Young Leaders Drive Solutions to Social Challenges in Southeast Asia

We asked three inspiring team leaders from the 2020 YSEALI Seeds for the Future grant competition’s winning projects to share their success stories and words of wisdom for future program participants.

Do you know anyone who is improving social inclusion and creating career opportunities by teaching sign language to future deaf teachers in Vietnam? How about someone working towards breaking stigma by using the power of storytelling to create constructive dialogue about LGBT+ issues in Cambodia? Or someone reducing hunger and food waste in Davao City, Philippines?

Read on, and if you also want to become a change-maker in Southeast Asia, consider applying for the 2021 YSEALI Seeds for the Future Program here. Applications are open until November 8, 2020.

Tien Nguyen, Project Future Deaf Teachers, Vietnam

Project goal: Improving social inclusion and creating career opportunities for Deaf people in Mekong Delta through Sign Language Teaching.

Project Leader, Tien Nguyen, with students during a workshop in Vietnam

What inspired you to start your project? What do you hope to achieve?

We are a deaf-led team and have experience working with the deaf community for many years on projects in various regions around Vietnam. With our experience and the needs of the beneficiary community, we created this first-ever deaf-led project focused on sign language teaching in Vietnam. As sign language is not recognized as an official language by the Vietnamese government, and it is not taught in many deaf schools around the country, this leads to barriers in communication, education, and job opportunities for many deaf people in our country.

Seeing the needs of our community, we initiated the Future Deaf Teachers project targeting deaf teachers from nine provinces in the Mekong Delta Region of Vietnam. After participating in various project activities, these teachers will come back to their hometowns and promote sign language to the local community, including deaf and hearing people. The ultimate goal is to create sign language teaching job opportunities for deaf people and to raise awareness about sign language, deaf people, and their culture.

What are some of the milestones of your project?

We have already successfully implemented four training sessions with the participation of 15 future deaf teachers from nine provinces. We also created the Sign Language News Program that aims to deliver news on the pandemic and government announcements in sign language for deaf people in Vietnam. When the pandemic started, we realized there was unequal access to information for deaf people. Thanks to the program, deaf people get to understand the situation and how to protect themselves. In seven months, the program has gained more than 92,700 views. It became a reliable and popular channel of information for deaf people in Vietnam.

A deaf teacher is sharing his experience on sign language teaching

What lessons have you learned from your project implementation?

Our participants have different educational backgrounds. Therefore, during the training, we have applied various methodologies and activities to help the trainees easily engage with the topics, for instance, group discussion, competition, role-playing, problem-solving. Individual and group mentoring sessions have helped the project team to get a deeper understanding of the target group’s needs on a case-by-case basis. The lessons learned and impacts of Future Deaf Teachers project will become an important resource for any future related projects that benefit the deaf community and narrow the gap in communication between deaf and hearing people.

What advice would you give to any future YSEALI Seeds applicants?

We strongly believe in the “nothing about us without us” idea. Therefore, involving the target community in project planning is extremely important for future success because, at the end of the day, that target community is the one benefiting from the project. When we found out about the YSEALI Seeds grant, we felt a strong connection between our project and the YSEALI Seeds program. This was a great opportunity to bring our idea into reality and impact the community.

Participants signing names of organizations or deaf clubs they are involved in

Sovannarong Tim, Project Buzz Talk Cambodia

Project goal: Breaking the stigma on LGBT+ in Cambodia through constructive dialog and storytelling by aspiring journalists.

What inspired you to start your project? What do you hope to achieve?

Buzz Talk Cambodia is a diverse and inclusive youth platform in which we hope to hear more “buzz-worthy” discussions about the LGBT+ community and create meaningful connections. This is important piece to promote acceptance towards the LGBT+ community while simultaneously advocating for ending bullying and discrimination at the workplace, as well as encouraging more family acceptance, health, and wellbeing for the LGBT+ community.

Project Leader, Sovannarong Tim (left), with guests at an event in Cambodia

What are some of the milestones of your project?

We planned three online campaigns to generate buzz among young people on LGBT+ related topics in Cambodia. Our first campaign, #BeAnOptimistForOther, aims to boost the sense of positivity and supportive language in the community, especially youth, towards LGBT+ people.

Our second campaign, #TogetherWithPride, aims to push for constructive dialogue on LGBT+ topics. Throughout these two online campaigns, we have reached and engaged more than 272,000 people on our social media platforms.

Our most recent online campaign is called #SafeZone, and the idea is to encourage parents of LGBT+ youth to know the truth behind the scenes that most people have ignored or never knew. The audience will learn stories that happened to LGBT+ youth and their physical and psychological impact.

During a community visit in Siemreap province to collect stories and discuss LGBT-related issues

What lessons have you learned from your project implementation?

