About the Author: Susanna Connaughton is the Executive Director of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. She attended UNESCO’s Youth@the Crossroads symposium, which occurred in Manama, Bahrain from June 15-17, 2008.
The work began in earnest on Monday morning. On the way to the Plenary room, I walked down entry hall, named the "Partners’ Forum," lined with displays from programs from around the world that provide constructive alternatives for young people. I spoke with the talented young artists drawing at the Bahraini Ministry of Education table and moved on to learn about the Croatian Youth Network, a national umbrella of over 50 youth organizations, from its dedicated President, Emina Buzinkic. The plenary room was packed and in a few minutes it became standing-room only. Seated in the front rows were the dignitaries---Bahraini ministers and parliamentary members, senior officials from UNESCO and its member states, including U.S. Education Assistant Secretary Kerri Briggs, and Health and Human Services Principal Associate Deputy Secretary Jim O’Neill. The television lights brightened the room, as the 200 attendees — a range of ages, nationalities, and professions (NGOs, foundations, community and national leaders) — took their seats.
Chairperson Joseph Jabbra, president of the Lebanese American University, opened the session with passion and energy – you could tell that he cares deeply for young people and cares deeply about ending violent exploitation. He put forth a charge for the next two days: "sharing, concluding, and implementing." Throughout the morning, we heard from speakers in English, Arabic, French, and Spanish, including a charismatic address by Andres Pastrana Arango, former President of Colombia, and also a former kidnap victim.
The middle of the morning brought us to a poignant portion of the symposium. Projected on the big screen was a video statement from Vince, a former member of a Washington, DC gang. He told his story of joining and then ultimately escaping this violent group. He described the strength he has gained from being an active participant in City Year DC, an NGO that offers selected youth a year of full-time, community work in schools, after-school programs, and neighborhoods, and the opportunity to become a role model to young people. We also heard an audio recording from Ahmed, a Bahraini youth who grew up surrounded by those he said, "…Use their fists instead of their minds." He said that he had avoided this path by taking advantage of the critical thinking education and tangible skill programs offered in Bahrain.
Chairman Jabbra commented most eloquently: "Though they come from different parts of the world, they share similarities. Both were at that stage in their adolescence in which young people instinctively search for a distinct identity and a sense of belonging. Both were surrounded by violent extremist groups seeking to exploit this impressionable age group for their own criminal purposes. Ultimately, both young men found alternative outlets…They have each developed a strong sense of self-esteem, competence, and found constructive outlets for their self-expression."
In the afternoon, the symposium adjourned to a series of six breakout sessions. The breakout sessions allowed for presentations and small group discussions on a broad range of topics. Charles Davenport of the National Civilian Community Corps*AmeriCorps led a session on "Building Confidence, Competence, & Leadership Skills through Community Action." Arief Rachman, of the Indonesian Ministry of Education addressed "Youth Development Perspectives." Gary Knell, President of the Sesame Workshop, chaired a session on "Information & Media." Amal al-Dossari, head of the Bahrain General Organization of Youth & Sports, spoke about "Employability and Job Skills." The breakout sessions were filled to capacity, and even after two hours, the participants still had questions to ask and ideas to share.
You can access the entire list of organizations that participated in the conference in the Compendium of Projects section of UNESCO’s website: www.unesco.org/en/youthcrossroads.