Wednesday, 15 February 2017

From New York to Brussels

This is my second blog in the space of about three weeks so I should start by saying that my life at YMCA doesn’t usually involve travelling to such exotic locations so often, and that normal services will resume shortly as I continue to spend countless hours on trains travelling the length and depth of both England and Wales so I can engage with young people more locally!

However, last weekend I attended  the first official meeting of YMCA Europe’s Youth Policy Group, a space where individuals from across Europe came together to discuss the issues relating to young people and what should be done to affect change on a European level.

When working in policy and research I think it can become easy to get trapped in a very national-based bubble. Speaking to the young people in England and Wales and trying affect change at that level.

Given the remit of YMCA England this is perfectly reasonable, but this weekend has allowed me to step outside of this bubble. To focus on the commonalities of the issues affecting young people across Europe and learn from the experiences of my European counterparts to formulate recommendations on how we can improve the lives of young people.

From the lack of quality employment, to the isolation many feel from mainstream political processes, deliberations in the group focused around the issues I encounter every day in my discussions with young people. This weekend reinforced that these issues are not unique to England and Wales and that, instead, they are experienced by young people across the entirety of Europe.

Shifting this perspective creates an environment which promotes the utilisation of other country’s experiences in order to formulate common understanding and common solutions to the issues.

This involves learning from both the successes and shortcomings of other counties and moulding and adapting them to an approach which will benefit young people at the European level.

The truth is that this process is not glamorous, it is long and arduous. In this case it involved approximately 20 hours of scrutinising contributions from participants and debating often minute points and terminology.

However, while arduous, it is important. It is these words, however subtle their implications, that will shape the work of YMCA Europe and its national movements going forward. It is these words that will help to shape the perception of the organisation and help define its values and perceptions.

The success of the European Policy papers requires the involvement of everyone. They do not merely belong to participants of the youth policy group, nor just their contributors. Instead, they must be taken, adopted and used widely by national and local movements across Europe.

Our voice is stronger when we unite. Together we can create real change for the young people of Europe. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

YMCA invation at the United Nations

New York City was our host for the week, we had arrived from all around the world, 24 YMCA colleagues representing, 13 countries and 5 continents. We all planned to meet at West Side YMCA, located just off of Central Park! The meeting was a chance for us all to say hello to each other, speak about what we do, what our individual YMCA’s do, and where in the world we all came from. This first meeting also gave us all a opportunity to go through some key agendas prior to the start of the UN Youth Forum which was to start the following day.
West Side YMCA held up the reputation of fantastic American hospitality, they made us all feel welcome and served lovely food. I had walked around New York all day, so I visited the food table a good 5 times, stalking over the table like a vulture. We shared a brisk walk back to our accommodation which was on the east side of Manhattan; here I was able to get to know my new colleagues further.

Monday morning swiftly arrived, the excitement grew, and after a quick morning stroll, we had reached the United Nations headquarters. In no time at all, we had all collected our security tags, badges and headed inside, one of the world’s iconic buildings, a building which is an international lead on democracy, justice and humanity! On entering we were shown to the Trusteeship Chamber. Our seats inside the main chamber were situated on the ground floor; YMCA delegate seats were dotted in prime positions next to the representatives of the United States and United   Kingdom no less.
The Youth Forum kicked off by an opening statement of the Council President, which was followed by a message from the current UN Secretary General and then the outgoing UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth. The session started with a ministerial round table, this gave us a chance to have key seats in the significant discussions and a chance to raise questions in all matters regarding youth, equality, empowerment, education and the eradication of poverty. Delegates asked questions to member states’ representatives of how all these important issues raised are going to collaborate with the UN SDG's 2030 mission and how young people can play a part! 

