismatch is the main obstacle, as college curriculum is not aligned with the job market.

It was also a great opportunity to explain the work YCI is doing in partnership with other YMCAs to support young people into decent work, and some were even more curious to hear more about the stories of the young people in the projects we were showcasing in the stall.

From YMCA175, by Sam Lishak, Senior Trusts & Foundations Co-ordinator


Young people in the UK: Speaking to young people about the barriers to work, a group of young people from the UK stated ‘discrimination’ as a barrier. When I asked what kind of discrimination, they said firstly age, then address, then name. One YMCA staff member said that because Coventry is an ‘area of deprivation’, the quality of young people’s education is pre-judged. We spoke about how young people are completing courses and working hard to hone skills for employment, but often can’t get in front of recruiters to demonstrate their abilities.

Planning for a no-deal Brexit: Y’s in Europe, outside the EU, have the technical skills and expertise to support Y’s around the world to develop young people under the global ethos of YMCA. However, being outside the EU restricts their access to funding. We met with European Y’s in and outside of the EU to plan how we can best support the Y’s in the global south as a global force for good, beyond boundaries. Our own European Union.

Nigeria YMCA: Y Care’s mission of creating 1 million opportunities for young people to access decent work by 2030 was challenged by YMCA Nigeria. They said if you want to reach 1 million young people in need of work, you can do that all in Nigeria! He explained that despite Nigeria being known as the economic hub of Africa, the country’s wealth is concentrated in the South – a majority Christian area. He told us that YMCAs in northern Nigeria are supporting young people from any of the 500 ethnic groups through programmes that increase their access to employment, and they hope they can work with us to achieve our goal.

United through song: From the upstairs of the Excel Centre, where sports activities were non-stop, there was a huge blare of the starting notes to… you guessed it… YMCA by the Village People. The notes travelled across floors, and what seemed like hundreds of young people flocked, abandoning stalls, running upstairs, to join Central YMCA’s aerobic routine of YMCA. There was saluting, marching, thrusting and box-steps for about 4 minutes, before collective laughter and a return to ‘business as usual’. A hilarious interlude.

#YouthDay #TransformingEducation #SDG4 #175yearsyoung#decentjobsforyouth#youngpeople #futureofwork

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