Friday, 14 April 2017

Reflecting on the Peace Work Institute session 1

 Last week, I was privileged enough to spend a week in Tbilisi, Georgia with an incredible group of young people who want to bring about change in their communities, who have a willingness to work towards peace in their communities and between their countries. Over the week I saw young people come together, build relationships in unexpected places, between countries that would, traditionally, not get along. These people have worked together to produce content for the Roots social media, they have spent time getting to know each other’s stories, building friendships. They have explored different ways of analysing conflict and ways in which to “do” peace work. They shared best practices from their own context and have learnt from each other as well as those facilitating the sessions.  It has been a good week!

Some may be aware that in previous Peace Work Institute we, by complete accident on the streets of Istanbul, started a tradition of having a tea party as our intercultural evening. This tradition has been carried forward into this cohort of peace activists. Half way through the week, we held our first intercultural tea evening – 13 countries (some countries have had to leave a little earlier than planned) shared their traditional tea and treats, and were able to see that despite all the differences between the countries, the political tensions present in the world, that there are a lot more in common when we enjoy time together over a good cuppa tea!

 The week ended with a piece of reflective work led by Adi Davies, World YMCA staff and (referred to by those in the know) as a son of England living in Kosovo.  A beautiful session where the participants could reflect on the impact that other individuals have had on their journey during the week. An emotional and meaningful way to end the week.

As we bring this week to a close, we look forward to the next stage.  What will happen in Berlin and after. They participants have work to do in the meantime; present about Roots and the Peace Work Institute to someone of influence back in their YMCA (or sending organisation). We look forward to hearing about how this went when we meet again.

Fancy seeing the photos from the event, check them out here:

I am blessed to be part of this programme and  be part of the Youth Ambassadors programme for YMCA England that opens up many opportunities for young people to share and learn through programmes such as this one; bringing about change on an individual level as well as having a wider impact on the YMCA and our local communities!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Why are we here?

Here we are, day  2, 30 people from 16 different countries discussing many different issues related to peace. We have shared our personal stories and our motivations for being here, we have looked at digital activism and the role it plays in our movement. We have explored the importance of critical thinking when looking at the media and played simulation games around wealth and power . What role do all of these sessions play in peace work I hear you asking?? It’s a very good question but first, let me tell you what countries we have present in the room;

Albania, Azerbaijan, Germany, Croatia, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, Armenia, Scotland, Georgia, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia, Slovakia.

For those of you who haven’t noticed, these countries either have present tensions between the countries or are post conflict countries. For some of the young people in the room it is the first time they have met young people from “the other side” or from the countries present. This is important because, in my opinion, peace starts with the individual, by bringing together young people from ‘opposing sides’, they build relationships on a personal level. These relationships then internally challenge any preconceived, learned stereotypes about the ‘other’. Personal, meaningful relationships have the potential to challenge and change the individual. This change in the individual is the start of the journey towards peace in the region. One of the reasons we deliver sessions around sharing personal stories is because the personal reasons people are in the room can sometimes be the elephant in the room so to speak – people are curious but it can be difficult to ask ‘why are you here?’ without fear of upsetting or  – sharing stories in a structured way allows these dialogues to happen in safe environment.

So, back to the question. Why are we looking at digital activism, critical thinking and playing games? It doesn’t seem like it is directly related to peace work, does it? A question asked by some here and the answer is not so simply. Well, in today’s world, young people are online. It is important that we are also there! Looking at critical thinking within the media, we are encouraging young people to question what they see, what they share. To ensure that young people are not doing harm through their actions online. These are important things for all young people to be aware of, not just those that chose to work in this area. Games are an important part of learning, we don’t all learn from reading a book. The YMCA delivers non-formal education all over the world and learning through doing, through playing is an alternative way of learning. These games have been relevant to the training and have generated some discussions in the group that carry on into the break times.

As Vardan reminds us, peace begins in the heart. It means different things to different people. The PWI is not a one off session and therefore it is important to ensure that those in the room are ready to move forward and become youth opinion leaders in their local area.

There is an energy building here in Tbilisi. On day 2, we have much still to come. We are only on day 2. To me, peace is not about the destination but about the journey, this is the start of the journey and there is a lot yet to come.

Monday, 3 April 2017

All the way to Georgia.

As a Youth Ambassador, here I am, in  Tbilisi, Georgia, representing YMCA England on the Peace Work Institute planning team. My first time in Georgia but not the first time with the team from YMCA Europe. I am blessed to be part of this team for the second round of Peace Work Institute.

As we sit together to finalise the plans for the week ahead awaiting the arrival of the participants, we overlook the Old Town of Tbilisi on a cloudy day. We are hoping that the weather improves over the coming days so that our weather reflects the mood of the group; bright and full of energy.

As we review the week ahead, there is a lot to cover with some exciting themes. This is the first week of a long journey. As a team we are not proposing that this training will solve all the conflicts in Europe however, it will have an impact. An impact on the young people who attend the training who then will return home and have an impact on the other young people they interact with, an impact on their local YMCA's. When we think of this session, we think of the pebble being dropped in the lake and the ripples; the impact slowly, calmly and beautifully moving out into the wider communities of the young people.

For the Roots for Reconciliation project, Sergei Parajanov was a symbol for the project. I could not come to Tbilisi and not visit the statue that was the image of the project. A statue I have seen in photos many times before and thought I would never have the opportunity to visit.

The YMCA empowers young people around the world on a daily basis. The YMCA has empowered me to be able to experience many opportunities. I am truly blessed and excited for the week ahead and the journey we are about to embark on together.

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."