Conversations with Daniel: Voices from Manila

Interview by Daniel (he/him), 26 QLD

I speak to an inspiring young leader from the Philippines – in Part Five of my journey to amplify voices in the Asia-Pacific region.

I met a great deal of incredible people while in Chennai, India. Young people from across the Asia-Pacific – all working, in their own way, for a better future. I was inspired by their aptitude and touched by their kindness and generosity.

At an event filled with insightful young leaders, it takes a lot to stand out. All of the participants I spoke to left an impression – but Mags is someone I will likely remember for a long time.

Mags is from the Philippines – like our friend Hero, who we featured in a previous entry. She represents a youth organisation in the city of Makati – from the Manila region.

‘Represents’ is too soft a word. Mags has an undeniably strong presence. Any opportunity to speak – she was there. Any opportunity to dance or sing – she was there. Mags helped others at the event come out of their shell – me included.

I was grateful to sit down with Mags for an extended interview. Here are just some of the things she had to say:

What is the number one issue affecting young people in your community?

I think it’s education. You can see in the quality of the education we are getting right now that it is different from what our parents were getting back then. Are these children fit to be employed in the future to support the needs of the country?

Many children want to study, and they don’t have the opportunity to do so because of poverty. Poverty leads to a lack of education, and a lack of education leads to poverty.

The basic problem that we have right now is illiteracy. Many children cannot read even basic sentences. There is a study from the World Bank that shows 9 out of 10 Filipino children cannot read a simple sentence. It’s very alarming.

You mentioned earlier to me the idea of supporting young people through COVID – catching them up on their literacy or numeracy skills. What do you think we can do to support young people?

Firstly, we can support young people through scholarships. In our country, the public school system is free, but sometimes the things that hinder attendance is having no money for food or transportation.

The other thing, as you mentioned, is a literacy program – teaching children to read. If they cannot read, then they are prone to be scammed or taken advantage of – like what is happening right now with our farmers. The Philippines is an agricultural country, and there are many farmers who are uneducated. They are signing bad agreements that they cannot understand. 30 years from now they will still have ballooning debts.

I’ve seen it myself because I used to be an activist. I taught children of farmers in rural areas. We had one guy in our literacy program, 20-something years old. He was actually the father of a child we were teaching. When we found out he couldn’t read, we let him join. We taught him to write his own name. And he got employed in the local community as a street sweeper, because he could now sign a payroll. You can imagine how life changing that is for a person.

Before we go on – I want to talk more about you. You’re young, only 30 – but you are the CEO of your organisation. That’s incredible. How did that happen?

I started when I was in high school. I loved to be involved in volunteer work. Our country has a lot of typhoons, and I would organise relief operations when there was a disaster.

When I went to college, I lost both my parents. I very quickly became an adult. I had to support myself, so I started looking for jobs. This organisation was an opportunity for me. I started working on a part time basis while I studied. I was assisting the Secretary, and when she left to study, I started doing her work in schools and with young people.

It took me nine years to finish my college degree because I was so focused on work and humanitarian efforts. The organisation became my home. The work was like therapy, and a good distraction from the things going on in my own life.

In 2021, two years ago, I was certified as the professional secretary in the national organisation. And then the Board appointed me as General Secretary (CEO). It was huge surprise. Suddenly the people I looked up to, my mentors, were entrusting me with this post. It’s a big responsibility. I started managing people much older than me.

But you know what keeps me going? I’m always learning. I’m not perfect. I’m just a very loving person. I just love this. I love the people.

My final question. How confident are you about the future? Do you think collectively we are on target to reach important goals for young people?

Well, that’s a complicated question. Because you’re talking about a whole country, and a whole region. And if you’re looking at 2030 as the goal, you are looking at only seven years.

I support goals that are relevant to what is going on in my country. Sustainability is a big one. My country is one of those countries who has committed a lot to carbon reduction. After three years I’ve seen what we have achieved – we are 50% of the way there. It boils down to financial planning.

I would like to hope that it is possible. But realistically speaking, I don’t think it can be achieved soon. But what we can do, which for me is more possible, is raise the awareness of young people through education. I’ve been trying to advocate for ecology classes in schools. Teach young people from a very young age about the importance of caring for our planet.

There are also opportunities to improve community wellbeing. Awareness of mental health issues is a big thing, because there is still stigma in our country. Facilities are not available.

 

I hope this gives you a good impression of the kind of person Mags is – selfless, genuine, and ambitious. She leads with vulnerability, innovation, and respect for all. She is the living embodiment of what can happen when we trust ‘generation now’ to lead us into tomorrow.

Once again, a lack of quality education was identified as a major issue. However, Mags did not see this as an issue affecting just young people – it affects groups from all generations. As we look to bolster young people, we must remember that other groups in our society experience degrees of disadvantage.

The story of illiterate farmers being tricked into lifelong debt reminds me of our own dark history here in Queensland of stealing wages from Indigenous workers – in what was a malicious, deliberate campaign to deceive First Nations people. Recovery efforts here in Queensland have seen some success in recent years – but by the sounds of it, efforts in the Philippines still have some way to go. I’m grateful to Mags for detailing this situation – otherwise, I would not have considered it.

The other major takeaway from my time with Mags was how sincere she was in her belief that the work she does is meaningful. She has confronted many difficult situations and faced many setbacks – and yet, she remains so determined to make a difference. Every person, and every story, has obviously made an impression on her.

Her enthusiasm – it’s contagious. I walked away from my conversation with Mags more inspired than ever to practice what I preach – to serve my community directly. Mags, having earned her way to the top, is now doing what every good leader should do – leading from within. Servant leadership – building people up, taking young people with her.

If she can do it, what’s stopping the rest of us?

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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