Born to Japanese immigrant parents in Boston, Yumi Kuwana did not always see her biculturalism as a gift. When she was eight, her family moved to Japan. There, she was bullied by her classmates for her distinctly American ways. “Because the Japanese culture is very homogeneous, my differences weren’t celebrated or appreciated. Instead, they were mocked. In class, they said my English was ‘too perfect.’”
Eventually, Yumi’s parents enrolled her in an international school to escape the torment and feelings of not belonging. Raising her own family in Greenwich, the Harvard-and- Wharton educated mother of three was determined to find ways to give her sons and daughter the benefits of their biculturalism in the most thoughtful way possible. “I wanted them to be bilingual and bicultural with a strong moral compass,” says Yumi, a founder of Greenwich-based Cook Pine Capital. “It was important to me that their background was something they saw as a strength.”
When she founded the nonprofit Global Citizens Initiative (GCI) here in 2012, Yumi says her goal was to create a network of young global leaders who could engage in an intense cross- cultural dialogue while embracing their differences. “And I wanted it to be a conversation they could continue for a long time,” she says.
Each year since its founding, GCI fosters understanding and action by gathering a maximum of twenty-eight teenagers from places as different as Greenwich, Syria, Brazil and Afghanistan for a nine-day summit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, held on and nearby the Harvard University campus. There, the students engage in largely self-directed discussions on topics related to global engagement, ethics, excellence and leadership.
“One of the things we are teaching is that being a good global citizen is not about jet-setting. While that has its own value, this is about engaging with people who have a different perspective from yours,” says Elizabeth Losch, GCI’s chief operating officer and a Greenwich Academy graduate.
Local participants at GCI Youth Summits have hailed from local schools including Greenwich High School, Greenwich Academy and the King School in Stamford.
Many of the international students attend summits on scholarships and GCI raises funds to underwrite their tuition and expenses. Yumi notes the student leaders—chosen from a strong applicant pool for their authentic interest in global citizenship—are a deliberately small and select bunch.
Their discussions are led by teachers who by design join the conversation infrequently to let the teens shape and drive their own dialogue. “We believe we can have a high impact program by going deep and narrow rather than large and wide,” explains Yumi of the small group that its annual summits employ. “And we also believe they learn a lot from these peer-to-peer exchanges.”
Each GCI student leaves the annual summit with an assignment: A mentored project they must embark on at home that incorporates some of the values and goals they developed from engaging with their international peers. “We have a student in Kenya who’s created a $10 water filter that could be a game changer in her community and beyond,” Yumi says. “We have someone in Greenwich who is teaching dance to students with autism. Ultimately, what’s exciting to see is the leadership and initiative they are getting out of this and bringing home.”
Lessons into Action
From creating inexpensive water filters for Kenyan villagers to dance classes for autistic children in Fairfield County, the Global Citizens Initiative Youth Summit participants have been passionate and innovative in their efforts to become more socially conscious and engaged citizens. We checked in with two Greenwich summit participants to find out how lessons learned inspired good works close to home.
Developing a dance project for the local nonprofit Backyard Sports Cares that supports children with autism. “Dance is often unavailable to children with autism, which struck me as particularly sad since dance has been shown to have a positive effect on empathy and social interactions.”
On The Power of Forming International Friendships
“It’s an amazing thing to know people your age from all over the world, especially when they are so committed to making a difference. One of my closest friends was a former Syrian refugee who is currently running his own nonprofit that brings education to children in refugee camps. There were students from Afghanistan, from mainland China, from Hong Kong and more. It was humbling to realize how much I still have yet to know about the world.”
An avid cook who has long been intrigued by the way food connects people, the Greenwich Academy senior is focused on finding ways provide good nutrition to the estimated 12 percent of Fairfield County’s residents who meet the definition of being “food insecure” because they lack consistent access to adequate healthy food. Besides creating a pamphlet for local food banks, Whitney has made hunger the focus of a school capstone project and also become involved with Community Plates, a local nonprofit that works to “rescue” quality leftover food from area restaurants and deliver it to local food banks and shelters for meals and distribution.
On The Inspiration of her GCI Peers
“The other students were probably the most driven, enthusiastic and motivated individuals I have ever met,” says Whitney. “Having the opportunity to take part in discussions on topics such as ethics has inspired me to stay involved in the realm of social activism. I have since joined the First Selectmen’s Youth Council in hopes of learning more about public policy, which I’ve found to be an integral part of the fight against hunger.”