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Leadership summit inspires teens to become activists

United States, October 6, 2009

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Adam Phillips

Voice of America radio news
October, 2009

Listen to this radio story Here

The young activists of the Global Citizen Corps (GCC) are on a mission to make the world a better place. The GCC is an international program that gives teenagers the tools, the fellowship and the inspiration to raise awareness and funds to bring about positive change. About two dozen of those teens recently met in New York for a weeklong leadership training summit.

Leadership conference sets the stage for ongoing work

It's just after lunchtime on the final day of the Global Citizen Corps' Youth Leadership Summit in New York. After singing their unofficial theme song one last time, the group of some 25 American teens will return home. It's time for another year of high school and grassroots activism.

"They go through trainings where they learn about hunger, poverty, access to education and global health issues," Ai Hirashiki Global Citizen Corps' youth and education director says. The young people also learn the "hands-on" mobilization skills, including fundraising, instant messaging, digital storytelling and advocacy campaign planning.

Armed with this knowledge, the teens go back to their schools and communities and mobilize their peers around 'global action' days such as World Food Day, World AIDS Day, World Water Day and the Global Campaign for Education's action week. "For us, it's about having this really global perspective," Hirashiki says.

Desire to help began early for some participants

Many of the young Americans at the summit have already developed a global perspective from their travels with youth groups, non-profit organizations and their own families. One teen leader experienced life in Tanzania while accompanying her father on business trips. Another did volunteer work in Costa Rica during a school vacation.

For Aily Zhang, a second generation Chinese immigrant from San Francisco, a moment of understanding came while visiting relatives in China. She found them living in a concrete house with no doors, no running water and a toilet that was merely a hole in the ground. "It was just such a horrible condition to live in," Zhang says, "and I just wanted to share what I can do to make their lives a little bit better. I felt this urgency."

Using creative ideas to inspire others

No one can solve the world's problems alone. That's why the GCC Summit also gives the teen activists the leadership skills and techniques that will inspire their peers to act. "[Because] a big challenge for them is how to deal with apathy," Hirashiki says.

At the summit, teens form small groups to brainstorm ideas for school and community events that would be a fun way to inform people about a global issue. One group, for example, plans to dramatize the world's fresh water shortage by asking fellow students to carry heavy water jugs on their backs during the school day as many must do in the developing world.

Another idea is to hold a hunger awareness fundraiser where guests are served varying amounts of food, or none at all, to highlight the disparity of world food distribution.

Maura Welch shared another strategy. After teaching literacy in rural Ecuador, Welch returned to her own school in Syracuse New York and organized a Saturday night fundraising dance with a rock band. "The great thing about it is there was so much to do for the concert that you had people who wanted to do everything and get really involved, and there were people who were, like, 'I'll make a poster. I'll come,'" Welch says.

Welch used breaks between musical acts to get the advocacy message across. "So that was a really neat way to bring the community together," she says.

Participants visited New York City non-profit groups

During their five day workshop, the GCC teen leaders also went on field trips around New York City to learn what some established non-profit organizations and non-profit organizations are doing. One day, they visited Sustainable South Bronx, a grassroots environmental justice group. They traveled to the United Nations to learn about its work.

For teen leader Logan Healy-Tuke from Washington State, the UN trip was both a surprise and a revelation. "A lot of times they don't get as much credit as they should," he says. And, he adds, "Seeing where they [U.N. aid groups] were in the world and the amount of good they are trying to create, it was fantastic, and it was inspiring and it was really hopeful!"

Meeting Iraqi youth counterparts via satellite

For many, one of the week's high points was a live video conference with Global Citizen Corps youth in Iraq. The teens began by comparing American and Iraqi educational systems, but soon broke into song.

"The kids in Iraq started singing because they wanted to sing a Kurdish song for them, and [then] kids from America started singing [to them]," Sailish Naidu recalls. Naidu is a former inner city schoolteacher who is now a full time youth trainer for Mercy Corps, the international development charity that sponsors Global Citizen Corps groups around the world. "It was one of those moments where you realized that youth all over the world are unified in a joyful spirit and a spirit of being young. And seeing that take place over borders is just simply amazing," Naidu says.

More virtual opportunities for GCC

So far, GCC's face-to-face teen leadership summits occur only in the US, but there are Global Citizen Corps groups and training workshops in several other places, including Scotland, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Iraq. And any teen with Internet access can take advantage of Global Citizen Corps' online workshops and participate in youth forums. In those virtual gatherings they can meet and share ideas with other idealistic and energetic young people, who are also determined to work for positive change in the world.