You’d never know from talking to Mercy Ncumisa Matubatuba, a 20-year-old from South Africa, that her young life has been filled with trauma. Abandonment, sexual and physical abuse, the death of a beloved brother, homelessness, hunger—everything scheming, it would seem, to keep her from her dreams. Matubatuba, though, still brims over with hope. And she’s still achieving her dreams, one pretty big step at a time.
Last month, Matubatuba, who is not quite sure where she’ll be living this year, found herself in Philadelphia—thousands of miles from her hometown of Johannesburg—for a week-long gathering of young people like her, working to solve problems like hers, all around the globe. It fulfilled one of her goals, to come to the United States. But it is just the beginning of another: Changing the world.
“I believe in youth,” Matubatuba says. “I’m passionate about changing the mindset of youth, how they think, in order to make change in our world. There are so many passionate people here wanting to make a difference. We’re working together to come up with solutions.”
Matubatuba was one of 24 delegates from 12 countries who attended a Global Opportunity Youth Initiative convening in December, brought to Philly by YouthBuild International, which runs training programs for young people who have left school without a degree; the Aspen Institute; Prudential Financial; and the Global Development Incubator. (It was hosted by The Hive, the youth empowerment arm of Spring Point Partners, which is a supporter of The Citizen.) The delegates, between 18 and 27 years old, hailed from South Africa, Kenya, Jordan, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, India, Northern Canada, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
The young people, along with the adults who chaperoned them, were charged with starting a movement around youth employment that the organizers hope will eventually lift them and their peers out of poverty, and all its accompanying ills. The first step, as YouthBuild President Tim Cross, puts it, was giving a voice to the young people themselves, so they could be part of finding the solutions to their own situation.
That situation, Cross says, is dire: Some 357 million youth around the globe are out of school and unemployed. “We have a pool of leaders who are going to be called on to lead the planet, and they are not getting access to schools and networks,” Cross says. “That’s a problem for the planet.”
“People have faith in us that we are the world changers,” Matubatuba says. “When I’m home, I can use that to inspire me. We can make the world a better place if we work together.”
The convening here was just one step in what Cross acknowledges is a long road. The young people spent the week sharing—in six different languages—the challenges and opportunities in their individual communities; solutions they wish adults would launch; ways to activate more youth in their countries; and how to build momentum when they went back home.
The last day was spent sharing their ideas with several international organizations, companies and foundations—including the World Bank, International Labor Organization, Citi, St. Gobain and the Obama Foundation—that could provide jobs, training and resources to propel young people forward. Some of those ideas included broad plans for 2019: They plan to host similar gatherings in each country, hosted by the youth leaders and partner NGOs to develop a specific plan for each region. They are launching a virtual network, to help keep the youth in touch with each other, so they can share ideas. And they want to start planning a Global Youth Summit, a larger gathering of young people to further the international conversation about creating opportunities.
Other ideas were country-specific, like small loans for Indian entrepreneurs, or ways to engage different South African city officials. Cross says they intentionally did not ask the organizations for anything this time around; it was more of an introduction to the youth and to the opportunities they present. In the weeks since, many of the companies have followed up, to find out next steps. Those could include an expansion of work they are already doing; for example, St. Gobain, the largest construction supplier in the world, already partners with YouthBuild in Philly and in South Africa. Cross says he hopes that partnership could get much bigger moving forward.
“We curated the companies there that have markets in the countries represented, or are working on development opportunities in those places,” Cross says. “They have a presence, but they are not reaching the kinds of young people we’d invited to Philadelphia. We’re trying to change that.”
The long-term goal is to create a path for corporations and development organizations to commit to generating economic opportunities for young people around the globe. That means access to skills training, jobs, loans for small businesses and help with growing local enterprises. This is mutually beneficial: Many of the countries represented offer huge investment opportunities for companies, if those companies can figure out how to operate there. To do that, they need workers, and they need to contend with climate change, violence and infrastructure issues that make living and working in these regions difficult.
Companies that show they can solve these problems are the ones most likely to be given the permits and permissions to set up shop in developing countries. And these efforts help them back home, as well: More and more American and European employees, particularly younger ones, want to work for companies that are socially-minded, not just money-minded. “There is real big money in developing markets,” Cross says. “We believe that this work, as part of a pitch to those markets, is a good sell.”
Some 357 million youth around the globe are out of school and unemployed. “We have a pool of leaders who are going to be called on to lead the planet, and they are not getting access to schools and networks,” Cross says. “That’s a problem for the planet.”
Matubatuba and the other delegates were selected by partner organizations, often affiliated with YouthBuild in countries where it operates, through a process intended to find young people who—despite their difficult circumstances—have leadership skills and a passion for creating change. Most of the countries sent one man and one woman, though the process of getting visas to travel to the United States was often a challenge. In El Salvador, 163 people applied to come here, a sign perhaps of a burgeoning youth movement there. Some hail from urban areas; others from some of the most remote spots in the world—First Nations northern Canada, and the world’s largest mangrove forest in India.
It’s hard, from the outside, to imagine the similarities between young people growing up in Philly and those from rural India, where electricity can be scarce, or Columbia, still recovering from years of civil war. And they are vastly different places, all of them. But the experiences of young people on the edge are strikingly familiar. Many face discrimination based on gender, race or neighborhood; they dodge violence in their communities, and contend with drugs and alcohol abuse. They are, often, unable to finish their education, or get the job training they need. They struggle for housing, food, healthcare and childcare.
“Exclusion has many faces, but it’s still exclusion,” says Kay Andreade Eekhoff, from El Salvador’s Catholic Relief Services, who accompanied two young women to the convening. “Each person comes with their own experience, but they’re discovering a lot of common issues. That’s what’s become so clear here.”
This includes the young people from Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the richest country in the world. The convening took place in a well-appointed Center City gathering space overlooking City Hall, a view unlike anything some of the visiting youth had ever seen—but unlike, too, anything some of the local youth have experienced. On one afternoon of their visit, organizers took the group to YouthBuild Philly on North Broad Street, where the school was reeling from four shootings of young people in their community. It was heartbreaking, Cross says, but also moving: Youth from all over the world came together to mourn, because they had been there, too. “I think having these young people from across the world really helped,” he says.
Many of the countries represented offer huge investment opportunities for companies, if those companies can figure out how to operate there. To do that, they need workers, and they need to contend with climate change, violence and infrastructure issues that make living and working in these regions difficult.
For Matubatuba, the week in Philly proved something she says she has long known: That she is meant to make a difference in the world. Just before she arrived, she learned that she was admitted to college in Johannesburg, where she plans to study performing arts technology. She says she hopes to one day open a shelter for homeless youth, and to launch a nonprofit that mentors young girls and helps them with their education. “I have a shot now,” she says, “and others should, too.”
That’s something the convening showed her, and something, she says, she plans to remember as she sets out to create a better world.
“People have faith in us that we are the world changers,” Matubatuba says. “When I’m home, I can use that to inspire me. We can make the world a better place if we work together.”Photo courtesy of Bonfire Media Collective, LLC