A Nonprofit Leader from New Orleans Reflects on the Benefits of Cross-border Learning

A Nonprofit Leader from New Orleans Reflects on the Benefits of Cross-border Learning

From July 9 to 12, representatives of the New Orleans-based Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) traveled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil to take part in a learning exchange with staff and beneficiaries of Rede Cidadã (The Citizen’s Network), a nongovernmental organization that has trained and placed more than 60,000 youth in jobs or apprenticeships over 15 years. 

Since its founding in 2004, YEP has grown to be the largest and most comprehensive organization in New Orleans serving the needs of vulnerable youth through an array of community-based education, mentoring, enrichment, and employment-readiness programs.

YEP staff began their learning immersion with a visit to a juvenile detention center where Rede Cidadã works. There, they spoke with members of the facility staff as well as some of the young people themselves.

“The Brazilian juvenile justice system is remarkably progressive,” reflected YEP Executive Director Melissa Sawyer. “They have relatively short sentences for young people and focus on providing rehabilitation and training opportunities.”

Despite cultural differences—like living in favelas—the young people in Belo Horizonte have much in common with the youth YEP works with in New Orleans. “They worry about living in communities where employment opportunities are limited,” Sawyer said, “but they’re also hopeful about the future. That resonated with us.” 

Adding depth to the exchange experience, Sawyer and her YEP colleagues participated in a training exercise during which 20 youth, ages 18 to 24, were led through 10 competencies—such as teamwork, problem solving, and commitment—considered critical not only for employability, but also for other areas of life like being part of a community. To connect with the young women and men they serve, and to make the learning process accessible and engaging, Rede Cidadã uses nontraditional teaching methods involving music, movement, and role playing. “There was a lot of laughter, warmth, and interaction between the young people and staff,” Sawyer recalled. 

Darrin McCall, YEP Director of Programs, participates in a Rede Cidadã training exercise on values.

Emphasizing social-emotional competencies and focusing on connecting young people with their communities were familiar themes for the YEP team. “We also work to increase connectivity to family, neighborhood, and community because young people don’t live in isolation,” said Sawyer. 

During their visit, YEP representatives gained insight into Rede Cidadã’s employability profiling system, which identifies young people’s strengths and assets. “They’ve designed the intake and orientation process so young people can really think through what they want to do and what they’re passionate about,” Sawyer explained. “This is something we’d like to look at more closely.”

Sawyer and her colleagues were impressed to learn that in Brazil, major companies are required to hire five percent of their staff as young apprentices. “If there were systems and structures in place in the U.S. to incentivize companies, large and small, to hire and give young people opportunities to be trained and employed,” Sawyer said, “we’d see a big difference in terms of young peoples’ self-esteem and outlook on life. There’s a lot the U.S. can learn from Brazil’s progressive youth employment policies.”

Gaining a global perspective and learning strategies and approaches that can be adapted to help young people in the United States succeed was a major goal for this New Orleans-Belo Horizonte exchange. “It was also an important reminder of how interconnected we all are,” Sawyer said. “We share many of the same struggles, hopes, and fears no matter which country we call home.”  

Indeed, when it comes to helping young people thrive, there should be no borders.