Creating Safe Spaces Helps Youth Take the Lead

On International Youth Day, World Learning takes a look back at the power of safe spaces

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At World Learning, we know that young people aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow — they’re working to transform their communities today.

On this International Youth Day, celebrated annually on August 12, the global community is highlighting the importance of creating safe spaces for young people to develop into leaders and changemakers. As the United Nations explains, safe spaces can be found in any type of setting. They are inclusive and promote civil discourse, ensuring that young people from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable and respected as they learn to express themselves and contribute to community life.

World Learning creates those safe spaces. Our global development and exchange programs provide participants from all over the world with a place to come together to build their skills. And many of our alumni go on to create safe spaces in their own communities, too. Read on to learn more about their stories:

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Natalie, a 15-year-old 2018 WiSci participant from Kenya

The 2018 WiSci STEAM Camp brought together nearly 100 high school girls from five countries for two weeks to learn about coding, robotics, leadership and more with the help of trainers and mentors from Intel, Google, and NASA.

Natalie was one of those girls. Though the 15-year-old from Kenya has attended school in three countries due to her mother’s job with the UN Development Programme, she knows that some people in her community believe girls should stay at home, WiSci gave her an opportunity to discover science, technology, engineering, arts & design, and mathematics without judgment:

“Some girls in my country don’t even get to go to school, so being able to come here on such a program has been such a privilege to me. I especially like my classes because we’re being taught by other women in STEAM fields.”

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Participants of Connecting Capitals pose in front of the historic church building of Gallaudet University.

Deaf culture is all too often overlooked. But Deafness has its own rich cultural heritage — and people who are Deaf are interconnected in so many ways. In January, World Learning’s Communities Connecting Heritage program brought together young deaf college students from the U.S. and Belgium for an international exchange program exploring Deaf culture through arts.

Many international exchange programs are not accessible to the Deaf community, so this was a unique opportunity. “I was so excited to meet deaf Americans,” signs Alice Leidensdorf, 26, a participant from Belgium. While learning about each other in this supportive environment, the group quickly discovered they shared some of the same experiences; many had grown up struggling to communicate in a hearing family. They all also wanted the rest of the world to know about Deaf culture.

As part of their multimedia and performance art project, the participants wrote a letter articulating the obstacles they face in their daily lives and their expectations for the hearing world to become better allies. As they wrote, “Being deaf in a world that has failed to understand our culture and our sign languages…is why we demand self-representation, equal access to sign language, and the eradication of systemic audism.”

Learn more about the Connecting Capitals project.

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The Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP), a virtual exchange program run by World Learning that connects teenagers from the U.S. and Iraq. In addition to getting to know peers from another country, it’s designed to help them develop leadership skills, while fostering civic engagement and respect for diversity. During the four-month program, U.S. and Iraqi teenagers join together in virtual “families” to share their cultures and experiences in a respectful and judgment-free zone.

“Before DYLEP, I felt super awkward talking to people from other countries and different backgrounds than me because I didn’t know what was appropriate,” says Janell, a DYLEP 2017 alumna. “I know a lot of people my age feel the same way, and perhaps even adults too. But today, because of DYLEP, one of my best friends lives 6,500 miles (an eight-hour time difference) away from me.”

Learn more about the importance of virtual exchanges.

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Phoebe Hooper (second from left) at a Rural Pride event in Katherine, Australia.

In 2014, 15-year-old Phoebe Hooper traveled to the U.S. for the State Department-funded Youth Leadership Program (YLP) On Demand with Australia and New Zealand, which brings together teens to foster cross-cultural relationships and encourage them to become community leaders. It was a transformative experience.

A few years later, Hooper founded a nonprofit called Keep Talking NT, which advocates for the LGBT community in Australia’s Northern Territory and creates safe spaces for LGBT teens. Through Keep Talking NT, Hooper developed and led a series of successful workshops designed to cultivate mutual understanding among local high school students. In a post-workshop survey, the feeling of safety among students rose by 20 percent while the feeling of connectedness jumped by 40 percent.

He traces the origins of that philosophy to World Learning and YLP On Demand. “Without the YLP program I would have never had the confidence or drive to push the envelope and start something from the ground up in a town where it isn’t very accepted,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to think about myself objectively as a leader and I would never have had the desire to go on and continue to explore the world and learn things that have pushed me to change what I think is wrong about my community.”

Read more of Phoebe’s story.

