How do you bring about lasting change? Caroline Avanzo was a dedicated human rights lawyer and worked for 15 years in various NGOs and for the United Nations. She advocated for the victims of human rights violations and sought to influence state policies and practices. And yet the violations continued—the arbitrary detentions, the torturing and even the killings. So when she turned 40, she decided to take a different approach and seek to “influence the positive” rather than try to “fix the negative”.
I really wanted to work upstream, with the youth, as I have a very positive perspective on the nature of human beings. We all have so many qualities and gems inside us that are just waiting to be developed! Cultivating these internal gems yields the best in human beings and contributes directly to the well-being and progress of society.
At the same time, Caroline’s own kids had entered their teenage years and her family hosted a youth camp at their home. Caroline was impressed by the transformation she saw in these young people in just a couple days. It confirmed her belief that if you create a nourishing environment, focus on constructive thinking, and provide caring mentors, youth can flourish very quickly.
Not being an educationalist herself, Caroline set out to find resources that were already available to youth through other organizations and started learning about their programs. Eventually she identified a gap she felt called to fill: bringing together all the different aspects she had identified as crucial to help youth develop their potential: introspection, inspiration, action, and the arts.
So she started Gemmes (French for “gems”) to create programs for youth based on these four principles and generate synergies with existing organizations and programs. Gemmes was formally incorporated in France in October 2020 and the team works entirely remotely.
Because of COVID-19, they started off providing workshops online. This actually helped them jump-start their program. Rather than having to worry about logistics, they were able to focus on the content and build programs that are robust and engaging. These programs fall into three broad categories:
Workshops for Youth – The youth educational programs (currently offered only in French) are designed for young people between 12 and 24. The workshops provide the youth with an opportunity to understand themselves better, to analyze the world around them and to become agents of change for our collective well-being. They are led by facilitators (called “animators”) who are thoroughly trained, are young themselves, and care deeply about the youth. The workshops are built around the four pillars of Gemmes:
Educational Kits for Teachers – The SPARKS project is an international series of short documentary films featuring youth on the five continents who have undergone a positive personal transformation through crisis: COVID, racism, environmental crisis, etc. These inspiring videos are accompanied by educational materials for reflection and action and cover topics such as responsibility, empathy, and social justice. They are designed for teachers around the globe to use in the classroom and are available in English and French.
Educator’s Space – Gemmes is also creating a learning space for all those who work with youth: parents, teachers, animators and mentors. It’s a way to come together and develop a new vision of the youth. As part of this effort, Gemmes offers workshops for parents that complement the workshops for the youth.
Having been in business for less than a year, Gemmes is already making headway. Both the workshops for the youth and the workshops for the parents have been very well received. In fact, the parents were pleasantly surprised by the positive effect of these workshops on the youth. When you create an environment of love and encouragement, even the shy ones come out of their shells and you can see the gems inside.
We’ve really had proof that there’s so much untapped potential in these youth… They don’t even know they have it in them.
The team is also developing the Gemmes community. Many of the youth from the first workshop are now on a Youth Consultative Board and offer input into the program. Periodically, Gemmes also asks for artistic contributions from the youth to share on Instagram. They are finding creative ways to help the youth keep in touch and encourage each other.
Lessons from the Journey
With a clear vision and the energy to achieve it, Caroline and her team have learned a lot in their short tenure together. Here are just a few of the pearls of wisdom they have gleaned:
Potential of the Youth
When asked what she’s learned through this process, Caroline immediately came back to the youth themselves and the potential they possess.
It’s one thing to know it in theory, but I have been amazed by what I have been witnessing: the discussions, the reflection, the depth, the transformation. For example, a youth who was very shy, in the end, decided to sing in front of an audience or share something very personal. This is proof of this immense potential that’s only waiting to be unlocked.
Importance of Connection
Another lesson was how closely-knit a group can become in such a short time. There’s a deep longing for connection among young people (and the rest of us too). The youth are like magnets, just waiting for the right environment to come together.