After lunch we headed to the breakout sessions, I attended the breakout session regarding SDG 9 'Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation'. This session gave insight to how we can promote the use of digital currency as an incentive for social and community good, not just for a monetary value, and how communities and youth play a big role in the development of infrastructure and promoting an all-inclusive society. We had some keynote speakers, who highlighted the importance of youth in future societies.
We headed back to the trusteeship chamber for the final session of day one; we heard all the reporting from the breakout sessions that ran prior! We also had a talk and Q&A with tech professionals on the Role of technology in implementing the SDGs. 

The day ended with a group photo of all the YMCA delegates, where we opportunistically held the flag of the United Nations for the photo......we put it back of course!  

We headed back to the UN headquarters for Day 2 of the Youth Forum. Straight away we headed into another breakout session; this time round the session was based on your geographical location. Europe, North America and Other States was the room I attended along with others and Phillippa of YMCA England. Here we discussed in groups: Young people’s risk of poverty and social exclusion, investment in young people and youth organisations, social protection and quality of jobs for young people as well as young people’s participation in democratic life and in society, including in politics and policy making.

After this breakout session, we headed back into the main chamber, where again we heard feedback from all the reginal breakout sessions, as a team of YMCA representatives we advocated for all the young people we work with and youth that we need to work with because the YMCA leaves no-one behind. From all the sessions, it was clear that a stage like this on such an international field is where the YMCA deserves to be, YMCA’s work all around the world, in 12,000 communities, where our work touches the hearts of 55 million members. Our presence caught the eye of many representatives and participants at the forum, one gentleman in the lift simply said “You’re the YMCA right? You guys are everywhere.”
The final session involved the final hearings from the forum, it was also a pleasure to witness a YMCA delegate speak from the top table, Ivana Ilic, General-Secretary of YMCA Serbia gave an inspiring and well-informed speech, a speech that came from the heart and resonated with everyone in the room.

What an experience it was, from meeting all the new faces, participating in a video blog to spread awareness of YMCA in China with Jessie and Lilly, having dinner with Romulo (Brazil & Switzerland) and the rest of the team. Celebrating Sebastian’s (YMCA Colombia) Birthday whilst we all ate out, listening to the wonderful work YMCA do back in Australia from Steven. Mini adventures around New York City with Joen of YMCA Sweden and Phillippa. We were joined by Razvan (Romania) on the last day of sight-seeing. Participating in mini protests with everyone and members of YMCA New York, Springfield College YMCA, YMCA Albania and YMCA Serbia.

Being able to represent YMCA North Staffordshire, YMCA England and World YMCA as a Youth Ambassador in a building of such political and diplomatic importance that is the United Nations, it has been a journey of inspiration, joy, hope and wisdom. Meeting with other like-minded young people from all around the world, I have been inspired with their knowledge and enthusiasm of change, change that is especially for the benefit of young people and the wider society, wherever and whoever they are. I bring back that knowledge and willingness, more now, than ever, where I hope to step-up and play my part. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Taking the voices of young people to the international stage

At the heart of my work with YMCA England’s Policy and Research team is the desire to create change. It is designed to complement the work that YMCAs across England and Wales, and the world for that matter, do to support young people to fulfil their full potential.

This can change come in many different forms. However, whether it be local, regional, national or international, the pivotal thing is the positive impact that it has on the lives of young people.

Meeting colleagues from YMCA’s across the world made this point even more pertinent. YMCA’s are diverse, and the services they provide are different, but they are all united in their desire to affect change for young people – to facilitate situations in which young people can develop in body, mind and spirit.

Participating with my colleagues from across the world at this year’s ECOSOC Youth Forum highlighted how critical YMCA, and the work we undertake, is today.

As discussions focused around the latest buzz words that come to dominate the international development field - ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘innovation’ and ‘participation’ - I was proud to stand beside my YMCA colleagues and advocate for the young people that we work with, and the very real issues that dominate their lives.

I always say that the best part of my job is going out and speaking to young people, hearing about their experiences and the issues that they face in the world today.

While the most enjoyable, it is also the most important. It is impossible to advocate for young people without first understanding their concerns and most importantly, what they want seen done to address them.

