Brad Gillings, alumnus from Cast 90E, is a Canadian-American who grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In 1997, seven years after his formational UWP experience, Brad founded Youth International: an outdoor adventure, community service-driven intercultural travel program for young people. Upbeat spoke to Brad about his organization and the inspiration behind it.
Matthew: To start, how was your Up with People experience?
Brad: UWP was one of the first travel experiences of my life. I joined after graduating from university; I was 23, on the older side of the cast traveling back then. I paid for UWP by myself, too. I remember we had a huge cast and two different groups of Russians joined our tour at different points. Altogether, we were over 200 people—we were the first cast to have Russians, the first group to have someone from East Germany and the first to have a student in a wheelchair. We had people from 24 countries in our cast. Needless to say, it changed my life. It was the best year of my life to-date at the time, and still one of the best years for me.
Matthew: What were some highlights from your tour?
Brad: I traveled during the 25th anniversary, so that made it quite special.Our tour went through 23 different U.S. states, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. Our cast also had several “spin offs,” smaller break off groups that went to France, Italy, Netherlands, Bermuda, and Japan. And I was chosen for the Japan spin-off group! I did PR in Long Island, New York, as well as Hamm, Germany. A definite highlight would be going to Berlin for the October 3, 1990 official reunification of East and West Germany. I remember picking away at the wall and saving pieces to bring home.
Matthew: During the time after you traveled and before starting Youth International, what were you up to?
Brad: Well, when I was in Japan I actually applied for an English teaching job. Right after my UWP year ended, I flew back to Japan and worked there, even living with my previous host family for about three months! Being in Japan with UWP was my first real experience in a non-Western culture; every minute of this UWP experience in Japan was magical to me. It blew my mind, and this jumpstarted me on the next four years which I spent traveling through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, living a nomadic lifestyle and engaging with communities doing service work. UWP was the beginning for me – it set the stage (pun intended) for my life’s work and my awakening to being a socially conscious human being. It was the first big step to lay the groundwork for what I do now with Youth International.
Matthew: How did Youth International get started?
Brad: I returned to the U.S. to work with AmeriCorps in Denver after those four years traveling. After a year with AmeriCorps, I actually took a job in alumni relations with the UWP office in Broomfield, Colorado. I learned a lot about networking, event planning, administration – it was hugely instructive for me. By day I worked with UWP, and by night, I was laying the groundwork and putting together what would eventually become Youth International.
Matthew: What initially prompted your idea?
Brad: When I traveled in Up with People, something I wish we had done more of was volunteer work. And to that point, I really love the changes the program has made through the years, with more of an intentional focus in that direction, but at the time it wasn’t the case. Then, during my time with AmeriCorps, I was introduced to young people who wanted to travel and make change. After almost two years developing it, I launched the program with 14 students in 1997: I led them around the world for 10 months through China, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, India, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
Matthew: What are the core tenets of the program?
Brad: We live much of the time with host families (like in UWP) and we also have a strong service element. Most of what we do is with schools, either leading workshops, teaching English or engaging in renovation works. Our bottom line as a program, our goal, is to get young people out into the world with a backpack on and learn as much as they can about other cultures; thinking, being, experiencing it themselves. Through that, they have a really intense, deep, meaningful, inward journey and learn a lot about themselves. We want to give them that space and time to explore their values for who and what they are, and who and what they could be!
Matthew: Wow – now, it seems a bit like Up with People. In what ways is Youth International different?
Brad: I’d have to say the outdoor adventure; we’re pretty rugged. For example, some of our home stays are in very simple, rural villages. A student might find themselves living with a family in a mud hut in India, or in a thatched roof hut on stilts with a tribal family in the rainforest in Ecuador. And, they have to be ready to put a full pack on their back and hike through the Himalayan or Andes Mountains for several days, and also sleep out in the desert under the stars for multiple nights, just to name a few of the rugged challenges. And, we do not have a show! Though I have to say that we are still often called upon to perform—some of my favorite Youth International memories are spending time with host families in small villages in Nepal or Bolivia and going back and forth sharing songs and dances from each other’s countries. “Now, your turn to do American song,” they would shout! Music truly is a universal language. In Youth International, we send out groups of 14 young people with two leaders for three-month semesters, traveling through three different countries. Currently, we operate programs in Asia and South America.
Matthew: What are your takeaways now after almost 22 years with Youth International?
Brad: One of my biggest rewards has been my “collection” of alumni. Hundreds and hundreds have gone through Youth International now, and all the amazing people I’ve met are just staggering. While I’d like to take credit for everything they do, I know I can’t… but I have people who come back to me years later and share how much the program has impacted them: doctors, lawyers, people who have created their own NGOs and companies. One girl started up an organization called “Food Shift” in her community, to salvage would-be wasted food. She often thanks me, and reminds me that Youth International was the inspiration that started her on that path. I feel so privileged and lucky to have played a role in these young peoples’ lives.
Matthew: How do you see your UWP experience now, with respect to your experiences leading Youth International?
Brad: I give credit to UWP for creating my base, my foundation of that social consciousness awakening. There’s a quote from Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech that I read to our new students at every Youth International orientation:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves “who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?”
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us.
It is not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Up with People shone its bright light on me, and in many ways set me on the path—and in a sense gave me permission—to go on and create Youth International; to make my dream a reality. And, in doing so, I hope I have “paid it forward” and helped to liberate others to discover their best selves, and the best way for them to serve in this world.