Representing England at the International Congress of Youth Voices in Puerto Rico
Maud Webster | Norwich, England It was April when I found out I’d successfully received a place at the International Congress of Youth Voices, co-organised by Dave Eggers (whose novels I love!), to represent England in Puerto Rico. However, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Last year’s inaugural conference looked amazing from what I could see online, and I read the manifesto on the Guardian’s website, but I didn’t really know what the programme would look like, at all. Essentially, the Congress is a large meeting of roughly 140 young people representing around thirty different countries, gathering annually together to learn about social action and activism. It also serves to create a plan of how to start tackling some key issues - ranging from financial inequality, to climate change, to education reform - as a unified, worldwide group. I’ll admit something I’m a bit ashamed of. It seems I always attend these types of events with the mindset that, sure, I’ll meet some interesting people my age, but I’ll probably come out learning most from the workshops and speakers. This preconception always comes, I think, from the idea that adults have the most experience and thus I’ll learn the most from them. However, this always proves misguided and I absolutely believe the best part from these types of opportunities are the other “young” people you meet. At the Congress, I was overwhelmed (in a good way!) with the calibre of articulation, knowledge, and simply passion invested into their activism and writing. I’ve come away from the week with lifelong friends, as well as allies and supporters when it comes to working on or starting activism projects. I poured over the profiles of the other delegates when they went up on the website, and felt a familiar mix of excitement (to meet all these fascinating people and learn from them and their stories) and utter intimidation (feeling completely out of my depth). However, I think both of these feelings were ultimately healthy and beneficial. It meant I prepared hard for the conference, to be as informed as I could about the issues we’d be discussing. It meant I threw myself into meeting people (as much as an introverted, easily confused person could!). It meant I prepared myself to approach the week with an open mind, ready to actively listen rather than take a large role in vocalizing anything myself. This is all not to say the speakers who were at the conference were mundane: quite the opposite; the “line-up” was an immense collection of artists, journalists, and activists, all imparting their advice for us, supposedly their successors. The conference was three full days. The first day introduced us to the situation in Puerto Rico: especially after Hurricane Maria (but still before) the nation has had a complicated political climate, considering they’re part of America but cannot participate directly in their political system. There is also a massive chat scandal involving Puerto Rico’s ex-governor, Ricardo Antonio Rosselló, which led enraged citizens onto the streets to protest his actions and their unfair government: this empowering action led to his resignation from office. We got to meet people who had been involved in the protests, and their dedication to the cause was completely inspiring. The second day, was the congress day itself: we spent a tiring, but ultimately productive eight hours discussing the structure of the congress for the upcoming year. Considering the congress was comprised of 120 people who consider themselves leaders, but not necessarily diplomats, the decisions we managed to come to were impressive. We had the privilege of spending the day debating in the El Capitolio building, which is beautiful and in the heart of the Old Town. Finally, we spent the third full day of the conference completing service projects with the organization Caras Con Causa around disadvantaged areas of Puerto Rico. I spent nearly two weeks in PR in total, and absolutely loved the island and its warm, stoic people; the Puerto Ricians I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with were utterly lovely and the country itself is beautiful. I am very grateful to The International Congress of Youth Voices & all their staff for this opportunity to represent my city & country [Norwich, UK], as well as my local arts organization [Young Norfolk Arts Trust]. If you’re interested in representing your country at the next Congress, get in touch with the team on the website here. I cannot recommend the experience enough. Maybe I’ll even see you there!