This point was made ever clearer to me over the last few days. As delegates at the Forum presented social entrepreneurship as the means by which to solve youth unemployment, it came necessary to remind everyone that while important in some cases, it isn’t likely to be the catch-all solution they hope.

For a young person who is stuck in a low-paid and insecure job, social entrepreneurship is unlikely to be either effective or realistic. Instead, a focus should be placed on making sure that young people are provided with meaningful and sustainable jobs, free from discrimination, whether that be monetary or anything else.  

YMCA delegates were able to issue reminders like this because of their extensive work with young people from all walks of life.

The ECOSOC Youth Forum is an arena in which individuals get together and discuss the issues facing young people as they see them. It is an arena that organisations like YMCA must be part of.

As the world moves towards implementing policies and programmes to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, it is critical that YMCA is there to advocate for those young people who are ignored and whose needs are forgotten.

As we move forward, it is discussion like those taking place in ECOSOC that will help shape national agendas. While many of us will not identify with the Sustainable Development Goals in themselves, delving further into them illustrates the link between them and the work that YMCA’s undertake every day.

From supporting young people to find employment, to helping young people with mental health difficulties – YMCA’s across the world are helping their national governments meet their international obligations – albeit sometimes unknowingly.

Participating in forums such as this provides the opportunity to highlight this and cement youth organisations, such as YMCA, as a critical stakeholder going forward. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to this over the two days.

As for me, I am going to take what I’ve learnt from my fellow participants back to our team in London and continue to work to create meaningful change for young people.

More convinced in the power of YMCA than ever before, this work will continue to be grounded in the voices of young people who I meet along the way.

Of course none of this is possible without the network of people in local YMCAs who take the time to support and facilitate this work. I continue to be grateful for those who, like me, recognise that the power of YMCA lies in our dual approach to creating change.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

As the Shepherds Watched.......

Another name on the Beit Sahour branch of East Jerusalem YMCA is the Shepherds field YMCA. The name was established because the property is also the site of a shepherds' grotto that was possibly used at the time of Jesus' birth. On Christmas Eve, YMCA invites members and others to meet for a service. It is also used for devotion at other occasions. At this place, away from the crowds at Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, it is easier to capture the scene of that night when shepherds saw the star that was to lead them to the Child.

"8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13 Suddenly a
great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told."

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Peace Work Institute, Litomysl

Less than a month ago, Ken posted from a little town in the Czech Republic; Litomysl. I am here now, preparing to deliver sessions on what is next for the YMCA Europe Roots for Reconciliation Peace Work Institute. a small, quiet peaceful town where we are planning the next sessions and programmes fro the next phase of the Peace Work Institute. The ideal setting for such discussions. Yesterday the planning team met to discuss this weekends session and those two to come in the future. Weary travellers arrived last night and now refreshed for the days ahead and with anticipation and excitement meeting old friends and new to discuss and present what is next for this project. Having been involved with the Peace Work Institute since 2012, this has been a long and educational journey for me where I have made good friends, new projects have stemmed from those friendships and now to see what happens over the next 2 years with the next phase. As the participants make their way to the library in the YMCA Europe training centre in Litomysl for the sessions to begin, the planning team make the final preparations and then we begin - the next phase.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

European Youth Forum - Bulgaria and beyond

The final chapter of my trip to Varna, Bulgaria representing YMCA Europe as the official delegate to the European Youth Forum (YFJ). 

DISCLAIMER: this is more of a photo album than a blog.

Day 2 

It was a big day -  not for me - but for brave candidates that had put themselves forward to govern the YFJ. ELECTION DAY. Before casting our votes, we had an opportunity to attend thematic squares (workshops) and I chose to attend 'Migration and Health', subjects I'm very interested in and priorities that align with theme of the new YMCA Europe strategy. The workshop surpassed any expectations I had. We discussed the challenges in Europe around increasing migration and the health challenges faced by young refugees especially their mental health. We had a conference call with a World Health Organisation practitioner who gave us great insight into the issues and also how we can contribute to the solutions. 

