How the crisis will affect YMCA leaders around the world

Date: 16 March 2021

The World YMCA perspective: How the Coronavirus crisis will affect YMCA leaders around the world

Article for online YMCA World Urban Network magazine, by Carlos Sanvee, World YMCA Secretary General

One way of another, the COVID pandemic has affected almost all YMCA staff and volunteers worldwide.  Some got sick or lost their lives. Some are grieving their loved ones.  Some have lost their jobs.  Life is not as it was.

When you are leading an organisation, especially a youth one like ours, people from the Movement and outside expect you to make the right moves in these times of crisis. But how could we have foreseen this global chaos? We had to learn the hard way how to comfort our colleagues, how to motivate our teams, how to take the right actions and how to make difficult decisions while juggling with our own personal challenges.

We may feel lonely as leaders, but in fact there are many good people alongside us. 2020 saw the global YMCA showing extraordinary solidarity, as Movements supported each other in prayer, in kind, and in cash. And for me, the role of World YMCA governance in the form of its Executive Committee has been indispensable: good people were working together every step of the way, and it was the Committee which worked with our team to develop our COVID-19 response strategy of ‘Resilience’, ‘Recovery’ and ‘Reimagination’.

What did we learn from this pandemic and what do we need to ensure that we resist it, and overcome it?

Our Resilience remains strong and focused

Resilience is the ability to face uncertainties. It is also about handling difficulties in the long run. We need to strengthen our institutional resilience. And for this, we need to strengthen our individual courage.

We must manage our energy to ensure we can keep going: which means taking care of our physical and mental health, acting one step at a time and acknowledging that we are human beings going through an unprecedented situation. The launch of one of the first YMCA global Communities of Impact, focusing on mental health, has shown that self-compassion, self-care and courage are key to young people’s daily lives. Let’s apply the same to ours.

Let’s hold on to our faith. We are told 365 times in the Bible, “Fear not”. One commandment for each day of 2021. Our Christian roots are the foundation of our actions. Let’s be bold in our thinking, by rebuking the dark projections and by aligning with God’s will for our organisation: to support those in need. When I see how young people working with YMCA Lebanon reached out to the families affected by the blast last August, we can be sure that the Hand of God protects our work and our workers.

From a global perspective, we have to collaborate even more. We are not alone. We are a worldwide Movement, made of people from different cultures and skills.

Let’s continue to join forces to support one another, and let’s learn from our group members good practices and essential tips. ‘To go fast, go alone; but to go far, go together.’ In times of crisis, the key is to mobilise the leadership and the entire Movement, to journey together.  That’s why – between April and August 2020 – we organized Leaders’ Talks and then ‘Padare’ online debates in over 50 countries, to source the best of others’ and our own wisdom on how to respond to crisis. We need more than ever to share our knowledge and resources to find solutions together. Padare showed how much wisdom people had in common, and it led to a publication which I think is going to be vital for YMCA leaders and planners for years to come: the  Becoming an ‘Adaptive YMCA’ for the 21st Century handbook.

Our Recovery process is creative and innovative

We are inspired by the young people we serve. This so-called COVID generation has sacrificed a lot but yet, they find strength and courage in reaching out to each other and in innovating. It is up to us to follow their example and to get ready for what is to come.

It starts by changing our mindsets. This crisis has challenged us as women and men, and as leaders. We won’t – we can’t – lead the same way. If our societies have survived so far, it is because of all the workers in the shadows who kept our economy going: the bus driver, the nurse, the cleaner, the cook, the delivery biker… We have learnt that our neighbours are essential to the big picture. The pandemic is global, but part of the solutions is local.

How do we make decisions? Our strategies and projections are all upside down. We were used to planning for the long-term, but we had to learn how to react in the short-term. Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Let’s reshape our perspectives and let’s be bold in opening our minds to think out of the box. We need to stop seeing our structures in a hierarchical way. It is time to fully empower our staff and volunteers for them to raise their voices and share their ideas.

Finally, we find opportunities. We need to ensure that the crisis doesn’t blind us. We need to look out for opportunities for our Movement to grow and to change. Let’s be more agile and more inclusive in our processes, and let’s be creative and innovative. The world has changed, the challenges are great, but so are our chances to shine and conquer. I believe 2021 is a year for opportunities.

Our future will be the way we Reimagine it: fair and bright

In their ‘Inequality Virus’ launched on 25 January 2021, OXFAM highlighted that “The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic” (Source). As Leaders, we have to change the mentality to impose fairness and equity as non-negotiable basics for the societies we are living in.

Leading to fairness: The first race we are running as human beings is the COVID vaccination process. It is a journey which the world must and will take together, at all levels, from regulators, governments, vaccine producers to civil society organisations and individuals. If the vaccine is the ticket to exit the pandemic, the right to obtain it should be a human right for all. As an international Movement, we have to call for an equal and inclusive access to the vaccine, for a clear ethos in communicating about it, and we have to pledge our full support in supporting the campaign.

People from Peru waiting in a YMCA sport facilities to get vaccinated

Leading to digital: One of the key observations post-COVID is how digital became the norm. Many YMCAs are already training our youth in getting the right technical, design and programming skills: YMCA Paisley in Scotland, YMCA Aruba in Latin America or YMCA of Northern Alberta – Edmonton in Canada to name just a few. Meetings, classes, sport sessions, shopping: everything seems to be online and we can see some kind of “digital uberisation” happening. We must accompany young people in this journey to ensure quality and safety: technical competencies but also data privacy, mental health, digital gaps or online etiquettes… Ensuring education and fair access to digital is essential.

Leading to hope: In the end, it all comes down to hope. With hope, we keep moving. With hope, we keep motivating. With hope, we keep living. Our world is different, so let’s be so. In times of discouragement or despair, we must remember to look back at how our Movement survived conflicts, wars, diseases and internal conflict. We must believe the humanity has the inner resources to thrive. And above all, we must trust that God has a plan, and we are His workers, equipped for the harvest and strengthened at every step of the journey.

Note: The World Urban Network is comprised of YMCA leaders from cities around the world who are committed to advancing the Y’s mission, leadership development, and international collegiality.