Interview with Ellie, year-long YAKA volunteer 2018

Below is an interview carried out by two Sciences Po students, for Sarah Gogel’s youth empowerment & international development class, Fall 2018
  1. Can you tell us a little about yourself? What interests you about youth development and/or empowerment?
I’m Ellie, I’m a History graduate from Cambridge University and grew up in Camden, London! Throughout my education I’ve always been interested in how I and others learnt and developed; what sparked us and what constrained us. It is the political, psychological and sociological factors that allow youth to develop that I find so interesting. Although, it is the political, psychological and sociological outcomes of that youth empowerment that I find so inspiring. The power of youth empowerment lies in its ability to transform the one-way dichotomy between teacher-student, creating a snowball effect of different possibilities and solutions within the production of knowledge. It was the sad reality that national curriculums tend to constrain such possibilities that led me to get involved with alternative youth development schemes, such as YES Akademia.
  1. Why do you think youth empowerment is important and/or relevant?
It was the stifling nature of school and university curriculums, with their emphasis on exam results, that focused my interest on the potential of youth development. 69% of businesses think secondary schools aren’t effective at preparing young people for work. A process of regurgitating masses of short-term memory currently needed to succeed in the current education system, is indeed, one useful skill to have. However, this fails to encompass the diversity of skill that youth need to and can potentially have. In a society with rapidly transforming technological innovations, it is imperative that young people are equipped with the resilience, confidence, creativity and critical thinking that allow them to face challenges and find solutions.
3. How did you learn about YAKA?
Through a friend who worked with them during her year abroad.
4. In your own words, can you describe what YAKA is and the impact they have? (Imagine as if you were explaining to a friend who was curious)
YAKA is a global grassroots, for social profit organization based in Paris. YAKA has identified that that educational programs delivered in isolated areas do not sufficiently reach outside of the box to combine multi-disciplinary options of activism, travel, social entrepreneurship, arts, and international cultural exchange. YAKA increases the self-esteem of youth by engaging them, their families, and communities to learn about and address human rights locally and globally. YAKA do this through various programmes where youth learn theoretical concepts about social action, and then apply them through direct action. This emphasis on action allows youth to understand and test abstract concepts in real-life, immersive situations, thereby allowing them to have deeper insights into understanding problems and finding solutions. YAKA empowers youth to become powerful change makers and entrepreneurs of their own lives.
5. What qualities do YAKA fellows have and what were you looking for in potential candidates (especially for the cultural exchange)?
I wouldn’t say that YAKA fellows possess any particular ‘qualities’ or characteristics. What makes the YAKA team work so well is its diversity; each member brings with them their own particular qualities, ideas and viewpoints which, in turn, creates eclectic and nuanced solutions to problems. I spent the majority of my time at YAKA being truly inspired by the minds of my fellow colleagues. They were not only great people to work with, but were my emotional and intellectual rocks; relationships that were especially evident and needed during the cultural exchange trip to Senegal. I think such special, interpersonal dynamics are accentuated by YAKA’s holacracy system, whereby the horizontal networks push those from different ‘circles’ to interact and learn together. The holacray system is organic and dynamic, so YAKA employees are encouraged to bring their own ideas to the table, and if they see something that is not working well at YAKA, they have the ability to change or develop it. At the same time, due to the non-hierarchical nature of a holacracy, it is imperative that employees are autonomous, responsible and open about their work. A holacratic system depends on all parts working in symbiosis, so employees have a responsibility to keep the work loads of these parts equal.
6. In your file you raise the issues with “different education lines” and the intersectional problems surrounding access to quality education. In your opinion how is YAKA contributing to minimizing these barriers?
YAKA contributes to minimizing barriers to quality education in a number of ways. The majority of the youth in YAKA’s programmes are from low socio-economic backgrounds from the Ile-de-France region; youth who are often stigmatized by the French media and alienated from the opportunities of personal development available at French private schools. In addition, YAKA’s research shows that students at the end of school year from all socioeconomic backgrounds tend to attain similar grades, however after the summer holidays, when middle-class students tend to have opportunities to travel, explore the world, themselves and its complexities, grades between lower and middle students start to diverge. By giving youth who don’t typically have access to snazzy summer trips the opportunity to develop themselves and their projects during the inter-cultural exchange, YAKA therefore responds to this structural inequality within the education system.