Voting time!
YMCA and the Award 

The rest of the day as consumed by the elections. Congratulations to the newly elected board which includes our good friend from WOSM - Ville Majamaa and also a big congratulations to our Big 6 friend the Duke of Edinburgh International Award for becoming an observer member of the YFJ. 


The day passed quickly and in evening one thing became clear, we needed to prepare ourselves for hearing one word 150 times....AMENDMENTS. The following day we would have to stand up in front of a lot of people and defend our amendments to the Resolution on EU Youth strategy and Work Plan 2017-19. I was not sure whether or not we were ready but the support we had was unmatched and spurred us on. 

Support group - Value Based Members 

Day 3 

We prepared and we were ready. We had 15 amendments in total aiming to ensure the language around increasing migration was not negative, YFJ worked closely with youth organisations and the papers had strong positions that would prompt action from the EU. I'm glad to report a good amount of our amendments were passed by the assembly and we achieved our goals. With the amendments behind us, both documents were adopted and the meeting was closed by some great closing speeches from the exiting board members. Things got pretty emotional, they were tears, standing ovations and laughter. It was great to see that people had really made a family out of the YFJ and we visibly saddened by the thought of having to leave the family.

Meeting closed, it was time to socialize and make the most of the evening. We shared an amazing evening with people that I can now call friends and I hope I will see them all again. 

Closing thought

During my time at the forum, I was exposed to many young organisations, national youth councils and political parties doing great work to advocate for young people across Europe. This made me reflect on our own organisation and one thing was clear. We are a huge organisation. We impact on the lives of a huge amount of young people. We speak up for millions of young voices. It is something I knew but took for granted. It has really inspired me to continue to work hard in my YMCA work and also empowered me to know that we are doing some really great work especially locally and should build on that. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

YMCA Youth Ambassador posts from Bulgaria

I'm in Varna, Bulgaria as the official delegate for YMCA Europe to the European Youth Forum along with Ana Sofia Abreu from YMCA Portugal. We are tasked with representing the position of YMCA as a full member of the YFJ with voting rights. We will engage in the amendment of the YFJ strategy and work plan, vote on new members and a new board for 2017-19. We will also have opportunities to gain more insight around the work of YFJ and other member organisation through workshops on migration, youth rights, youth advocacy and much more.

This was the view from my morning jog after a very long first day at the European Youth Forum (YFJ) General Assembly in Varna, Bulgaria. This is the only glimpse of the outside world I will most likely see so I'll savour it.

Our journey here was slightly tricky but we made the most of it, even allowing Ana to have the quickest tour London at midnight on our way from Heathrow to Luton. I was unsure about the scale of the Forum but once we arrived it became clear the importance and responsibility that we had be trusted with. After settling in the hotel, we were taken to a large venue in Varna where we received a keynote speech from an executive in the UNFPA on our part in delivering the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Very inspirational is an understatement.

Already overwhelmed, we were then lead to a “room” where 2000 people were waiting for us and received an almost Olympics style welcome. We were honorary  guests to the selection of the next Youth Capital, a prestigious award for a city working to empower young people. What then transpired was incredible (see images!). Performance after performance, with each one surpassing the last.

The next day marked the beginning of official  proceedings. Ana and I, being the newbies, were apprehensive to say the least but we have had amazing support from the many other youth organisations like the Scouts and Girl guides and of course Ilenia, Heidi and Tinna from YMCA Europe.We got our head around the online system, voted, listen, fought for our amendments and made some new friends. We watched a debate from all the candidates for the Presidency, Vice presidency and Board members. There is strong political machine at work and I hope we come out of it unscathed. We are make YMCA proud and represent them well and have already managed to get some amendments accepted after some gruelling debates and look forward to more. The day ended at 11pm and a cold Bulgaria beer in true YMCA fashion. We are thoroughly enjoying the experience and grateful for the opportunity to represent YMCAs across Europe to empower young people.

Bring on Day 2!