In the first week of September, the host organization I’ve served – Advocates for Youth, celebrated the 23rd annual Youth Activist Institute (YAI). As an organization that has been working tirelessly to promote the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people in the United States and the Global South, YAI is one among many programs that aim to empower young people to amplify their voices and advocate for better SRHR and youth-friendly policies. After two consecutive years of being held virtually, this year, YAI welcomed more than 100 young people across the states in Washington, DC.
This year, the Advocates’ Team chose “Fighting Back While Under Attack” as the theme with the intent to call attention to the numerous attacks on bodily autonomy in all aspects of young people’s lives. Those young people were divided into a variety of policy and council-specific training based on their focus and interest to foster their campaign and advocacy skills in preparing for radical political action in the upcoming years.
I learned a lot about how an organization mainstreams and uphold human rights-based values in the implementation. Although it needed complex technicalities and details, The Advocate Team has succeeded in ensuring that the participants are in their safe space to voice out their concerns and take extra care to protect the well-being of the participants with these strategies:
- Effective COVID-19 measurement and prevention policies
These past three years have been challenging years for the development programs to provide direct interventions. Various works have been reshaped to virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this is the first in-person YAI in three years, there was a designated team who worked to establish COVID protocols, such as:
All staff involved and participants needed to ensure that they feel healthy, free from COVID-19 symptoms and tested negative for COVID-19 by taking the test every day, as we provided five COVID rapid tests to the welcome bags. We were also obliged to take the COVID test each morning for five days before the training happened. Again, they also need to upload the test result to the form; if they forget, the designated team will diligently remind them.
The last strategy was innovatively created to ensure that everyone involved feels safe and comfortable interacting with each other. The Advocates’ Team provided three colors stickers – green, yellow, and red, which all staff and participants could choose based on their level of comfort with having physical interaction. Inspired by the traffic light, people could choose to patch the ‘green’ sticker if they are comfortable with being touched or hugged; the ‘yellow’ sticker was intended as a sign that everyone should be more cautious of the physical touch; and lastly, the ‘red’ sticker designated that the person is not comfortable at all of having physical contact with the others.
All staff and participants who tested positive for COVID-19 were staying in their rooms. They were still able to access the virtual training, as there were also virtual rooms to accommodate young people who could not attend in Washington, DC, and a designated technical assistance team to make sure that the virtual participants were active in the process. A designated team also voluntarily delivered the food to the staff or participants’ room if they could not be on the move because of tested positive.
- Firm safeguarding policy for under-18 young people
In my observation through working in youth and gender-focused programs for approximately five years in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), child protection policy has various technical challenges to be implemented. For instance, due to the lack of human resources, there are often no companies for under-18 people to roam around foreign cities when they have to attend a workshop.
Each day at the Institute, the Advocates’ available staff took turns going with these young people if they wanted to explore or dine out around Washington, DC. Young people would go within the group and be accompanied by one or two adults from the Advocates’ staff. The team also accommodated young people who were uncomfortable joining a big group by escorting them to a smaller group. Although the Core Team had to facilitate each council training session, this policy came very organic with the spirit of ensuring the safety of under-18 young people.
- The importance of Chatham house rules
Since we wanted to create a safe space where young people would feel comfortable to share their personal stories, and their aspiration to take part in radical political movement in this country, all the designated team in each council-training session were ensuring that whatever said in the sessions, will only be stayed in the session. Anyone who comes to future discussions is free to use the information in the discussion, but it is now allowed to disclose who made any particular comment.
- Ensuring inclusivity through providing pronouns pin
Based on the Human Rights Campaign, a pronoun is a word used to refer to either the people who are talking (like “I” or “you”) or a person being talked about in the third person (like “she/her,” “he/him,” and “they/them”). Since some pronouns are gendered (“she/her” and “he/him”), it is important to be intentional about the way we use pronouns as we all work to create as inclusive an environment as possible.
Asking for a person’s chosen name and pronouns is essential to affirm their identity and, therefore, being respectful. The Advocates’ Team provided more than a hundred pins to show someone’s pronoun, which our staff and participants could choose and put in their clothes; thus, other people who see it would be able to understand and refer to them in a way that they preferred.
- Sharp implementation of meaningful youth engagement and youth-adult partnership
Nothing about us, without us” has always been a spirit of implementing youth programs involving youth directly to understand their needs, motivations, and aspirations. This Institute was led by several young people who initiated and brainstormed the concept and ensured that the implementation ran smoothly. The event also set a high standard for other development programs where the youth-adult partnership was applied. The adult staffs are willing to work hand-in-hand with the young people and help the youth team if they need any assistance.
- Ensuring the mental health and wellness of the staffs and participants
Not only working to ensure young people’s health-seeking behavior and their well-being, but Advocates was also maximizing the effort to ensure that the staff are not burned out managing this big event. There was a designated counselor that was free to access by both staff and participants in case they needed any professional help regarding their mental health and well-being during the workshops. Furthermore, the Advocates staff were also allowed to book a timeslot for traditional massage to reward themselves for their hard work to make the Institute go well. Lastly, talking about inclusivity, there was also one designated prayer room that could be used to pray or to reflect and digest what is happening in someone’s life.
NGO staff usually has their work and are usually very busy. However, all Advocates staffs are hand-in-hand to ensure that the safeguarding policy is well-implemented so that young people are comfortable to be all out in this process.
Photo by Advocates for Youth