7. In your own words can you describe the program and what you did?
There are various programs within YAKA. I personally took part in the Bamboost programme that trains young people in responsible entrepreneurship, sustainable development and international solidarity, allowing them to develop their professional skills by taking an active role in the running of the charity. In Paris, I worked as ‘leadlink’ within the Human Resources circle and with the evaluation and research and development circles. In Senegal, (working with laureates of the phase 2 part of the IMPOWER programme) my roles were with the pedagogy, administrative/ logistic, and evaluative side.
8. What was your role and responsibilities as a “leadlink”?
The role of the leadlink is to oversee the overall functioning of your ‘circle’. As the leadlink of HR, I saw to the weekly planning and distribution of tasks to the rest of the team that contributed to long-term goals of the circle. It was my responsibility to train new interns, seeing to their emotional and professional needs and development by putting on Predictive Index workshops and creating a guardian angel system. I also constructed a HR strategy that sought to pull all the disparate and potentially effective parts of YAKA’s HR together into a more cohesive, and holistic HR strategy.
9. How much background information do YAKA participants receive about the communities they travel to?
This largely depends on whether YAKA has already visited the community or not. If they have never, then even the staff have relatively little information on it. However, if they have, previous staff and laureat evaluations, along with their own personal experiences can enrich YAKA participants’ knowledge. At the same time, especially for the laureats, the objective of the cultural exchange is to push them to get out of comfort zones, experience something that is potentially initially scary, but underlines their ability to adapt to new settings. Therefore, it is sometimes best that the laureates don’t know every tiny detail about the communities they travel to.
10. How did you respond to travelling in an underdeveloped area?
I don’t really agree with the term ‘underdeveloped’ to describe YAKA’s partner countries as it doesn’t describe the nuance of the country’s economy, health, mortality rates, and lumps very geographically and socio-economically diverse countries together. Of course, opportunities are far more available where I come from and I have far more privileges in many ways. But the fact that my Soussane family often labelled European society as ‘malade’ shows that a binary between developed vs. underdeveloped societies can’t necessary be created. Obviously it was initially a shock; an English girl in the Senegalese sun is makes ripe conditions for a red, sweaty glow, but the hospitality and welcoming nature of Soussane and my host family made me feel quickly at ease. I was definitely treated differently to the rest of my family; we often ate different meals as they cooked me the most delicious feats I’ve ever had whereas they would have couscous…
Obviously that relationship often felt uncomfortable, but I think with time those barriers have the potential to dilute slightly.
11. Do you have any tips and suggestions for others on how to prepare for this?
  • –  SLEEP: it’s going to be an intense, tiring experience so rest up before hand.
  • –  Think critically about your personal strengths and weaknesses; what do you want to learn during the trip? Is there anything you want to improve? Be prepared to hear constructive criticism of yourself and think of the experience as a space to 
develop and learn.
  • –  Think about your position within a group, what qualities do you bring in what ways 
could you even affect people negatively.
  • –  Allow yourself to be a little nervous before, because it’s natural, but try to see the 
experience as a challenge, not a threat
  • –  Think about effective forms of communication; what is the best way to 
communicate when you are hurt or frustrated with a situation.
  • –  Due the reality that a lot the situations during the cultural exchange are, in ways, impossible to prepare for, I think it is best to emotionally prepare in order to 
effectively deal with the unexpected moments. 
 Often times, trips taken by people from developed countries to developing countries end up being unimpactful or even harmful to developing communities. How do you think YAKA structures its cultural exchange differently to avoid creating a voluntourism opportunity? 
