Katherine Dziedzic speaking to a group of 40 youth from across Africa about Canada and her work in youth engagement at the YMCA

How do you create a space where young people can feel safe, while encouraging them not to be safe?

It sounds a little counter-intuitive – of course we want all young people to be in a space where they are not subject to physical or emotional harm from anyone, including themselves. What I’m saying goes beyond that and focuses on leadership. Being safe implies that you’re not taking risks, but people need to take risks every day in order to grow and reach their full potential. As a society, it is imperative that we train young leaders to take risks to develop this resiliency and confidence. We have to encourage them to think more than outside of the box, but as if there is no box – but how do we do that?

This week, I had the privilege of being involved in a Scenarios Building workshop with 40 young leaders from across Africa. The week consisted of various stages where they analyzed politics, economics, social systems, law, technology and the environment, and worked to predict certain trends that could occur over time, and what life in the year 2063 could entail. Scenarios Building was delivered with the intent of providing young leaders with personal growth opportunities, as well as informing Agenda 2063, which has been developed by the African Union.

Seeing 40 young people being given a platform to have such a profound impact on the continent was a highlight of my experience in Kenya. Carlos Sanvee, General Secretary of the African Alliance, and upcoming Secretary General of YMCA World Alliance states that “YMCA should always provide 30% seats for young people in their decision making instances”. While this may seem like a novel concept to some organizations, since our inception the YMCA has opened spaces for young leaders not only to grow, but to meaningfully contribute to important conversations that impact them today and in the future.

The biggest challenge though, is not necessarily getting young people in the room, but ensuring that they feel confident enough that their voice will be heard, listened to and respected. This is not an easy task, but a challenge that YMCAs world-wide have taken on. From my observations – the YMCA provides a secure place for the community. One might say that I’ve just contradicted myself, as the word ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ are often used interchangeably, but allow me to delve deeper…

There were numerous times throughout the course of this week where frustrations rose, tensions were high, and output wasn’t at the level it could’ve been in the particular exercises. Throughout all this, the group stayed together, encouraged each other and worked through it as a team. That’s the YMCA – and that’s what I mean by secure. The YMCA is not a building, or a particular program. The YMCA is people (staff, volunteers, members and donors) who come together, support each other to reach our dreams, and provide a secure place for people to land when things don’t go according to plan. It’s a place where we are supported towards excellence, but not demanded perfection.

YMCAs world-wide provide daily opportunities for young people to feel secure without being safe:

  • Central Branch, Kenya: Through their beauty salon, allowing new entrepreneurs with a place to hone their skills, gain certification and get a start
  • YMCA Canada: Through the Young Ambassadors Program, providing support for young leaders across Canada as they develop initiatives that will positively impact their local community
  • Sierra Leone: Through providing immediate program delivery on essential local issues, training local young people to lead the programs, and “exiting” the program delivery, while continuing to provide support to the young leader where needed
  • YMCA of Oakville: Through the Young Leaders Initiative where young leaders from across the association have access to senior leaders bi-weekly to ask hard questions and impact our community

Safety vs security – two words used so interchangeably, yet for the purposes of working with people can be so different. So, I change the question:

How do you create a space where young people feel secure enough to think like there is no box?

It’s not an easy feat, and YMCAs take on this challenge every day as community leaders who are dedicated to helping people reach their full potential. But what’s the secret, and how do we ensure we’re holding ourselves accountable to it? There’s so many important points, but I summarize it in five:

  1. By understanding the community we work with, celebrating and supporting the similarities and differences between every single neighbourhood (see my first blog post)
  2. By engaging in the mission of young people and providing resources (programs, events, trainings, financial, etc.) that support their passions (see my second blog post)
  3. By delivering programs that challenge participants to reach their fullest potential in all that they do.
  4. By creating space for young people at the table, where they can meaningfully contribute
  5. By establishing an environment that welcomes and accepts mistakes, and supports staff, volunteers, members and donors in getting back up and trying again

YMCAs around the world take on these challenges every day to provide a place where people can feel supported and secure. We are a home away from home for so many, and even 12,000 km from my doorstep, my YMCA family in Africa supported me through every moment of this journey. No matter where in the world we are, we are the YMCA: always fixed, never lost, the hub of a community, accessible to all.

Interested in learning more about my journey and delving deeper into the last 3 points mentioned above? Stay tuned for upcoming presentation dates.

Katherine Dziedzic is the Supervisor of Camp and Youth Engagement at the YMCA of Oakville. In June 2017, she won the inaugural Helene and George Coward Young Leader Award from YMCA Canada to recognize her leadership in building a healthier, more inclusive community, and commitment to fostering a sense of belonging for all. During the month of March 2018, she participated in an international YMCA experience to Kenya as part of winning the award and has shared her reflections in a series of blog posts.

Reflection #1 – The YMCA as a Community Leader: A Global Experience
Reflection #2 – Engaging our Community of Youth: A Global Experience