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Welcoming Mercy Corps' newest friends

China, August 9, 2010

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    Part of the ACYF delegation waits for Portland's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail train. Photo: Mercy Corps
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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    An ACYF participant speaks to the group during one of the many days of work sessions. Photo: Mercy Corps
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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Members of the ACYF delegation stand in a circle during a group exercise. Photo: Mercy Corps

While Mercy Corps works in dozens of far-flung locations across the world, we are proud to call the state of Oregon and the city of Portland home. It’s the place that nurtured the culture of innovation, collaboration, and optimism (with a touch of scrappiness) that we prize to this day.

As someone who grew up in this area, I’m especially touched that Mercy Corps is so welcomed and loved in this community. To be sure, the feeling is mutual, and our new building and Action Center right smack in the center of town demonstrate that love. But because our work tends to be in places far away, it’s a bit rare for us to work side-by-side with friends from all of the great organizations that call Oregon home.

So imagine my joy when the city and region did not hesitate to put on its work gloves and help us in late June, when we welcomed 18 emerging leaders from the All-China Youth Federation (ACYF) to town.

The federation links over fifty Chinese youth organizations with over 77,000 combined members, reaching over 300 million young people — a platform to improve the lives of massive numbers of youth both in China and internationally. Mercy Corps and ACYF enjoy a deep partnership, working together to improve the lives of youth in China, with ideas for more collaboration globally. This year’s delegation included a sprinkling of folks from youth agencies, government, journalism, state-run industry, and private enterprise.

As much as I was impressed by the talent and heart of our old friends here in Oregon, I was equally floored by the energy, accomplishment, and intellectual curiousity of our new friends from ACYF. It’s safe to say that their preparation and dedication brought out the best in everyone. We ended up learning as much from the delegates as they did from us!

The course itself works to build a new cadre of risk-taking leaders that can work more effectively with local communities, and innovatively address social problems. To help us, we called upon some of the region’s best and brightest to help us share some of our successes. Oregon is well-known for its pioneering environmental protections, such as a bottle recycling law and guaranteeing public ownership of the entire coastline, and Portland is a mecca for green industry and smart planning.

This year's program built on the success of last year's pilot program, adding several field visits and some extra time in the classroom. The delegates heard from renowned academics, including Portland State professors Carolyn McKnight and Ronald Tammen. This year's field visits drew the delegates even wider across the state. In Salem, delegates met with Secretary of State Kate Brown, along with state legislators Jefferson Smith and Brian Clem. In the Columbia River Gorge, the group met with members of the Warm Springs tribe, representatives of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, and other stakeholders. In Astoria, Shorebank Enterprise Cascadia provided practical examples of how economic development can be balanced with cultural and environmental protection. We also caught some sunny weather on the Oregon Coast — never guaranteed.

Here in Portland, the delegates attended a panel discussion at Metro, the Portland area's unique regional government. Metro is tasked, among other things, with managing the region’s growth. This was of great interest to people from a country that is undoubtedly growing, and they relished the opportunity to share ideas with a diverse and knowledgeable panel.

One of the group’s favorite visits took them to Portland YouthBuilders, an organization which helps young people complete their secondary education while learning construction and media production skills. Even while the conversation was bridged by interpreters, being able to hear directly from youth was a highlight for the delegates. While there are cultural differences (students with multiple piercings was new for them), the chance to sit face-to-face with American young people made clear how many shared challenges are faced in each country.

Panelists from the worlds of corporate social responsibility, social finance, and private philanthropy discussed how they partner with social entrepreneurs and foster social innovations. Local organizations, including Nike, New Seasons Market, and the Meyer Memorial Trust stepped up and their representatives helped greatly enrich the conversations.

In our survey and debrief, the delegates told us nearly unanimously that they came away from the program with new skills to bring to their work with youth in China, and a fundamentally changed perspective of the United States. We're confident that the program will serve to support smarter, more inclusive growth, and aid the blossoming of civil society in China.

At the end of the program, one of the delegates told me: “The more time we spend here, the more we realize that we have so much in common. We feel at home here.”

To me, that was the most satisfying thing I could have heard. It’s also clear to me that the incredible friends Mercy Corps enjoys here in Oregon are the reason that this place could feel like home to our new Chinese friends.