It’s also about how empowered the youth feel when the animator really shows them that they’re there for them and they value what the youth have to say. I’ve seen in their eyes, in their comments, how important it is to them to feel that connection with the animators.
Culture of Excellence and Love
Caroline shared that she’s learning it is possible to create a culture which combines excellence and high standards with care, love, flexibility and understanding. It’s not either/or, but rather both/and. And this is exciting new territory: How do you nurture a culture that combines both excellence and love? It’s not easy. The Gemmes team doesn’t just seek to apply these principles in their workshops; they strive to apply them in their own lives and in their interactions as a team. And this takes courage, vulnerability, self-compassion and love.
Learning is Never-Ending
This is hard work. It’s not easy to always be discovering new blind spots. When working with youth, it’s not only about what you bring to them, but also about developing the ability to learn alongside them. It’s learning how to embody these values and principles and build a culture of learning from the ground up.
It’s basically a never-ending process, this commitment to growing and learning. And if you create the right atmosphere, we can all really grow together on that path.
And because there is no “end point”, it becomes even more important to celebrate the successes along the way, otherwise there is a risk of getting discouraged.
Diversity is Essential
The Gemmes coordination team went through the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment as a team. Not only does this process help individuals identify their personality types, it helps the team as a whole understand its strengths and weaknesses. When a team is composed of similar individuals, they tend to work smoothly together. But they are also more likely to develop blind spots that aren’t addressed. By contrast, a diverse team benefits from a wider variety of viewpoints—and wisdom—to draw upon.
I would encourage organizations to take the MBTI assessment when they can. It extends well beyond whether or not your styles are compatible, to that deeper level of functioning. In our case, we became aware that our coordination team was composed of very similar profiles, which was leading to “group think”. Going forward, we will seek to include a wider range of views and perspectives in our decision making process in order to reach the best possible decisions.
If Adults Only Knew…
When asked what she wished adults understood about youth, Caroline’s insights were invaluable.
It’s How We See the Youth that Matters
Gemmes has created a workshop for parents called Fresh Look, based on the findings of Maria Montessori on teenagers. The number-one outcome of this workshop is:
The best way to help the youth around us… is to change the way we see them!
It’s about being able to look beyond the negative reactions—anger, resentment, etc.—to what’s behind them. Often the youth are responding to an injustice they see and feel. They are keenly aware of justice and they know when it has been violated. Once parents are able to see this, they have a deeper understanding of the situation and they are able to better respond in the relationship.
We Can’t Change Youth; We Can Change the Environment
In the Fresh Look workshop, parents learn where their responsibility actually lies:
We can’t act on the youth. Our role is not to “fix” them. But what we can do is act on the environment. It’s the environment, which in turn, can have a positive influence on the youth.
When the environment is open, loving and encouraging, the youth respond positively. When the youth are free to really explore and make mistakes and not be perfect, they thrive. The role of the adults is to create the appropriate container and “the rest happens, in a way, on its own.”
The Magical Effect of the Arts
Art is a vehicle to reach beyond our day-to-day lives and touch something deep within us. In this modern society, we are not completely aware of the power of the arts. Art is a means of connecting people almost instantly, of conveying positive messages with a lasting impact, of tapping into the richness of being human and reminding us of who we truly are and how united we can be.
Joy and Laughter are Good for the Soul
What Gemmes offers is deep, soulful work, both for the youth and their parents. Sometimes it’s not easy. Often it requires traveling new territory and learning new concepts. It can get uncomfortable at times. So it’s important to remember to laugh.
Sometimes we have these really crazy moments where we just put the music on and dance or sing. It’s important to mix serious reflection with moments of expressing these very spontaneous and beautiful emotions of joy and laughter.
Caroline and her team are well on their way to making a difference for youth and their parents. They are finding ways to tap into this immense potential and help the youth see who they truly are. What would happen if we saw the youth in this different light? What possibilities would open up when we see young people as champions of justice and agents of change?