In August 2002 –just about a decade ago –I sat on a living room couch in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dr. Jane Goodall, under whom I had an apprenticeship, was resting in a room nearby. Her executive assistant stood in the kitchen with our South African host, chatting and cooking. The dinner smells and their distant voices carried to my nose and ears, reminding me that I was at home even though thousands of miles away from where I was born. I was 16 and I was drenched in tiredness. It was the end of my first week helping facilitate a group from 9am to 5pm as well as burning the candle on both ends in order to prep and process.
I held a blue beaded necklace in my hands that a new South African friend had given me that morning. Rubbing my thumb over the grooves of the beads, I counted the blessings of this new world I had entered. Somehow the pages of the civil disobedience books I was reading as a teenager had come to life. And pages yet unwritten stalked my future, sent chills down my spine, and kept me awake with dreams. Anything seemed possible. This was the beginning of my life as a social entrepreneur. I had found my true and sustaining home among a global community of activists and hustlers-for-good.
For the next two years, I wore that necklace a lot. It hung from my neck as I created the message boards for the first One World Youth Project website, as I hand wrote letters to our original volunteer staff in India, and while I crafted my first grant application. The blue beads even rested encouragingly on my collarbone as I sat cross-legged at 6am on an average American front lawn, watching the sunrise, drinking Tanzanian Chai, and reminding myself that the world was vast and that anything was possible.
One World Youth Project
I started One World Youth Project in 2004. Within a year, we were a not-for-profit run by a volunteer team of university students in 17 countries. From 2004 to 2009, we connected 67 schools in 26 countries using email, Skype and Facebook to coordinate efforts. Over the next decade, I watched the OWYP community push the limits of possible again and again. We were bound by a shared belief that all young people should have access to low-cost global education opportunities and the ability to connect authentically across borders. I can now also see that we were tied together by a shared love for the open, creative, fearless and explicitly global community we were as a team. It was palatably different than anything else we had yet found on Earth. And, it was home.
Together, we beat the odds. It is not often that a ragtag group of young people from 17 countries –none of whom can claim much “global elite” status and many of whom were first-generation college –break into the non-profit space to create a self-sustaining non-profit enterprise with a 400k budget that serves over 500 students today. You know that kind of proud that brings you to tears? That’s how I feel when I think about our staff. They are just as ambitious and graceful as the social change fighters I used to read about as a teenager. I am still in disbelief of the brave, skilled and creative company I have had the gift to keep for the past decade.
The next phase of OWYP
I still have that blue necklace. In fact, I wore it this past October 2012, as we made the bold decision to accept an offer of acquisition from the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation. This mutually beneficial partnership has offered the financial and operational resources needed to move One World Youth Project into its next decade. After I signed the paperwork last fall and exited the El-Hibri building, I turned around and gazed at the beautiful mahogany doors to the Foundation. “We did it”, I whispered to myself. After ten years holding the question of long-term survival in my heart always unanswered, our answer finally came. At a moment in human history when positive change is needed and so few resources in civil society are available to meet these needs, we believe that strategic collaboration is the way forward for the non-profit sector. One World Youth Project and the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation share the same values, goals and strong sense of integrity. Together, our combined staff teams are better inspiring, exploring and promoting mutual understanding and respect through the connection of classrooms across cultures. The best part? I can now
speak with our next crop OWYP leaders with the relaxed smile of certainty that their program will be here when they come back and visit after graduation –maybe even when they send their kids to school. And, I can promise them that it will grow. It feels good to promise.
After 8 years serving as One World Youth Project’s Executive Director, I stepped down in March 2013 and passed the reigns to longtime colleague Cady Voge who now serves in OWYP’s new leadership position of Program Manager. Cady and I have worked side-by-side for eight years –through thick and thin. I have so much respect for her leadership and vision. I now serve as Chair of the Advisory Board and will still get to play a hands-on role in helping foster OWYP’s global community, which now includes a growing number of alumni. I always said to peers that I would step down as Executive Director of OWYP once it was self-sustaining and able to fly without me. That time has come. Organizations need fresh leadership to remain innovative and strong. Most importantly, OWYP has and must continue to always be “owned” by the young people it was created to serve.
My next step
I was recently reminded of 2002 and that afternoon in Johannesburg because I have been feeling those same chills down my spine again. It is time for a new journey. I’m wearing the blue beaded necklace as I type this. And, as I whispered to Cady Voge after one of many long days of OWYP work over five years ago, “I feel like something big and amazing is about to happen.” I’m feeling it again.
Last month I joined the founding team of a new social venture designed to help governments deliver results in the areas that need the most, systemic change on earth. With this new team, I will serve as Director of Delivery Corps and work to coalesce, train and empower the generation of talent needed for the next 50 years of global leadership. I’ll be able to share more late this coming fall but let me say this for now: once again, dreams of what might be possible are keeping me awake with excitement and hope! Check back on the OWYP blog for a formal announcement with more details before the close of 2013.
Friends, I am so thankful for our eleven years of solidarity and I look forward to many more in community, together. My values and soul will always be bound to what we prove as possible with the existence of One World Youth Project.