"You speak English really well." It was a compliment offered by the security guard at the college campus where I was staying for a week along with students from around the globe. "Well, I'm from the States. I've been practicing for about 25 years," I joked back.
I was the only American in a group of 100 youth leaders from more than 90 countries who had congregated in Tarrytown, New York to participate in the 2013 UNAOC-EF Summer School organized by United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and EF Education First. From Zambia to Nepal and everywhere in between, these young leaders are tackling global challenges related to cultural and religious diversity. Although our initiatives varied widely, from raising awareness about Moroccan Jewish culture to supporting migrant children in Thailand, each of us had something to learn from the other participants and instructors.
For anyone aspiring to make a difference in his or her community, here are a few of my key takeaways from the program.
1. Act now.
Planning and preparation are necessary for any venture, but your project will not and should not be perfect before you launch. The focus and process of your work is likely to evolve as you learn more about your audience, beneficiaries and funding or revenue opportunities.
My project, Beyond the Bombs, started as an unassuming blog post but has transformed into an interactive web platform. If I had delayed the launch while I perfected my plans, I would not have had the benefit of participating in programs like the UNAOC-EF Summer School, collaborating with individuals around the globe, and learning through trial and error. When you discover an idea about which you are passionate, use the momentum and act!
2. Meet your global colleagues.
Ours is the age of Facebook revolutions and the Twitterverse. We know the value of the digital world for spreading a message. What is rarely mentioned is the value of "global colleagues." Whether your project focuses on a local issue or an international one, a global network of teammates, mentors and friends is critical for success.
At the UNAOC-EF Summer School, I received valuable advice from each of my fellow participants, and many connected me with individuals and organizations relevant to my cause. Even more valuable than our interactions over the week, however, will be our continued collaboration in the future. Two of the youth leaders currently working on Beyond the Bombs joined the project after we participated together in a similar program, the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford.
Reach out to your global contemporaries, not only when you hope to spread a message but also when you are building your message. Make sure to return the favor as well.
3. Do good and do well.
For many of us, pursuing our passion requires a delicate balance between our "paid job" and our "unpaid job," and sustaining a project demands an endless struggle for funding. What if you could "do good" and "do well"?
That idea is the basis for the growing field of social entrepreneurship, which Assaf Weisz and Norm Tasevski, founders of Purpose Capital, define as, "solving problems people have by making something people want." Determine your project's assets -- expertise, information, markets or goods -- and offer those products or services to paying customers. Note that your customers may be different from your beneficiaries.
Take the company TOMS, for example. Founder Blake Mycoskie launched the company after visiting an Argentinean village where shoeless children faced significant hardships. TOMS designs and sells shoes, and for every pair sold, the company donates a pair to a child in need.
The takeaway? Start thinking about opportunities rather than problems.
4. Tweet responsibly.
Media outlets and social media platforms can increase the impact of your project exponentially, but only if used effectively. A media campaign strategy will help you ensure that the time you spend tweeting, writing press releases or running advertisements is worthwhile.
First, be specific about your audience. Are they middle-aged women in India, or youth concerned about the environment? Know where they get their information and what their interests are. For example, in Sierra Leone, where internet access is limited, the radio is the best tool for communication. Among Irish youth, Facebook is their go-to platform.
Second, be clear about what you want from your audience (e.g., a specific action, general awareness or a discussion). Also, be aware that your message could be interpreted differently depending on your audience members' cultural context. In one culture, "hope" is considered an uplifting sentiment, while in another, it represents a last resort.
Finally, when building a social media following, Hult International Business School Professor Erik Qualman encourages us to think not "How can I get you to like me?" but rather "How can I get to know you?" Learn more about your audience, counterparts and sponsors. Support them through retweets, "Follow Friday" and LinkedIn endorsements. Build a coalition with others interested in similar issues and raise awareness together. The followers will come.
5. Talk the talk.
Use every opportunity to spread your message, whether chatting with friends or networking at a conference. Distill your message to three key points describing the problem, your solution, and the action or outcome you hope to promote. Discussing your project constantly and consistently not only builds interest and awareness but can also help you assemble your team.
According to Assaf Weisz, open calls for applications are unlikely to attract candidates interested in joining the project for the long haul. Far more effective are personal encounters with individuals passionate about your cause. The more visibility you have for your project, the more likely you are to find teammates with the skills you need and the drive you want.
On the last day of the UNAOC-EF Summer School, all of the participants stood together for a photo with our graduation certificates. "Smile big," called the photographer. Click. "Ok, now everyone wave your hands in the air." As we stood there with goofy grins and certificates flapping wildly, we let out a collective "Wooooooo!" Apparently, it is a universal truth that if a group is asked to wave their hands for a picture, they will naturally "wooo"; it does not matter if they are black, white, Muslim, Jewish, male or female.
The "wooo" picture was an amusing, and oddly telling, reminder that despite our diversity, we had much in common. Whether you are a poet from Los Angeles or a businessperson from Nairobi, whether you aspire to build a local community center or an international peace initiative, I hope that the lessons I learned from a week of intercultural collaboration will aid your endeavors to shape the future and remind you that you are not alone.