Going into the Desmond Tutu Community Youth Center, I did not know what to expect. It was nerve-wracking because I thought there would be language and cultural barriers. More so, the first thing our supervisor, Dante, had told us to do was to build connections, as if this would be something difficult to do. This was something we continued to grapple with for many weeks, until we finally just stopped overthinking the differences and just went with the flow. Cultural barriers were definitely there, and could not be ignored. However, despite the other interns coming from a less privileged background, in many ways they were the same as us not just in age, but in the sense that they were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do, and how to do it. Many of the conversations we had were therefore not so different than the ones you would have with people in the States. They asked us about the States and schools to apply to, and we questioned them about their experience growing up in South Africa. We became so comfortable to the point that that by the end of the program, we had swapped relationship advice. Building those connections in many ways was more important to me than actually having a concrete impact at the Youth Center, although being able to do that was a bonus!
Because building connections had played such a prominent role in our experience at the Youth Center, Isaac and I decided to use that as our topic to lead the meeting we were to present in front of the staff at the Youth Center. The meeting was an amazing bonding experience. We first showed a video we had watched as a group earlier on Chimamanda Adichie, who voiced the need to not judge others based on a single story you ascribed to them. Afterwards, everyone described a time they had either judged or been judged, and how that had in turn affected their ability to build connections with that person. As the meeting went on, everyone loosened up, and there seemed to be a level of trust established among the people in the group. The stories were deep and heart felt, and it pushed Isaac and I to share our own. Although we had already been involved in coordinating activities at the center, we had never felt more a part of the community center than in those moments.
Looking back, I am so thankful for everyone at the Youth Center. They were so welcoming, forthcoming and opened with us, which in turn allowed us to feel free to explore and learn from them. The experience taught me how much I value establishing those connections, and need these to feel comfortable and work well in different environments.