Again I wouldn’t necessarily describe the cultural exchange as a relationship between people from ‘developed’ vs. ‘developing’ countries. I think it is this sort of language that allows people to think they are coming from a ‘superior’ country and thereby need to ‘save’ those who need to be ‘developed’. The YAKA cultural exchange is significant in transforming this relationship, as the emphasis is placed on the ‘exchange’ between the two parties. A two-way street of knowledge production is created through workshops on education, entrepreneurship, politics and the environment. The co-constructed programme allows each party to learn from each other’s experiences, and together find nuanced situations to local and global problems. 
7. How did the pre-departure workshops enrich your trip to Senegal? 
Principally personal development techniques and non-violent forms of communication that I could subsequently use in inevitable unexpected situations during the trip. 
8. In your evaluation of the YAKA programme you mentioned that there should have been more intercultural workshops. Can you expand on this? 
I interpreted the fact that, in some of the Senegalese youths’ evaluations, they stated that they did not necessarily feel more connected with the rest of the world after the trip, as due to the fact that the workshops lead by the French youth did not offer an exposé on the socio-economic or political situation in France, in comparison to those lead by the Senegalese. Instead, and rightly so to create engaging workshops, the French put on more interactive workshops that were based on mind maps and games. This inevitably created a situation where the youth learnt loads on Senegalese political, educative and 
environmental situations, but nothing on the French, thereby not creating a level playing field of knowledge and sharing; disallowing the Senegalese to truly profit from the advantages of a cultural exchange.
There were also situations where some of the staff felt that the French youth could have communicated more sensitively in certain situations. I think a series of inter-cultural workshops could have aided this situation
1. How to communicate through non-violent forms if you are shocked by a remark from someone who may hold different value systems to you? What kind of complaints might be considered offensive to others?
2. A more specific understanding of the cultural differences within the partner countries i.e importance of seniority in Senegal. How seniority may be a more important category of identification than that of gender? How this may affect the the expectation and style of events such as the forum? Without these understandings of different social differences, it can be become easy to assume that certain groups may inhibit an ‘oppressed’ position within society. However, a better understanding of these structures not only gives a more nuanced understanding of these cultures, but also creates a more level playing field of power balances between the two parties that engage in the cultural exchange; away from oppressed vs. free, developed vs. underdeveloped.
I think the need to have appropriate communication methods and understanding of others within a balanced cultural exchange is imperative to YAKA’s objectives; notably if we take part of the meaning of YES Akademia itself. Y (Youth) E (Empowerment) S (Solidarity), in addition to Akademia (Plato’s multi- disciplinary learning forum that posed problems to be studied and solved without any particular doctrine) underlines for me, the importance of creating a space of effective communication that accommodates for a diversity of opinion.
12. What was your biggest takeaway from the overall experience?
I think it was how much I felt I could learn from the people of Soussane. The hospitality of my host family and the entire village was really incredible. When I asked someone in my family where this kindness came from, they responded that it’s necessary to welcome all individuals into your family/ community, as potentially one day, you may also be a lone, individual and that sense of welcoming should be thereby reciprocated. This sense of welcoming and idea of community towards non-blood related individuals/ foreigners was so at odds with the current Brexit rhetoric against migration that one currently hears. With skyrocketing figures homelessness in the UK and numbers of young people suffering from anxiety and depression, in part stemming from our obsession with individualism, I couldn’t help but agree with my host family’s previous description of Europe as ‘malade’ .
13. Tell us about a conflict or challenge you encountered during the program. How did you deal with it?
I think a challenge I encountered, definitely in the lead up to the trip, was fearing critique. This was an especially silly challenge as I also felt that I couldn’t define my strengths or weaknesses, so this fear of self-reflexion was very unhelpful! It was after one of my amazing colleagues told me to perceive the voyage as an experience to learn and see all constructive critique as imperative for personal development, that I could transform my perception of this fear. This psychological change really helped to give me a thicker
skin in dealing with the inevitable intensity and challenges during the trip… and now I love constructive criticism, give me more!
14. How did you contribute to the community you visited and how do you think YAKA provides sustainable contributions to the partner countries it works with?
