Leadership is About Relationships

We were honoured to participate in this year’s Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Summit during the 2017 World Winter Games in Graz, Austria. This gathering of 44 youth leaders and their mentors represented the core of the social connectedness movement and the power of inclusion.

From March 16th to the 22nd, youth from all around the world had the opportunity to come together and share their efforts of fostering inclusion within their local communities. This summit provided the platform to showcase and support one another’s projects of inclusion through various workshops on leadership and team building activities.

The summit began with team building activities in which participants were grouped according to the overall themes of their projects of inclusion: fundraising and skill development, unified sports and fitness, media and awareness, school activities and camps, and friendships and social inclusion. Each group was given a colour and the opportunity to connect with one another. They first started by agreeing on a team name: the blue team, known as the #Unifiedsmurfs; the purple team, known as Power Purple; the yellow team, known as the Power Team; the green team, known as The Clovers; and the red team, known as InspiRED.

During the first day, the teams learned more about the individual members in their group, discussed their goals and expectations for the summit, and created a chant to introduce themselves. This was a special moment. As participants shared their likes and dislikes, as well as their culture and stories of involvement with Special Olympics, you could see the lifelong connections being made within and across groups. The bonds created on this first day laid the foundation of respect we witnessed throughout the summit, as participants came from very different backgrounds yet were able to find common ground.

As the summit progressed, the connections between participants grew stronger. Each of them had arrived in their ‘unified pairs’, but immediately gained access to a whole community of support in which to collaborate with on their projects of inclusion, both then and in the future. This reminded us of insights shared by Marlene Ogawa, Program Manager at the Synergos Institute, during the 2016 Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness. Marlene had stated that social connectedness “happens first in the individual and then extends to the wider group.” This was certainly true for the participants at the summit, who came with their own stories and experiences, and left with new connections and the knowledge that they were now part of a global community. They also learned many new ideas and skills that they can employ in their local communities.

Throughout the summit, these young people and their mentors focused on the core of what it means to be a leader. One of the main messages during our time together was that leadership should always be inclusive and that “great leaders start off as great followers”. Indeed, none of us have all the answers or solutions so it is important that we aim to learn from one another and support others in their work to build inclusive communities.

Speaking at the 2016 Global Symposium, Andrea Cahn, Senior Director of the Unified Champion Schools for Special Olympics, said that this program has taught students that social inclusion and acceptance should be the norm within and outside the school environment. She added that youth “expect people to be included, and when they’re not, they will do something about it.” The youth participating in this leadership summit are great examples of individuals who are carrying the social connectedness movement forward.

During the summit’s cultural night, the youth leaders had the opportunity to share their culture with one another. They shared food from home, traditional clothing, cultural dance, and exchanged Special Olympic pins from each other’s home countries. These moments of exchange throughout the summit serve as further proof of the power of acceptance and understanding.

It was important for participants to be involved in all aspects of the 2017 Special Olympic World Winter Games, from taking a walking tour of Graz with Austrian students to participating in the first Unified Talk: An Inclusive Call to Action, hosted by the Bank of America. They also had the opportunity to watch the games and to share their projects of inclusion in an expo with both athletes and guests.

Our time at the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Summit was invaluable. It demonstrated that the social connectedness movement, based on the principles of respect, reciprocity and recognition, is strong and growing. It is also a reminder that there is work being done every day by individuals around the world who believe in the idea of a unified world.

What will you do to help build social connectedness and foster inclusion in your community?