Our YSEALI Seeds journey has driven us through a great leadership lesson learned in a time of crisis where we need to put people first, and more importantly, to help each other with encouragement and positive affirmations. Additionally, when it comes to social behavior changes, network and constructive dialogue are the keys.  We are amazed by the changes toward our participants after they got engaged in the LGBT+ community.

Ricardo, one of Buzz Talk’s participants from Timor-Leste has mentioned, “My perspective has totally changed after this trip. Before, I always described and considered the LGBT+ community as a vulnerable group in the society, but now I realized that LGBT+ community is not vulnerable anymore, but they are very intelligent, creative, strong and vigorous. They are always ready to fight [for] and support each other. The society is actually vulnerable that cannot be able to understand and accept this tremendously astonishing group called LGBT+ community.”

What advice would you give to any future YSEALI Seeds applicants?

We would encourage the next applicants who are keen on applying for the YSEALI Seeds program to never hesitate in giving it a try. In addition, it is wise to have a strong will and reason about why you want your project to happen in the first place. Hence, this will keep you motivated and stir your passion. Moreover, you should have a strong team bond and collaboration because your teammates will be with you through thick and thin along this whole long journey.

Our participation in the program helped our team realize the power of young people in shaping the future they want to achieve through leadership, community engagement, and mobilization. And it is a platform for young leaders from Southeast Asia to share, learn, and connect with each other for the best practical solutions of each community in Southeast Asia respectively.

Participants of the project’s Story Corner 2020 Training

Angeli Guadalupe, Project Sureplus, Philippines

Project goal: Reducing hunger and food waste in Davao City through an online platform that connects farmers and restaurants with charities and communities in need.

Project Leader, Angeli Guadalupe (second from the right), with project partners – farmers and suppliers

What inspired you to start your project? What do you hope to achieve?

When I was a medical student at the University of the Philippines, Manila, I used to study in a 24/7 café. I would stay there starting at 8:30 PM when the café would sell French pastries for half the normal price. I noticed that despite the huge discount, there was still a lot of leftover food. I asked the café about what they do with their surplus bread. One of their employees told me that they used to donate it to charities but they later found out that their donations were being sold again, which disheartened them and made them scared that if food safety issues arose from the handling to reselling, their business’s name would be tarnished. After this, they were left with no choice but to throw away their surplus, putting soap and water on them to make sure that they wouldn’t be sold again. This came as an irony to me as having both food waste and hunger as problems showed a huge mismatch that should be fixed.

After finishing medical school, I did a masters in sustainability science at the University of Tokyo. When I came back to the Philippines, I asked my fellow members of the Global Shapers-Davao Hub about forming Surplus, aiming to minimize food wastage and hunger in our city.

One of the beneficiary families of the Sureplus project

What are some of the milestones of your project?

Launching the Sureplus website was the first milestone of our project. It enabled us to help farmers, especially smallholder farmers, sell their produce online. This was a huge help to them, especially when the COVID-related lockdowns were implemented by our city government, as people preferred online delivery services for their needs and these farmers were not tech-savvy enough to adapt.

Over time, we got more help from various people. The most significant one to date is a building owner who offered her rental space for free during this pandemic so we could put up a food bank. Gawad Kalinga, one of the largest non-profit organizations in the country, has also offered help in preparing the meals to be served. Mr. Benjie Lizada, President of the Restaurant Owners Association in our city, even elaborated on the idea that we turn the food banks into cloud kitchens as well—earnings from which would help sustain the operations of the food bank.

What lessons have you learned from your project implementation?

One learning of ours is that while there is merit in going slowly and surely, it should be balanced with moving fast in order to seize opportunities. The pandemic has worked to our advantage because it boosted the demand for online delivery services. However, we only got to enjoy this for a short while because soon after, market vendors shifted online, and the increasing competition made it harder for us.

Another learning of our team is that no matter how good your project, product, or service is, if not many people know about it, it won’t be as impactful as you want and need it to be.

On a personal level, as team leader, I learned that I should be prepared for everything because unexpected circumstances could arise, both internally and externally.

What advice would you give to any future YSEALI Seeds applicants?

To all future applicants, think of the project goal and ways to sustain the project after the YSEALI Seeds grant funding period is over. It’s important to have support from other institutions as it shows they believe in your goal and capability to carry it out. It is also important to have committed and competent teammates, clarify from the start what degree of work each team member can commit to, so there is more efficient work dynamics and clear expectations.

One of the project’s partner and supplier, an oyster mushroom farmer near Davao City

The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Seeds for the Future Program is a small grants competition to support innovative initiatives in Southeast Asia. It provides funding for the region’s most promising young leaders to carry out projects that improve their communities, countries, and the region across the program themes of Civic Engagement, Education, Economic Growth, and Sustainable Development. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and is funded through a grant from the U.S. Mission to ASEAN.