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Creating a Space for Young People: A Global Experience

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

Engaging our Community of Youth: A Global Experience

 

Katherine Dziedzic (left) with a group of youth, volunteers and staff from Shauri Moyo Branch YMCA in Nairobi, Kenya

How do you engage youth in a mission?

This seems like such a huge question, with so many factors to consider. In my time with the YMCA, I have been fortunate to meet many young leaders from all over the world. As I reflect on my past week of meeting children, young leaders and staff from various YMCA Kenya branches, I think back to all my past experiences as well.

In so many ways, we are all so different. Some of us have passions for arts, sports, leadership development, music, camps, environmentalism, activism, social media, fitness, etc. I could go on for quite a while just naming the differences, however instead I’d like to draw attention to the most important aspect of the previous sentence: PASSION.

I have had the privilege of speaking with YMCA participants, staff, volunteers and donors from around the world. We all have something in common – involvement in the organization has helped to strengthen our individual passions, and our understanding of ourselves.

YMCAs in communities all over the world work tirelessly to support the passions of young people in a variety of ways:

  • Norway & Africa – Through the Young Advocates for Change program, where participants can enhance their passion for international work and spend time in another part of the world, making a difference in another YMCA community
  • Shauri Moyo Branch, YMCA Kenya – Through open opportunities for youth to “pitch” ideas for clubs or programs that they would like to start, and are supported in the development of the club/program through access to space and mentorship
  • Bogota YMCA, Colombia – Through music programs in some lower-income neighbourhoods, that supports the skill development of the young musicians, and an opportunity for them to explore media
  • Kibera School, YMCA Kenya – Through the sewing program, which teaches participants life-skills that will lead to a source of income for their families
  • YMCA of Oakville – Through the High School Ambassadors program, which provides participants from across Oakville with an opportunity to impact change in the community through senior leader consultations, as well as financial and mentorship support to implement a project in their school based on their passion

These are examples of but a few programs that exist world-wide that support the talents, passions and needs of the youth that they serve. Drew Dudley says “We’ve made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it. And if you change one person’s understanding of it, understanding of what they’re capable of, understanding of how much people care about them, understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you’ve changed the whole thing”.

My first question seemed so large when I started on this experience 17 days ago: How do you engage youth in a mission? While not completely formulated yet, the simple answer is you don’t; as a YMCA we engage in the mission of our youth and support their passion and development through programs and initiatives that are rooted in values. That is how we support the creation of vibrant citizens in our individual communities, that is how we help youth understand how powerful of an agent they are for change, and that’s how we as an organization change our local, national and international communities.

“I’m discovering what I’m trying to find is already in these young people”
-Lantonirina Rakotomalala, YMCA Madagascar


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 #3 – Creating a Space for Young People: A Global Experience

The YMCA as a Community Leader: A Global Experience

Canadian YMCA delegation at the AAYMCA Africa 3.0 conference in Mombasa, Kenya
(L-R) Kyle Barber – President & CEO of YMCA of Oakville and Niagara, Patricia Pelton, Carlos Sanvee – current General Secretary of the African Alliance of YMCAs and incoming Secretary General of the World Alliance of YMCAs, Craig Rowe, John Haddock, Katherine Dziedzic

The experience of a lifetime – true in so many ways!

As the Supervisor of Camp & Youth Engagement for the YMCA of Oakville, I never thought I’d be granted such an amazing experience – but I got lucky; not in the sense that I was chosen out of a hat, but that I am in an environment where I have mentors and leaders who believe in me and recognized the amazing things our Camp and Youth Engagement department are doing for our community.

A wise leader once told me that we are all 85% the same, and that the job of a community leader is not only to impact the 85%, but to find the 15% uniqueness and help it thrive. As someone from Canada who was travelling to Africa for the very first time, I admittedly was a little skeptical of this statement. Of course, we are all people with emotion, intelligence, creativity, courage and more – but 15% seems low. I can tell you – it’s not!

After spending the last 7 days with national and global leaders from nations in Africa, Sweden, Bangladesh, Norway, Latin America & the Caribbean, United States, and of course fellow Canadians, I can say with certainty that I believe this to be true. Hatred, violence, poverty, natural disasters, unemployment, political divide – these are all issues that we face globally. They are relevant issues in every single community – the difference really lies in the prevalence and extent.

As community leaders, the YMCA staff, volunteers and donors give their time, talents and treasure every day to impact change in each individual community around the world, and in many ways we are the same. Simon Sinek would refer to the “Why, How and What” of our organization.

Why? We want to support the development of people and communities.

How? Through programs and services that cater to the unique needs of the community we serve.

What? Now here’s the 15% – which is something I’ve gained more appreciation and understanding in the last week:

  • South Africa – In a program supported by YMCA Sweden, has 100% success rate in their Youth Justice program, focusing on decreasing recidivism
  • Senegal – Supports the growing concern of poverty through training youth to develop small businesses
  • South Sudan – Supports the growing conflict in the community through integrating peace building through sport and drama clubs
  • Oakville – Supports the growing mental health & belonging through our Together as Girls and Just the Guys programs

We all do so much more for each community – but not a single program is created without intention and reflection – nothing is done without our ‘Y’.


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 #2 – Engaging our Community of Youth: A Global Experience
Reflection #3 – Creating a Space for Young People: A Global Experience

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