As they enter their final years of college or graduate school, some young people dream of starting up their own businesses. Entrepreneurial ability, creative ideas, and a desire to provide a new service or product have been the inspiration for many new ventures, bolstered by the energy and intelligence of youth.
Not too many aspire to found a non-profit organization. But it does happen. One such venture, the World Youth Alliance, or WYA as it is commonly and affectionately known, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year on March 25.
The founder, Anna Halpine, did not dream of starting WYA. Anna was studying music at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City in 1999 when she was asked by friends from her native Toronto to attend some meetings at the United Nations on their behalf since they could not make the trip.
The Commission on Population and Development was holding its annual meeting. At one session a group of young people appeared on the podium and, claiming to speak on behalf of the three billion youth of the world, demanded a right to abortion, sexual rights for children, and the removal of parental oversight in sexual matters. Anna was present in that conference room, listening in total shock and disagreement. Surely these young people did not speak on her behalf—or on behalf most other youth.
Motivated by conscience to respond to such nonsense, Anna returned the next day with a pink flier with a positive message in defense of life and human dignity. She distributed those fliers to the delegates who were in the same conference room. Like bees to honey, a large number of delegates came to her, thanked her for the initiative, and urged her to continue to counter the sexual and reproductive rights agenda that had become a steady bill of fare at the UN. Some delegates even invited Anna to come lecture in their countries.
Anna felt compelled to continue the effort, and with a few like-minded friends, she founded the World Youth Alliance. After years of hard work, in 2004 WYA became a fully accredited non-governmental organization at the UN, being granted “Special” status (like most NGOs) at the Economic and Social Council. As such, the organization can and does submit written statements and make oral declarations to various annual meetings, especially those of the Commission for Social Development, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Population and Development, and the Commission on Sustainable Development. The WYA team currently is working on submissions to the ongoing UN efforts to formulate a series of Sustainable Development Goals that will be a guiding light for global development starting in 2015.
The WYA advocacy team, comprised of well-trained young lawyers, is a constant and formidable presence at key UN meetings, interacting with and supporting friendly country delegates by contributing ideas and appropriate language for insertion in key outcome documents. Some countries even have taken WYA members onto their own delegations for the duration of negotiations involving major issues. This is a tremendous honor and a sign of the international esteem which the organization enjoys. It sometimes requires unimaginable stamina, as deliberations often go on into the wee hours of the morning in a tough give-and-take over acceptable language for the world to abide by.
WYA’s reach has gone well beyond the UN. Today, WYA has regional offices in Brussels, Beirut, Manila, Mexico City, and Nairobi, with headquarters located in a beautifully renovated townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, thanks to generous and caring benefactors who shared the same vision as Anna.
The WYA House is always buzzing with activity and with bright, highly educated and dedicated young people readily and willingly taking on challenges. Training is an important part of any organization and WYA provides plenty of substance to its participants. Youth coming to WYA must pass a “Track A” course, which encompasses a broad range of topics including philosophy, history, and biographies, and writings of individuals who have fought for authentic human rights and dignity.
Other programs include the International Solidarity Forum, Emerging Leaders Conference, and the International Summer Camp for younger members, and there is even a mini-marathon held annually on Roosevelt Island, in the middle of New York City’s East River. Also, formative activities are conducted by the regional offices. Training such young people, who come from many countries and profess different religions, manifests the universal appeal and reach of the WYA message as envisaged by the founder. What these youth learn forms their moral foundation and strengthens their vision for humanity for the remainder of their careers and lives.
Apart from the UN, WYA’s influence extends to covering and influencing developments at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC, the Latin American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, and, most importantly, the European Commission and European Parliament in Brussels. Moreover, the other regional offices are active in promoting the life-affirming agenda in their respective parts of the world.
Currently there are 70,000 individual members under the age of 30, but through organizational affiliation, WYA represents more than one million youth. Thousands more have moved on. WYA has a “mandatory retirement age” of 30 but former members remain part of a global network of alumni, who support the organization in gratitude for the life-affirming experience gathered through training programs, internships, conferences, advocacy training, and numerous other formative activities.
Older folks—those over 30—who encounter WYA can become “Friends of WYA” if they share the same values and convictions, and can sign the WYA Charter, which reads, in part, that a person “affirms the inalienable dignity of the person, defends the intrinsic right to life, nurtures the family, and fosters a social climate favorable to integral development, solidarity, and mutual respect.” It can be found on the WYA website: www.wya.net. More than one million persons have signed the Charter, including direct individual signatures and organizational sign-ons.
Anna Halpine has added a cultural dimension to the WYA organization too. She has been able to integrate successfully her love of music with the creation in 2010 of the WYA Chamber Orchestra, directed by Alexis Kende, an accomplished violinist from a musical family. The current members range in age from 13 to 18 and are students at some of the finest music schools such as Juilliard, Mannes, and Manhattan School of Music. They give concerts in New York City, including an annual concert at the UN to accompany the celebration of the winners of WYA’s Manhattan International Film Festival, another cultural activity. Each year youth from across the globe compete with their own film entries that respect the theme of intrinsic human dignity. Over 170 films were submitted in the 2014 competition.
The cultural part of WYA extends to the art world as well. WYA sponsors an art exhibition at its New York headquarters, which has seen a growing number of national and international participants each year.
The members of WYA deserve praise for dedicating several years of their young lives at the initial phase of their careers to work for noble ideals. In 15 years the WYA alumni have become numerous, many are married with children, and some of their offspring are reaching the “minimum admission age” of 10.
Anna Halpine remains at the core as Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the WYA Foundation. She is assisted by 25 officers located at headquarters and at the five offices abroad. WYA’s mission is needed now more than ever to uphold authentic, intrinsic human rights, to defend human dignity and enable genuine human welfare, solidarity, and development to flourish. The youthful voices of WYA are essential, especially at the UN, given that they bring a message of conviction, clarity, competence, and confidence that stands out in a place where many delegates and NGOs have difficulty differentiating between a human need and a human right.
Some are wishing WYA a happy birthday, others, happy anniversary. In French one phrase covers both; so “Heureuse Anniversaire” to Anna Halpine and present, former, and future members of the organization—and “Ad Multos Annos”!