Every year since 2004, a group of youth and adult leaders from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the surrounding areas congregates to start a peacebuilding journey. They complete activities in the Philippines before going to the US to take part in a residential programme, The Philippines Youth Leadership Program, run by the International Training of Office of Northern Illinois. Now in its twelfth year, the programme (which was initially called Access to Community and Civic Enrichment for Students in the Philippines, or ACCESS), has trained over 500 Filipinos in peacebuilding work. Mostly from Mindanao, they come from a diverse range of Indigenous, Muslim, and Christian backgrounds.
Initially, the focus of PYLP was on diversity, tolerance, interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution, community service, civic engagement, leadership training, and action plan development. The work now also focuses on environmental advocacy and activism.
In 2015, there were 24 youth and 4 adult participants.
Professor Dr. Susan Russell, who, with Dr. Lina Ong is co-director of the programme, said:
Educating young people in areas of long-standing conflicts is one of the most effective investments in peace. In Mindanao, conflict has ebbed and flowed for over four decades. It will take that long to really achieve a peaceful society, at least. So young people are a worthy investment in future leaders who can reach out beyond their own parochial ethnic or geographic or religious group.
Alumni of the programme, who are all members of the ACCESS-PYLP Alumni Association (headed by Victoria “Dee” Bat-og as President), assist in the selection and pre-departure orientation process. Youth participants are selected on the basis of their prior active involvement in community service, leadership skills, and academic performance. Serving as mentors, adult participants are selected, on their prior involvement in community service and youth training and development.
The programme has three phases: pre-departure selection and orientation; the programme proper; and, post-programme follow-on activities.
Pre-departure: at home
In the pre-departure orientation, participants learn about the role of youth in change and development, environmental project identification, assessing project impact and sustainability, teamwork, journal development as a learning tool, and the Mindanao situation. They use their new knowledge as background information for the workshops they attend in the US.
In the US
At Northern Illinois University, participants meet diverse US faculty and facilitators, including US Muslim community activists and organisers. They conduct workshops on environmental issues in the Philippines, the role of youth in environmental sustainability and stewardship, peer mediation, diversity and conflict management, the health effects of industrial food production, developing action plans for environmental community service projects, community sponsored agriculture, youth leadership and civic engagement, art and hip-hop for social change, social media as tools for advocacy, effective communication for community organising, and learning together with US peers.
The purpose of the programme is not for similar people to meet, but to build bridges across diverse groups. Muslims, Lumads (indigenous people from Mindanao), and Christians eat, travel, learn, sing, play, dance and share their hopes and frustrations together.
A lasting contribution: back in the Philippines
Within three months of returning to Mindanao, participants implement volunteer community projects. And later. NIU staff reunite with the PYLP participants in follow-up meetings in the Philippines.
PYLP is a youth-led initiative to do community service work that cross-cuts ethnic and religious divides. It is a first step in training young leaders for Mindanao - Susan Russell
Since 2014, the ACCESS PYLP Alumni Association, with the assistance of countless local volunteers, has been actively engaged interfaith work, building peace one person and one activity at a time. Its community projects focus on:
- Advocacy work (such as interfaith dialogues calling for the need to protect the environment together.
- Development work such as organic agriculture development.
- Welfare (including charity work, providing school supplies and supporting people in depressed communities
- Relief work, such as medical & dental missions that provide hygiene, basic medicine, food, water, and blankets to survivors of conflict and natural disasters.
PYLP has won awards in both the US and the Philippines, and the ACCESS-PYLP Alumni Association was one of the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations (TAYO) 2014 Awardees at the Presidential Palace of the Philippines on February 24, 2015.
PYLP's training manuals and books, which contain reports of volunteer community service projects) can be accessed and downloaded here.