By Justin Powell
Youthlinc’s mission is to create lifetime humanitarians. Humanitarians, once created, can then individually and collectively seek to change systems that are failing marginalized populations, reduce poverty, improve access to healthcare, address economic, gender, and racial inequities, etc. Our mission creates exponential influence on every aspect of society rather than focusing on a single humanitarian issue.
Youthlinc engages in international humanitarian work; it is one of the things we do for which we are most well-known. We are also known for having a large impact with the service we accomplish locally within Utah, including running Real Life, an afterschool program focusing on refugee and immigrant teens and tweens.
Youthlinc strives to ensure that all service work that we do, whether locally or internationally, follows best-practice strategies to ensure that the work being accomplished is successful—meaning sustainably carried out in a way that honors all vested parties and gets real results.
When Youthlinc works internationally, we partner with vetted NGOs or Rotary Clubs that have expertise in community development. Our international partners are organizations that are representative of and led by the demographic comprising those geographical areas. We do not employ Americans abroad, nor rely on Americans living abroad, to guide our work. Our projects and the approach to the work is driven by the communities themselves, not our perception or interpretation of what we think they need.
Youthlinc engages in projects that have been requested, collaborated on, and have the buy-in of international communities. There is not any one given formula for success when doing meaningful international work. We have twenty-one years of experience that has taught us that what works for one village in one country does not necessarily work in another. We rely on our NGO partners, the leaders in the villages, and the community members themselves to guide the projects and advocate for how Youthlinc can best support their goals. Our partners’ missions and Youthlinc’s mission are not the same, but they are congruent and complementary. Our volunteers come with their own set of skills and expertise, which are not superior or more desirable than what exists already in the communities, but something that can add to the great work already happening in those places. We learn just as much from our international partners’ framework to community development as they do from our mission of creating lifetime humanitarians.
Whenever there is an opportunity to hire a local expert for a project, we do so. We hire local seamstresses to help with vocational projects, local gardeners when we do garden projects, local beekeepers for beekeeping projects, local foremen and laborers to build structures, wells, and bridges. Do our volunteers help with all of those things while we are visiting? Yes, absolutely! We do so as friends who are connecting and building relationships. We do so with the knowledge we have, add it to the knowledge they have, and the end-result is always more valuable than had we not collaborated at all or merely sent money. Remittances are not diplomacy, nor do they build relationships; but hands-on service and face-to-face interaction does.
So what does Youthlinc offer to these already effective NGOs and Rotary Clubs that makes them willing to partner with us and host our teams year after year? Exposure to the skillsets within each team, authentic friendships with our volunteers, and the generosity of our donors to support their missions as they simultaneously invest in ours.
Youthlinc utilizes the skillsets of professionals and youth volunteers appropriately
All Youthlinc teams have adult professionals that offer their expertise to our international partners; projects are designed with those skillsets in mind. Our teams have doctors, registered nurses, business professionals, computer programming experts, teachers, and engineers, to name a few. Due to their knowledge and skill base, Youthlinc is able to offer valuable and mutually beneficial partnerships with foreign NGOs and Rotary Clubs. The work we are able to accomplish with our international partners, while empowering youth volunteers to take part in it, firmly sets our approach to international development work on the correct path.
Youthlinc team leaderships include six to ten adult professionals and team leadership who have multiple years of experience working in international development. Imagine the opportunities missed to support the critical work of an international NGO if a humanitarian organization sent teams with inexperienced, albeit passionate, young leaders and a group of teenagers without the benefit of trained, seasoned professionals. That would be a detriment to the international humanitarian community and would reinforce attitudes often described as “white saviorism,” which is the idea that white people help people of color in order to assuage their own guilt and make themselves feel better about their privilege and position of power by “serving” them.
So why then does Youthlinc use so many resources to facilitate international service and travel when it would be more cost-effective to just donate that money to our partners’ projects and avoid any potential traps of white saviorism?
Youthlinc is mission-focused, brings about individual transformation, and develops empathy
Youthlinc’s mission is to create lifetime humanitarians. Humanitarians,
once created, can then individually and collectively seek to change systems
that are failing marginalized populations, reduce poverty, improve access to
healthcare, address economic, gender, and racial inequities, etc. Our mission
creates exponential influence on every aspect of society rather than focusing
on a single humanitarian issue.
