Youth around the globe have been showing the world how their voices matter. They have been taking action to create change. From Malala Yousafzai’s activism for female education, to Dr. Ben Barry’s desire, at age 14, to change the fashion industry’s standard of beauty, to Craig Kielburgers dream at age 13 of ending child labour.
With a global platform available through social media and the internet there are more options for youth to be a part of the change. Whether it’s volunteering at school, getting involved in ending bullying to becoming a mentor or being an ambassador for greener living, the possibilities of helping to create change are endless.
My guests today are two youth facilitators with the globally renowned social enterprise Me to We, who followed their passion in building a better tomorrow by lending their skills to empower youth to make a difference.
Some of the youth in my city showed up on a Saturday & Sunday, bright and early, to address some of the issues they felt were important and to talk about how they could make a difference in their community.
Kelly Chessman & Michael Estalilla (better known as Esta) flew from Toronto to facilitate and help create a safe space for the youth to tackle tough topics.
As someone who is very driven and inspired to work with youth I was intrigued to find out what inspired these young advocates to be involved in this kind of social justice work. I got the opportunity to sit down with Kelly and Esta and hear their story of how they became change makers and mentors in the lives of youth.
Here is our interview:
Me: This has been a fantastic last couple of days and I’m really impressed by all of the things you’ve done, including all of the conversations that have come out of the workshop. How did you both get involved with this kind of work?
Esta: I had an interesting journey. I was all about making money and that was the dream of mine, to end up in a place where I was financially stable. I went to university with that in mind but there was always a part of me during my university career where I was always wanting to work with youth and young people. That ended changing my direction in life. I always found ways to continue to be around young people and be inspired. I was fortunate enough to go back to school and use a few gifts of mine, which included sports, and I tied it in with the community and youth. I was then able to work for a lot of amazing non-profit organizations and then one thing led to another and I was able to be at the right place at the right time, having the right conversation and it led me to the organization ME to We. Now I am able to use my skills, inspire youth and continue to grow and learn from the youth as well.
Kelly: I originally was drawn toward Me to We and Free The Children because I was so impressed with their international development model. It had always kind of been in the back of my mind that I wanted to get into something like this and that was because when I was in university I went on a service trip to Columbia. That experience really sparked my interest.
Then I decided I would go teach abroad in Thailand and it was when I was there that I truly understood how much a valued working with youth and how much the youth inspired me.
Throughout my travels in South East Asia, doing another volunteer and service trip, I realized I wanted to do something more than just going abroad and volunteering. I ended up seeing the dangerous side to volun-tourism and looking back at the development model of Free the Children I was drawn to it because they implemented it so flawlessly.
I luckily ended up in a position where I was able to work with youth but also fuelled my desired to work with youth on an international scale.
Me: I’m interested in what you just said about the dangerous side of volun-tourism. What exactly do you mean by that?
Kelly: I think that in some places people go with this mentality that the western world can solve the problems of other places. The problems can end up becoming worse and sometimes the jobs are taken from the locals and the community rather than creating jobs for the community.
In particular, I was volunteering in Cambodia and there was a huge problem with volun-tourism there because of the orphan crisis. There were many orphanages open to cater to the amount of orphans that needed homes. The problem was people started to see the business side of this issue and began to open up orphanages and fill it with children who weren’t orphans. They saw the money associated with people coming to Cambodia to take part in volunteering and created a bigger problem.
Me: When you are working with youth, what are some of the things that you both see that inspires you the most?
Esta: I think for me, working with youth, when I am in a setting, and I am around them, I end up losing all judgement and get inspired by the amazing nuggets that they share. We do live in a society where people often say, “You are just kids” or “It’s a phase” or “You aren’t going to make a difference,” but when I am in a workshop and I hear the conversations and experiences that they are going through I automatically think, “How are you living in a world like this where you are always bombarded with negative comments when they are the next generation that will potentially lead us. I ended up learning from them just as they are learning from me.
Kelly: For me I am always so impressed with how passionate the youth we work with are about their communities. I think for myself it took a really long time to become passionate about what was going on around me in my own community, let alone worldwide. It took me until university to actually find that passion so I am so surprised, and humbled, to be around youth who have already found such a huge passion and who care about what is going on around them. I think it is incredibly valuable.
The express innovative ideas and many of the youth have such a different perspective of the world, even from people who are just a little bit older. They see it in a different way and I think that perspective is so valuable for everyone to get exposure to. We are so lucky that we get to see that on a daily basis.
Me: What are the top three most common issues with the youth across the country? I’m sure you must see a pattern. One of them I know you are both really passionate about and I would love if you would speak about that to my readers.
Esta: I think right away, off the bat, we do get to hear a lot of issues that are going on in the lives of youth and in their communities. One constant that I hear all the time is bullying. I think the reason that they care about it so much is because it is a topic that so many people can relate to universally, and also, because it is so complicated that kids still want to solve it.
When it’s an issue like that it’s so hard to back it up statically because it is all based on personal experiences. When we hear those experiences, every time it is unique and different. For example, what’s going to work in Northern British Columbia might not work in the suburbs of Toronto, or in a city like Grande Prairie. Yes, it is all about bullying but it has an impact that is experienced individually. That is one of the universal issues I get to experience a lot.
Another issue that continually occurs, and one I think is interconnected to bullying, is mental health. Many youth come up to us and will say, “I suffer from mental illness” and then they tell us about being bullied for it.
One more thing t is when we visit places and local community issues come up, for example food security, homelessness, violence. When we visit these communities we come in with intentions of helping the youth the best we can, but like Kelly said before, we don’t come in to “fix” the problem.
Kelly: Yes, I would really have to echo what Esta is saying. Bullying is something that I feel everyone has been touched by in one way or another. It is a theme that comes up everywhere we go, along with Mental Health. Youth are so passionate when it comes to talking about it, and that is great because it’s so different from my generation. One of the things they are often so passionate about is removing the stigma around mental illness. That stigma was definitely in place when I was growing up, and when my parents were growing up, so it’s nice to seem them want to change how we talk about it.
Esta: I’m going to share what gravitated me to it. It’s an organization where youth can celebrate the fact that it’s cool to care. It creates a place where they know they can be themselves, know that they belong and know they are not alone.
It’s so fascinating when we celebrate things like We Day, or organize speaks and workshops that give youth a platform to express that they care. That is what brought me here and that is why I think the youth gravitate to these organizations.
Another thing is that it is all youth driven. If youth care about something they have avenues and outlets to pursue their cause and the resources we have are phenomenal. It is accessible and easy for anyone to get involved.
Kelly: Yes, I agree, Me to We and Free the Children puts the onus on the youth. They give youth the choice to “Be the change!” I think that people are also really attracted to the fact that it was started by Craig Keilburger who was only 12 years old at the time, and it reminds youth that they can do it too. They can be successful and they can make a difference no matter how old they are. It’s a really great motivator.