From Shrek to YLAI

I had to give a speech during my high school graduation. Because I find it really difficult to give a boring speech, I naturally found a way to incorporate the movie Shrek. I’m sure my parents still have a copy of this speech in a drawer somewhere (and probably a recording on VHS), but I do remember talking about how we all needed to stop looking for our purpose in life and instead simply do something that matters.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life at the age of 18, but I knew that if I focused too much on my life purpose, I would become so focused on this search that I would forget to simply enjoy my life. I have followed my own advice over the past decade or so, and it has taken me from teaching to graduate school, and from proposal writing to what I do now. My goal has always been quite simple — make sure that what I do actually matters.

What exactly do I do now? For years I have wanted a job that is easy to describe to people. It would be so nice to say that I’m a teacher or a lawyer or pretty much any career that a 6-year-old can identify. Never did I see myself supporting entrepreneurs and civil society leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean through the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Professional Fellows Program. Never did I imagine myself watching shows like Shark Tank for job research. Now I have trouble imagining myself doing anything else.

Fellows at the YLAI Peru Town Hall

When people ask what I do, I normally start with this: “I work at Meridian International Center, and I support the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative which brings 250 entrepreneurs and civil society leaders to the U.S. for a 5-week fellowship”. If they ask for more information or why this program matters, I always come back to the people and the network that we have facilitated throughout the region. This is what makes my job matter.

The people

People like Paula Porras and her Fellowship Host Gaia Klotz from the Wayne State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. As part of the YLAI Reverse Exchange Program, Gaia traveled from Detroit, Michigan to Bogotá, Colombia to work with Paula and Somos CaPAZes and implement peace-building trainings with children and young adults. Paula and Gaia also worked on the Peace Labs website and curriculum, which will now be jointly implemented in Colombia and Detroit, having the potential to impact over 3,000 students.

Brazil Reverse Exchange Site Visit

People like Murillo Sabino and his Fellowship Host Timothy McMahon. As part of the YLAI Reverse Exchange, Timothy traveled from Kansas City, Missouri to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to work with the homeless population and support Murillo’s organization Projeto Ruas. They are creating the My Story Matters campaign to give these individuals a voice.

YLAI Recruitment Event in São Paulo

People like Shaunda Yarde. She makes coconut biscuits in Georgetown, Guyana and has seen business at Coconut Grove triple since the end of the program due to the increased visibility and knowledge that she gained during the program.

The network

When I look back on the different events from YLAI 2016, I always come back to the pitch competition. This event involved all 250 fellows on the final day of the program. Each of our 21 City Hubs held local competitions the week before, and the winner from each city pitched in Washington, D.C. during the Closing Summit. While the presentations were impressive, I remember looking at the crowd and being struck by the support I felt in the room. Fellows had created signs and chants. One group got even more creative and used a water jug and spoon to make noise and show support. I realized that they were not only cheering for people from their own country, but they were supporting people from their City Hub. Each City Hub had between 10 and 14 Fellows from different countries. They came from different backgrounds. They spoke different languages or dialects. During YLAI though, they realized that in many ways these differences did not matter. They found that they had so many commonalities and were able to share best practices with each other…and just share life.

Dinner with the Charlottesville Cohort

I think about my parents who actually met ten of our Fellows in Charlottesville, Virginia while I conducted a site visit. Before this program, they knew that I worked in Washington, D.C. and traveled to different countries, but they did not understand the impact that these public diplomacy programs actually have on our participants and on the U.S. communities that they visit. During dinner they met Alpha Sennon from Trinidad and Tobago and talked to him about his company WhyFarm and how he was working with the PB&J Fund and the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville to share best practices. My parents also met Felipe Neves from Brazil and learned about the Projeto Constituição na Escola, which teaches high school students about the constitution. They asked him about his collaboration with the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution and even bonded over U.S. college basketball. Months later my parents still ask me if I have heard from these fellows recently, and they are more aware of the issues that the Fellows face.

Ushuaia, Argentina Site Visit

I think about the YLAI Alumni who have maintained relationships with their U.S. counterparts. Roberto Cobaquil from Coffee District has hosted individuals he met during his YLAI Fellowship in Portland, Oregon. Representatives from Nossa Familia Coffee and Third Wave Coffee Tours visited coffee farms and learned about the coffee business and culture in Guatemala. In March 2017, Thiago Lopes from American Insight hosted Nick Sacco from Connect English in San Diego. Thiago’s school is now an official representative of Connect English in Brazil, and the first Brazilian student from this collaboration will visit in November 2017.

What if…

Writing this has made me start to wonder how different my life would be if I had tried to make these decisions at an earlier point in my life. I can almost guarantee that I never would have ended up here since I knew nothing about the world of public diplomacy until a few years ago. I would have never met these entrepreneurs and civil society leaders who have truly changed how I view the world.

If I could tell 18-year-old me (and that Shrek speech) one thing, it would simply be “thank you”.