By Heidi Wallace
Leadership and education have been the theme during my travels in Myanmar. After my time in Mandalay I headed to Yangon to spend time with Naw Paw Eh and the organization Youth Circle. Youth Circle’s goal is to form a better society by youth actions and empowers youth from rural areas through education and mentorship. Youth are equipped with personal development and leadership skills, human rights and peace education, and environmental awareness to support their professional development and employment opportunities. I led a session with their staff and volunteers (again many who are alumni-similar to Colorful Girls in Mandalay and EmpowerMT in Montana) around strengthening collaborations and partnerships to support youth. The personal success stories I heard were inspiring and it makes sense that the organization is growing and gaining recognition. As Youth Circle seeks more partners to support employment opportunities such as apprenticeships and job placement they continue to rise up the leadership and confidence of many young people who are definitely worth taking a chance on.
Naw Paw Eh and I then flew to Dawei to spend time at the Christian Education Center boarding school. I had powerful discussions with the staff of three area boarding schools and also with the high school students from CEC about creating inclusive teaching and learning communities. The value of education is very strong in Myanmar yet the systems to support the diverse youth in regards to learning abilities, ethnicity and religions, financial resources, and opportunity is lacking. I led the staff through EmpowerMT’s Frame of Reference activity and asked them to share what inspired them to want to be educators and many shared their own personal experiences growing up and how they wanted to contribute to more positive educational and life experiences for the youth. Stories of not being allowed to speak their language or practice their religion, physical abuse, discrimination, isolation, violence, and fear were shared by many. One teacher spoke of the impact of historical trauma and how that leads to a cycle because it is not addressed or even understood. Struggles with providing inclusive education to all despite their abilities and circumstances continue due to tradition and a military led government yet the commitment to breaking the cycle that has historically existed is very strong. Wanting to instill hope, spirituality, love of education, and belief in opportunities to all of the children is the goal of the school leaders I was fortunate to connect with.
Definitely my highlight in Dawei was speaking with the high school students from the CEC! I was very interested to learn about their lives at the boarding school. The students shared what they loved about the opportunity to live at the CEC; being cared for, the spiritual education, the discipline (yes, you read that right! The CEC is one of few boarding schools that practices POSITIVE DISCIPLINE), the education, and the friendships. These young people are determined to be educated despite many challenges and barriers. Attending the government school during the day and then residing and studying at the CEC boarding school includes many stressors and pressures. The students of the CEC are a religious minority in Myanmar and many experience religious intolerance, isolation, and mistreatment. While living at the board school provides valuable resource and stability for the youth the financial burden and lack of government financial support for the schools themselves mean that budgets are stretched thin. When I asked the youth what they would love to change about their boarding school experience the top two responses were better food including meat and spices and more diverse educational experiences-field trips, videos, modern books, mental health supports, and physical activities. After a hot and dusty game of volleyball the youth shared their hopes and dreams while giving me a tour of their school, their home away from home. Being in the presence of future teachers, doctors & nurses, missionaries & pastors, computer specialists, and world travelers gave me hope that despite all odds the youth of our world are the change we seek.
Education and Professional Growth
The YSEALI Professional Fellowship program has set in place a great opportunities for Laos professionals and professional from the United States to collaborate and share ideas on forward change. Chasy (YSEALI Professional Fellow) and Riley (Frenchtown Principal, Montana) had the opportunity to spend time with the Save the Children Foundation in Luang Prabang. This meeting allowed for open communication regarding rural community supports in terms of materials, supplies and educational professional development. Thank you for the opportunity to meet and collaborate ideas.
After meeting with the Save the Children Foundation, Riley and Chasy went to the Utopia Library in Luang Prabang to present on the YSEALI Professional Fellowship Program (PFP) and the opportunities for future young Southeast Asian leaders. Thank you to all the students at the Utopia Library that shared fantastic questions and interest in the YSEALI PFP.
Additional to spending time with fantastic organizations and groups in Laos, the YSEALI program has provided great cultural experiences that Riley Devins will have the opportunity to bring bring back to the United States and share with students in Montana.
