It’s 9am on the second day of the InterAction Forum, a conference of international development organizations held at a large hotel just outside Washington, DC. Breakfast is being served. In front of a large room filled with development professionals, three young women take the stage–one from Egypt, one from Afghanistan, and one from El Salvador. They are the young panelists invited to speak about “Youth, Gender, and Political Change” in their home countries.
After introductions, Ana Dubon, the young woman from El Salvador, answers a question.
“Today, more than ever, I wish I spoke English,” she begins. (She speaks in Spanish; a translator sitting next to her repeats what she says in English.) People around the room laugh at her disarming opening. She continues: “First, thanks to Plan International, the organization that is responsible for bringing me here. I feel like I have won the lottery as a woman from El Salvador to be able to be here with you.”
Then she pauses. “My heart is beating very fast,” she says, smiling. Again, the room fills with gentle laughter as the audience of NGO representatives collectively leans forward to hear her story from the faraway, rural region of Chalatenango. They forget their breakfast pastries and coffee, and just listen.
It was my honor to serve as a host to Ana, one of two youth who participated on behalf of Plan in the InterAction Forum. The other participant was a young man, Eduardo, from the Cuscatlán region of El Salvador. Both were chosen to attend because of their leadership, public speaking skills, and passion for youth empowerment. I was chosen to host them because I work on the Youth Engagement team here at Plan International USA and anything to do with youth engagement–anytime, anywhere–involves me and my team. (Did I mention that I love my job?)
However, I don’t speak Spanish–only a few basic words. This made communication a little difficult, since Ana and Eduardo don’t speak much English, but I made up for my lack of linguistic ability by being as outgoing and expressive as possible. With a little body language and with a lot of translation help from the two chaperones from Plan El Salvador–Ever and Marina–we got to know each other very well.
A photo of the group at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Pictured are Ana, me, Eduardo, Marina (chaperone), and Ever (chaperone).
Ana began her involvement with Plan back in 2004, through project called “VOICES,” where she learned how to use communications and media technology to speak out on issues critical to youth in her area. Now she works at a radio station and serves as an experienced consultant to the “VOICES” project, training young people just like her. Seeing her light up as she talks about her work, it’s hard to understand the many obstacles she had to overcome in order to continue in journalism–like the pervasive machismo culture in El Salvador, and even the doubts of her own mother.
Eduardo became involved with Plan five years ago, but he had been a youth leader since the age of 13. At first, he was bringing together just the young people in his town–then their group grew to include the district and municipality, and finally, he’s part of a nationwide association of youth groups in his country. He’s currently studying to become a science teacher, but he also aspires to serve as the mayor of his town. After experiencing the way he commands a room–standing up, speaking confidently and without a microphone, meeting the eyes of every person listening–I can easily see him taking charge of the entire country.
A photo from another event at Creative Associates, also in Washington, DC. Pictured are Raihana (Creative Associates / Afghanistan), Basant (Save the Children / Egypt), Monique (Washington, DC), Ana, and Eduardo. You can see more photos of the event here.
We had a whirlwind week. After the Forum, we visited monuments and museums, took in a Nationals Game and tried the paddle boats on the Tidal Basin, and participated in more meetings, talks, and panels.
One of the most powerful of these talks was an event at Creative Associates, an international development organization in Washington, DC. Ana, while explaining that her first job at the radio station paid her $5 USD a day, suddenly started to cry. People in the room became agitated; “What’s wrong?” one woman asked. Ever, the translator and chaperone, explained.
“It was the first time anyone had paid her money for her work,” he said. The importance of those 5 dollars dawned on us. We realized what it meant for Ana to be able to go home and show her earnings to her mother, who had doubted her ability to work as a journalist because she was a girl. The room was very quiet. More than a few other people started crying, too.
What I took away from this extraordinary week-long experience was more than several strong new friendships. I was also deeply impressed by the hope, earnestness, and potential of Ana and Eduardo–and of the entire generation of youth that they represent. My generation.
I’m a “youth” myself, but I’m also an NGO employee. I know that we, as development practitioners, try to be as inclusive as possible. To that end, we should include youth. But we also seek to empower community leaders who are innovative, honest, and open to new ideas. Those kinds of leaders can often be found among young people–people like me, like Ana and Eduardo. We can’t let age or experience preclude who gets a say in decisions. We can’t leave out the voices of youth.
As one of my colleagues likes to say: youth aren’t the future. They are right now. I feel that Ana and Eduardo’s participation truly impressed that fact on everyone who met them–and I hope that, having read about it, you are now ready to reconsider youth empowerment in your own work.
Wait–there’s more media! You can read a summary of the InterAction plenary session featuring Ana and even watch the entire video on YouTube. (Ana starts speaking at 16:40!) You can watch an interview with Eduardo and an interview with me, too. Also check out photos of the event at Creative Associates.