Youthlinc changes our volunteers at a core level. We seek to
change how our participants view themselves as doers and leaders in their own
communities and in how they view other human beings, especially those
outside their normal circles. Our goal is to provide a framework where
Youthlincers learn to value, honor, and embrace all other people, no
matter their national origin, race, economic background, religion, sexual
orientation, gender, etc.
There is profound opportunity to grow when we interact meaningfully with people we ordinarily would not— doing service provides a powerful way to do this. It is natural for human beings to get into our own grooves and gravitate toward like-minded people. It is comfortable and we feel more in control of a complicated world. But remaining in this state is also dangerous. It puts us at risk of thinking our way, our habits, our thinking is the right way- the only right way- to navigate and live life. Then when we inevitably come across people that are different from us, our human instincts often interpret that “otherness” as a threat. Our mission actively undoes that natural human tendency.
“Empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people. Empathy is the ability that allows us to be useful creatures on this planet; without empathy, we are a waste of oxygen in this world. Without empathy, we are lower than animals. Empathy is the ability that allows us the perception of things around us, outside of ourselves; so a person without empathy is a limited human being, someone who will only live half of a life.”
― C. JoyBell C.
Positive relationships compel action
So why trips then? Youthlinc trips provide an external motivation to our volunteers as they fulfill a number of rigorous requirements of service and leadership. True change takes time and care. Our year-long program gives the necessary time, guidance, and support for personal transformation to take place. The local service requirement gets Youthlincers interacting with individuals they normally may never notice, work with, or relate to. Habitual, long-term local service sets the stage for a more meaningful international trip because Youthlincers have spent the year processing their local service work with their teams and have been debunking myths about complex social issues as they gain real life experience. This approach deconstructs the notion of their privilege equating to superiority. Seeing, interacting with, and connecting to people across the globe is a powerful way to inspire individuals to question and check their privilege, adjust behavior, and adopt that into their everyday life.
Until there is human to human, face to face interaction, it is less effective to get people to donate to a cause. Unless there are friendships built and an emotional connection to a place, person, or group of people, we are not compelled to act in large or generous ways. Having an academic or anecdotal understanding is not enough. Emotive videos are not enough. Relationships are everything. Those are best cultivated by interacting in physical proximity to each other.
Investing in Youthlinc’s model has exponential impact
When a donor supports a Youthlinc volunteer to go through our program, including the international trip, they are not just sending that person abroad. They are helping a young person learn a plethora of things—how to be a positive force for good at home every day, how to love people from different walks of life, how to responsibly engage in international humanitarian work, and how to be more community-minded as local and global citizens.
When a donor gives to support our humanitarian projects, it benefits a community abroad with access to clean water, education, or other improved infrastructure. And because our volunteers are an intrinsic part of carrying out any given project, project donors are further cementing the full humanitarian experience for the youth volunteer, as well. Their dollar impacts the life of the Youthlincer just as much as the lives of the individuals abroad.
Youthlinc has a growth mindset
Youthlinc strives to embody the best-practice tenets of
international humanitarian work and continuously reflects upon and adjusts our
practice to ensure we stay at the forefront of responsible youth-centered
I have been with Youthlinc for thirteen years. There are projects I worked on thirteen years ago (and since) that are still going strong all these years later. I have relationships with people, both my American teammates and friends on every continent, that are among the dearest aspects of my life. I have seen teens join Youthlinc shy, lazy, skeptical, outgoing, brilliant, ambitious- blossom into the most dynamic people in their generation as they tap into their potential as movers and shakers of the world. I have worked on projects over the years that have failed. I have mis-stepped with partners and other volunteers along the way. Every year in Youthlinc looks different because we change for the better in our approach to empowering youth, to supporting international development, and managing the many facets of our various programs.
Youthlinc is an organic, grassroots organization that cultivates the best in people. Our students have a safe place to fail forward. We employ research-based service learning methods to encourage youth (and even adults) to become more emotionally intelligent compassionate, and empathetic people in the world.