By Heidi Wallace
Investment in the leadership of youth by providing opportunities for deepening understanding of differences through education, leadership, and relationships has made a profound impact on the youth I was fortunate to connect with in Mandalay, Dawei, and Yangon as part of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative Exchange through the Mansfield Center. My journey began in Mandalay with Pan Nu Zaw and the Colorful Girls program. Colorful Girls is a local NGO that seeks to empower young women through leadership, confidence and education so that they can advocate for themselves and for social change.
Colorful Girls is based in Mandalay and leads programs for girls in boarding schools and communities throughout Myanmar. Programs include empowerment circle sessions, sports activities, and summer leadership camp. I was honored to visit two Monastic Education boarding school sessions and also attend a meeting with Colorful Girls staff and facilitators. Myanmar is very diverse in regards to ethnicities and religions and some of the most profound noticings I had after connecting to the girls was the power of relationship building, peer mentorship, and education around differences. Girls shared highlights of their experiences like learning to love themselves and being a girl, creating friendships, developing pride in their own identities, being able to share hopes and dreams, and learning about different religions. Almost all of the Colorful Girls facilitators were alumni of the program which is a true testament to the impact of the program.
Sports Session at Yay Htwet Ma Soe Yein Monastic Education School
There were so many wonderful connections to the mission of EmpowerMT and our youth programs! It made me think of the youth who have been with EmpowerMT since middle school and continue to be so integral to our programs as leaders within the organization-young people like Claire Michelson who is now leading the youth programs that she started in as a 7th grader. Recruitment for the Colorful Girls program comes from relationships with the different schools and word of mouth. One facilitator shared that many youth in her small rural community had dropped out of school but she knew they could really benefit from the Colorful Girls program so she started a community group. This attention to meeting the girls where they are at despite their circumstances made me love this program even more.
Empowerment Circle at Phaung Daw Oo Monastic Education School
Young people aged 15-35 years old represent over one third of Myanmar’s population. The Myanmar Government has initiated the Myanmar Youths Policy – which was developed to improve and elevate the role of youth in all sectors of the country and was approved by the Union Government in November of 2017. The youth policy draft was created by youth representatives from across the many diverse regions in Myanmar. There are many historic challenges that Myanmar is just beginning to put attention to and there is a long way to go. There is hope that this commitment to empowering youth will generate positive systemic change and success in this country. I believe wholeheartedly that youth are leaders right now and must be given the chance to elevate their voices and experiences to transform their future and their country. Much gratitude to Colorful Girls and the many collaborative efforts of so many in Myanmar for nurturing the power of youth!
Heidi and Zaw at the Mandalay Community Center
Education and learning never stop, and for professionals in Frenchtown Montana and Vientiane Laos this is absolutely a true statement. Over the last three days Riley Devins, Principal from Frenchtown School District has had the opportunity to rekindle an educational friendships with Sounisa Oun Alom a school leader and Professional Fellowship Fall Participant with the YSEALI program. Riley and Sounisa have been traveling and meeting with multiple organizations and agency’s in Vientiane to discuss educational growth and professional practices.
The first stop along their way was at the Rural Development Agency (RDA). The RDA shared ideas on how they support kids with nutrition, hygiene education and resources. Open discussion occurred on how to continually develop these programs in a positive way that could build on teacher buy-in and community engagement. It is amazing how many positive programs and activities the RDA has in place to support students and families in the rural areas of Laos.
The second day consisted of a morning meeting with Eli Mechanic, Deputy Country Director for Plan International where Sounisa and Riley discussed educational initiatives and talked with Plan International about their new projects and their goals for future projects. In the afternoon, Riley and Sounisa met with the American Center where Sounisa took center stage and presented her experience with the YSEALI Professional Fellowship Program and the changes that it has brought to the education environment within her school. After she presenting, Riley talked about the United States Education System as well as his role in the YSEALI program.
Day three Sounisa and Riley made their way to the Ministry of Education where Riley presented on data collection, google classroom, google drive, and teacher evaluation systems. This professional relationship between the Laos Ministry of Education and Riley and Sounisa will continue to develop. They will be in contact via email regarding data collection techniques and evaluation models that could be universally used in the United States and Laos.
Over the next three days Sounisa and Riley are off to Bokeo, stay tuned to hear how the next chapter of their trip shake out…