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Richard had never been somewhere so little influenced by Western culture when he traveled to Morocco with The Experiment in International Living. Over the course of four weeks, Richard and his Experiment group immersed themselves in Moroccan life: They rode camels in the Sahara Desert, learned Morocco’s Arabic dialect Darija, and they stayed with local families for two weeks in the small agricultural village of Ait Ouahi.

There was, of course, some culture shock. But Richard’s Experiment leaders helped him cope with the radically different culture by placing students in homestays near one another. Whenever Richard needed help or wanted to talk to another American student, he only had to walk 30 feet to the host family next door that housed one of the girls in his group. “I didn’t feel as lonely or intimidated or out-of-place, but I also had the experience to share with someone else,” he says.

In time, he adjusted to Moroccan life — and gained a deeper understanding of the Arab world. It gave him the confidence to speak out against religious or racial prejudices upon his return home to the U.S., such as when people connect Muslims with terrorism. “Now I can actually support Muslims and say that these [terrorist] ideologies don’t support what they support,” he says.

Read more of Richard’s story.

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Hamsa Ahmed and Ghuroob Alsheikh Gumar presented a proposal to host an arts festival in Baghdad for internally displaced children.

Hamsa Ahmed and Ghuroob Alsheikh Gumar wanted to do something to help their country, Iraq. They were worried specifically about the children in their country who had been forced from their homes and their cities due to the war with ISIS. And so last year, during their visit to the U.S. as part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, Ahmed and Gumar presented a detailed plan to host an arts festival to help those children heal from the psychological wounds of war.

The festival would offer workshops teaching basic drawing skills and handicrafts, as well as entertainment and snacks, all run by volunteers. “This is their moment,” Ahmed says. “Forget about the past.” Gumar agrees. “Wherever there is art, there is peace,” she says.

Their plan impressed one official from Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior. Fadhil Salih, director of contract verification in the Office of the Inspector General, offered the two young women a traditional Iraq tent in which to host the festival. Encouraged by the support from a member of the Iraqi government, Ahmed is determined to return to Iraq and exercise her new leadership skills. “Every human has a goal, but sometimes we just need a chance to show our abilities,” she explains. “Now I’m a leader. Now I’m a strong female. I can face everything in the world.”

Read more of Hamsa and Ghuroob’s story.

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Aditi (top left) with the cast of her theatrical production, which involved 18 teenagers cutting across lines of class, caste, disability, gender, and religious minorities.

Aditi Rao is a writer, educator, artist, and a dreamer who wants to break down barriers between teenagers in her native India through storytelling and theatre. She is one of six World Learning alumni to receive an Advancing Leadership Award in 2016 to support her project promoting greater social cohesion through the performing arts. Her innovative project brings teenagers together from across lines of class, caste religion, gender disability, and refugee status, in order to give them a voice.

Tasawwur, which means “imagination” in Urdu, starts with activities that elicit personal stories with the teens teaching each other about their lives and the challenges they face. Next, with the help of artists and musicians, their stories are woven together to create a theatrical production open to family, friends, and the public. The performance is intended to extend the dialogue and enable youth participants to advocate for the change they wish to create.

“One of the core objectives is just to get people from these groups or identities together talking to each other about their lives, becoming friends,” Rao explains. She says the program’s success will lead to greater dialogue and understanding between different communities as well as the personal growth and empowerment of the participating youth. Rao already sees lasting friendships from the program’s first cohort. “They are still in touch and teaching each other about the issues in their lives,” she notes. “This is the lasting impact.”

Read more of Aditi’s story.

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Becky and Aye Moe enjoying the beautiful weather in Murray, Kentucky.

Every year, World Learning brings students from all over the world to study in U.S. colleges and universities as part of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. Rebecca Obonyo of Kenya was one of those students this year. During her studies at Murray State University in Kentucky, Rebecca made a diverse group of new friends. Here, she shares what the experience has meant to her and how it helped her dispel stereotypes about her native Kenya:

“As one of the lucky participants of Global UGRAD, I feel like I owe my community some of this goodness. All the things I have learnt while living in American culture are worth teaching to people back in my country. I have developed a new sense of cultural relativism that is levels above just being taught in class. I have met people from countries I didn’t even know existed. I have gotten used to the stereotypes about Kenyans that people had when they met me. The difference is my reaction to them is more calm and understanding. In the meantime I am trying to savor every moment that is left of this piece of heaven and forever remain grateful for the memories I made in Murray, Kentucky. This is by far the best decision I ever made and the most memorable year of my life.”

Read more of Rebecca’s story.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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