Why, in the richest country in the world, are so many homeless people living on the streets with nowhere to go?

We are surprised that American youths don’t know how to kill a chicken!

These were some of the many questions and observations posed by 60 Sub-Saharan African students and their teachers when they came to Berkeley to participate in a 3-week intensive Y-PLAN studio. This program—collaboration between CC+S and Ayusa Global Youth Exchange—brought young people and adults from Mali, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso to the university campus for the Youth Leadership Program with Sub-Saharan Africa sponsored by the US Department of State. Two groups of 24 high school students and six educators were selected by school administrators in their home countries to come to Berkeley to participate in the 3-week Y-PLAN process—one in Fall 2013 and the other in Spring 2014.

Bridging Cultures

Y-PLAN Africa was a global exchange in the deepest sense. This was the first time all of the students had been out of their home countries, on an airplane, and into an English-speaking context. Only one of the teachers had ever been out of Africa and in the US. It was the first time Y-PLAN had been translated into French, and adapted for use by students living in more rural settings and learning within classical pedagogical structures. It was also the first time that adult allies participated in the Y-PLAN process side-by-side with the students—while simultaneously receiving coaching and feedback from the Y-PLAN team along the way.

The values and goals of Y-PLAN were unfamiliar to both the students and the instructors. Accustomed to classrooms with 80-100 students, this experience was radically different from their educational environment at home. The African educators were also greatly challenged, and even a little cautious, about participating in a new pedagogical process where they would be required to be as active and vulnerable as the students.

Natsumi Iimura, our seasoned Y-PLAN instructor—who is also fluent in French— worked with the students and teachers every day in intensive studios and workshops, and on field excursions. Because her academic training included study in the French educational system in Paris, Natsumi was able to form a bridge between the two worlds. Following the Y-PLAN methodology, Natsumi encouraged each participant to step up, speak out. She helped them actively interact with others, with the learning materials, and with the urban environment. She also directed their learning toward social action and challenged them to articulate how they wanted to be dynamic leaders in their own communities.

At their core, Y-PLAN projects open up traditional avenues of power and decision-making to young people—especially those who are marginalized by city planning and political systems. This was especially daunting for the Africans. Many were anxious about rigid political structures in their home communities, and felt powerless to make change. While they were cautiously concerned about all of this, it was also new and exciting to them.

Sean Cochrane, the Ayusa Program Coordinator, had just returned from a Peace Corps sojourn in Mali and Guinea. Within the Y-PLAN context, Sean also helped forge bridges between cultures. He explained things like how to use crosswalks, locking doors, and shower handles to the Africans. And he helped those of us on the US side to understand how to be conscious of culturally specific issues such as religion, diet, and time. A majority of the students were Muslims, so right away on the first day, we realized we needed to adapt the Y-PLAN curricula to allow time and space for three prayer sessions per day for those who needed it. Fortunately, Berkeley is a place where “halal” food is available, so we were able to quickly build in that dietary change as well.

Sean encouraged us to be patient as the students adapted to a new pedagogical culture and a more fast-paced sense of time. He also gave us a heads-up that many of the young people would be wearing their “flyest” clothes. He also gave us a heads-up that because fashion is a primary creative outlet for many young Africans, the students were wearing their “flyest” clothes. He cautioned us that they might not be comfortable participating in planned activities that required getting their clothing messy with materials we used in the Y-PLAN studio.

Each evening, after spending a full day in intensive studio-based Y-PLAN sessions and guided field excursions, the participants faced additional challenges. Many had to navigate through various Bay Area transit systems (BART, bus, car, walking) to return “home” to a volunteer American host family (some of whom did not speak French)—some more than 45 minutes away from Berkeley.

Even with all of these challenges, miraculously all of the ingredients aligned. For many of us, this was one of the richest, deepest and most meaningful Y-PLAN experiences we have ever had—even those of us who don’t speak French! The students and educators came with open hands and hearts, ready to learn, ready to be active, and ready to return to their country equipped with deepened leadership capacities. And because of this, the Y-PLAN team was energized and motivated to deliver a high level educational and emotional experience to each African participant.

Lastly, Baba Sy, one of the adult allies from Cote d’Ivoire (pictured left), gave a beautiful speech after the student presentations to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. His words capture the whole experience:

Good afternoon everybody

Dear teachers and coordinators of the Y-Plan Program

Dear colleagues African educators

Dear host families

Dear students and other guests

We come to the end of three weeks working on the Y-Plan program. For this, you have met and worked in peers to figure out your challenges.

That experience was a discovery for everyone to know one's skills and weaknesses. You caught this chance to learn more about the others and how to behave as a team.

Through this process, you walked around the city; you met people and visited many sites to gather more information. Then you set your action plan and made proposals for better changes.

Through this opportunity, I want you to understand that Y-Plan should not stop here. It must go beyond this city, beyond this country, further and further.

When you go back home, you must remember that you have to sensitize, to teach the Y-Plan process and set an action plan. Then, hand in hand go into the action to make changes for a sustainable world.

I'll catch this opportunity and say, On behalf of the African group, our thanks go to:

The Mayor of the city of Berkeley for his assistance

The teachers and coordinators of the Y-Plan Program for their availability

The host families for their kindness

The students for their involvement

and all other persons who have made this achievement possible.

Y-PLAN forever! Thank you! Baba Sy