Happy Birthday World Youth Alliance: The Founder’s Story

anna Today is WYA’s 14th anniversary. Here is an Interview with our Founder, Anna Halpine.

1. Tell us a little bit about WYA’s story, how did it all start?

In 1999, the World Youth Alliance was founded in New York City at the United Nations. At a conference on Population and Development, thirty two young people were brought into the negotiations and given the floor. They stated that they represented all three billion of the world’s youth, and demanded the following: abortion as a human right, sexual rights for children, and a deletion of parents’ rights. At a conference convened to discuss the needs of the world’s people, basic needs including access to clean water, sanitation, education, nutrition, health care, and employment were not addressed. As a reaction of conscience, I and a few others went back into the assembly the next morning and distributed flyers which stated that these young people did not represent all the youth of the world. I called for a discussion on topics addressing basic human rights and necessities. The statement was well-received by many delegations and I was requested to maintain a permanent presence at the United Nations, as well as to work with young people from the delegates’ countries.

2. Did you ever envisage WYA developing into an International Organization with over a million individual and organizational members?

No! It was a reaction of conscience to stand up that first day at the UN. I have no idea what would come of it. WYA is a great example of the amazing things that can happen in your life, and that just come to you when you are willing to stand up for the truth and do what needs to be done.

3. Did you ever worry that WYA wouldn’t take off?

There was no worry. First, as I said, there was no plan. It was a reaction of conscience. Then, at the invitation of the UN delegates themselves, we began to invite others to join us. Because of the necessity of what we were doing, we acted with confidence. We knew others would join us. And that confidence was justified. In that first year, as I had meetings in Europe, at the EU, across North America, and with countless diplomats, young people, and professors, not one person asked why were were doing this. They only said how thrilled they were that something like this was beginning, and offered their help. Friendships extended in those first days continue to be the backbone of the WYA.

4. Today is WYA’s anniversary, can you give us some memories, happy moments, setbacks?

There are so many memories! The early ones are somehow still the most representative. We were a small group of young people (3, then 4) living in my apartment with my three other roommates in the Northernmost tip of Manhattan (207th street!). We gave WYA everything we had. We finally found an office, so thrilling, which was a broom closet in the basement of a convent on 207th street. The convent was 5 stories and largely empty, but this was the space they offered to us. We took out the brooms, painted it, taped the internet line to the wall, and moved in. The space was probably 4×9, but we fit two full-time staff in there and up to 7 interns at one point. We had no heat in the winter and no air-conditioning in the summer, and rats peeking in at the basement grilling. We learned to fight cockroaches effectively (they were everywhere!), and, just before we moved out had a termite infestation…

We learned a lot in those early days. The most important thing we learned was how to identify young people, advisers, Board members and friends who truly wanted to help us with our mission. Since we had nothing (less than nothing!) to give, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to learn what it took to identify these wonderful people.

An amazing thing happened to us on December 8th, 2004. An incredible family gave us a townhouse, to be our international headquarters, on the Upper East Side. We moved in on Feb 28th, 2006. Now that we had something wonderful to offer – a beautiful place for our members to intern and work – those lessons learned about the identification of our members who were committed to the mission became invaluable.

That’s been the case throughout WYA. I can’t really think of any setbacks. We’ve had difficult times – mostly related to our struggle to slowly raise money, and grow our work to what we have always envisioned – but I’ve learned that each of these difficult times, if embraced and truly lived well, is a preparation for the great gifts that follow. So now I rather look forward to them, knowing that once we get through them, something great will come. They are a bit like the labor pains of a woman – forgotten, when the gift of her child appears.

5. As the founder of WYA, what does WYA represent to you?

First and foremost, WYA is a tremendous gift. It is clearly a mission that has been entrusted to me, not something that I have just invented, and, as such, is a gift that I have been given that has filled my life with countless blessings, friendships, and experiences that I could never have imagined or experienced had I done only what I wanted with my life.  It has been a school of life for me; teaching me the joy of giving myself fully to others, and to those who are most vulnerable, and experiencing the great happiness and peace which that gives. It has been the source of some of my greatest friendships and collaborations, and place in which I have been able to pour out all my talents, energy and capacity over these past 14 years.

I have learned that God is never outdone in generosity. Every little thing that I have given to WYA, every sacrifice – which may have looked significant to me at the time – has been outdone in the blessings that I have received through my time with WYA. I have only happiness when I look back at these years, and gratitude that I was able to say my small yes to doing this wonderful work.

6. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I first thought I would be a nun – I wanted to do something great for God! In high school, I was very, very moved by the Rwandan genocide and the problem of western population control being forced on other countries. At that time, Mary Ann Glendon led the Vatican delegation to the International Women’s Conference in Beijing, and I thought that I would go to Harvard and become a lawyer, to work with her, and research and investigate the abuses at the heart of these catastrophes. It was already well known that the priorities of western foreign aid were leading to horrible outcomes in these other countries. As it turned out, I decided to pursue my love of music, and did my degree in piano performance. That led me to New York, to continue my music studies — I thought I was going to be a professor of music, with a chamber music and solo performing career on the side.

By coming to New York, my music led me to be here, available to attend that first UN conference, and found the WYA. All of these dreams have been fulfilled through WYA — except my performing career in music. Some of my family say that I’ve become more like a conductor, with a global youth organization as my orchestra!

7. I imagine you must be busy overseeing WYA and its sister foundation, what is your typical day like?

My typical day starts the night before. I always plan my next day at that time, figuring out my meetings and deadlines, and trying to allocate the early morning hours to my most important tasks. That way I can try to balance keeping on top of the daily work that needs to be done, while also pushing new projects, and important writing and deadlines forward. My most productive hours are the ones right before all our staff get to work, since after they arrive I like to focus on their needs and respond to them throughout the day.

I have found that the key thing is keeping communication open with emails and phone calls regularly, but also recognizing that those things are additional to the work that has to be done; and putting them aside when other big projects just need to be focused on.

8. What message would you give to young people today?

I have really learned the importance of both following your dreams, and continually searching for – and being open to – the still, small voice inside that is willing to guide us in finding our path and joy in life. It usually leads us to places we don’t think we want to go — but if we have the courage to follow it, we will find that all our talents, dreams and aspirations are fulfilled in ways we could never have imagined. Sometimes they can seem to be in contradiction – as when I had to leave my music career to work full-time for WYA — and, though those moments are painful, it is important to listen to this small voice inside. That can take setting time aside to really listen and be quiet — and then courage is needed to follow. At those moments it is important not to be afraid; something wonderful is around the corner, and only requires our courage to follow what is being asked of us, before it can be revealed. In such a way, life becomes a wonderful adventure; it is something discovered, not just planned, and leads to a great joy and enthusiasm in both doing our best, but remaining constantly open to the gifts and joys that will simply be given to us.