The biggest impacts on the village, according to the evaluations, were 1. the youth engagement who stated they had understood their potentiel, had obtained new skills such as public speaking, managing projects and had really implicated themselves in the development of their village, 2. the animation of the village created by the programme saw to the creation of new social connections between youth, and by extension their families and previously disparate parts of the village. The evaluations also picked up in the ‘ouverture d’esprit’ of the village through successful integration of the French youth into the community. This final point leads on to why YAKA specifically provides sustainable contributions to its partner countries. During the evaluative interviews with the host families, they stated that many other charities with young people had come to the village, but always for a short period and never stayed with the villagers themselves. They would come to construct a building and swiftly leave, making the villagers feel that Europeans did not want to and/or could not handle their way of life. The immersion of the YAKA’s cultural exchange thereby decontructs this perception of Europeans as somehow ‘different’ and therefore unwilling to participate in their way of life. During the trip the laureats eat, live, and share with their host families, thereby creating a level playing field of exchange, and in many cases forging strong friendships. Unlike other charities that implement their proposed project, the workshops in YAKA’s cultural exchange are co-constructed and reflect the desired topics of discussion of both the French and Senegalese. The workshops intend to give the French and host community the emotional and professional skills that they can use to effect their own projects and societal change. The setting up of a comite des jeunes in Soussane will thereby continue the objectives of YAKA by the Senegalese youth themselves.
15. As a staff member responsible for evaluating impact on the communities and youth involved in the cultural exchanges, how were impacts measured and how do you think YAKA can improve how it betters the communities of the partner countries?
Impacts were measured by various quantitive and qualitative interviews with the French and Senegalese youth and the community (consisting both of the host families and non host families). Evaluations were measured on whether the objectives of the programme had been reached for each group. Evaluations were also made on the effectiveness of the programme itself (the workshops, forum, tourist outings, internships). Whilst evaluating the impact of the programme it was imperative to take into account the factors that could cloud our understanding of the impact. A question of time scale needed to be taken into account. The impact we made was short term, however to get a real understanding of the programme on the youth’s lives, a long term study would also need to take place. In addition, I don’t believe that a large enough body of evaluations were done, especially with the Senegalese youth. There was also the difficulty of translation that came with interviewing some of the host families. Finally, in comparison to the esprit critique o f the French, Senegalese culture is not one of criticism, so one needs to be cautious both with the potential negativity of the French, but also positivity of the Senegalese.
I don’t think YAKA seeks to ‘better’ the communities of its partner countries; the trip is more about creating the same spirale virtuous t hat YAKA does with French communities, creating a sense of solidarity between youth on a global level. From the impact report I believe to improve this objective the international team need to:
  • –  Make sure the savoir-faire of the Senegalese youth are sufficiently uplifted, such as giving them experience in managing a team and a budget.
  • –  Ask the Senegalese youth on their opinion on the programme framework; workshops, tourist visits, internships etc.
  • –  Think about whether the French and Senegalese youth should adhere to the exact same objectives. Obviously they are impacted by different programmes so I see why their programme objectives need to be potentially different, but one does not want to see a disparity in quality for the two groups.
16. What are you up to now and how has your YAKA experience contributed to your current life? 
At the moment I’m working as a researcher at Shelter (a charity that campaigns to end homelessness and bad housing in the UK) and volunteering with the Migration Museum (a museum that discusses the history of migration in the UK). Next year be working as an English teacher in London with the Teachfirst programme. YAKA has taught me that thinking outside the box, having an esprit critique a nd finding solutions in creative and alternative ways are all POSITIVE things… Things that I was not taught at university. Growing up with dyslexia and dyspraxia, I often found it hard to to keep up, or fit into the formulas that constituted ‘success’, but YAKA has taught me to understand my own strengths and create my own formulas in life. YAKA has shown me the ability of the education field to be subversive and creative and has further impassioned me to work within this domaine.
17. How do you think your time with YAKA will help you in the future?
I think in the ways I have just described in that it has helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses and how to problem-solve in nuanced and innovative ways. I hope to try and share these skills as a teacher next year. The skills and friendships I made at YAKA have been really formative to my personal and professional development, and will of course, been invaluable throughout my life!