By Daniel Obst, President & CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs
(originally delivered as a speech at AFS Austria, October 2018)
One of my favorite things about being the CEO of such a great organization as AFS is listening to countless stories of AFS volunteers, students, families, alumni and others about how they are making a positive change in their communities.
AFS knows that global competence is a must—but we have to work even harder to ensure that others also appreciate why young people need these essential skills. Global competence holds the power for the future. That’s why I am encouraged to hear students like Yolanda from Ghana say, “I am a little shy and I like to daydream. But I am joining AFS because I want to see and understand the world and share my experiences with others”.
Like Yolanda, there was another girl in Ghana some 18 years earlier with similar dreams. Today, she is a renowned social entrepreneur, software developer, and a champion of girls’ education. Her name is Regina Honu, and she has been recognized by leading universities, foundations and the media as one of the top inspirational women in STEM. It’s because of her work, we honored Regina with the 2018 AFS Global Citizen of the Year Award at our awards ceremony in Budapest.
But the Reginas of the world need our help. 18 years ago Regina studied abroad with AFS, just like more than 12,000 young people who begin their transformative journey towards global competence every year, gaining an appreciation for the world beyond her own.
Opportunities like this demonstrate the value of inclusion. Research shows that inclusion has numerous benefits for both individuals and societies. Inclusion enhances social cohesion, economic growth and the general well-being in a society. It makes people better prepared to find lasting solutions for complex global issues, increasing their productivity and efficiency. At the same time, people immersed in diverse and inclusive communities develop more empathy, have an enriched worldview and a better understanding of others.
And because now more than ever, the world needs talented young people from all backgrounds, AFS scholarships, outreach and advocacy ensures that more people from diverse and underserved communities benefit from our programs and initiatives. We do this because we believe that a just and peaceful world is only possible when the global community is inclusive and works together to address the world’s most pressing challenges.
Let me highlight just a few examples of what inclusion at AFS looks like.
Inclusion at AFS celebrates Celine from Malaysia who received a scholarship to study abroad and then launched a community project called “The Gift of Sight” after returning home. Celine, who is blind herself, used this project to improve books and learning materials for students of the only school for the blind in Malaysia.
Inclusion at AFS encouraged volunteers and staff of AFS Germany to launch QueerExchange (QueerTausch) to raise awareness about LGBTQ* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and other) issues and sexual diversity, and to support AFS students and volunteers.
Finally, inclusion at AFS Austria started forty years ago, when a group of AFS volunteers initiated the AFS Refugee Aid Foundation to help the refugees of the Vietnam War. Supporting refugees is what many AFS volunteers in Austria have been working on since: Brigitte teaches Syrian refugee families German. Christine is hosting a refugee from Afghanistan. And Martin supports refugees in dealing with trauma through counselling and other activities.
All these examples speak to the fact that inclusion is a core value of AFS, and a key part of our organizational strategy. Our organization makes strategic efforts to provide intercultural learning opportunities to all—and broaden our reach to all strata of society. We are proud that participants, volunteers, host families and staff reflect the makeup of the communities where they live and work.
We know that inclusion of diverse ideas, perspectives and skills is a driving force for real innovation and cutting-edge breakthroughs. We want to work on more programs like the BP Global STEM Academies we launched this June with 100 participants from eight countries. This scholarship-based program ensures that the STEM community is inclusive and represents a spectrum of differences. Our BP Global STEM Academy scholarships also ensure that international education opportunities are open to those who may not be able to afford to go abroad.
Our commitment to inclusion is backed by trusted research. More than just informing our strategy, diversity and inclusion instill hope, inspire courage, and reinforce our shared commitment to advance the common good.
But we all still have a lot more work to do. That’s why AFS continues to collaborate with others to create more inclusive classrooms, organizations, workplaces and societies. And we must act quickly as cultural conflicts divide countries and communities worldwide.
Inclusion must go beyond looking at demographics and statistics—it has to be integrated into every aspect of our work, from diversifying our programs to meet the interests of young people to creating new strategic partnerships and offering more social impact projects.
We must educate more people on issues like critical thinking, unconscious bias and conflict management. Inclusive leaders must demonstrate that assumptions of what others can or can’t do are not acceptable.
We have to continue to create an environment in which different voices are heard, different skills and backgrounds are valued and promoted, and everyone feels respected. We must fully integrate different voices into all aspects society and think of them as leaders and innovators not just followers.
Fostering diversity and inclusion is a complex and long-term endeavor and we all have a role to play in making sure young people of all backgrounds have access to opportunities that will empower them to become future leaders of positive change. I am glad we are not alone on this journey, so we can support each other and take action on expanding opportunities for young global citizens.