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‘A platform where I could write’ – sharing YJI’s impact

YJI alum Linus Unah speaks at the Great Falls Forum. (YJI photo)

Lewiston, Maine, U.S.A. –  People gathered at the Lewiston Public Library in downtown Lewiston, Maine this spring to hear about a non-profit organization known as Youth Journalism International, or YJI for short.

The library hosts the monthly event called the Great Falls Forum, with guest speakers who talk about something of interest. There is no specific theme – each month’s speaker shares their own topic.

At this specific Great Falls Forum there were two guest speakers – Jackie Majerus, co-founder and executive director of YJI; and Linus Unah, a video journalist from Nigeria who is a YJI alum.

Majerus talked about the founding of YJI, saying how she and her husband wanted to start a group where kids and teenagers could do journalism for free. They founded YJI in 1994. It started as a small group but grew into an international organization.

YJI co-founder Jackie Majerus addresses listeners at the Great Falls Forum. (Linus Unah for YJI)

YJI gets around 80 new students every year. Majerus said that the money to support the program comes from individual donors, family foundations, grants and fundraisers.

She also said that on the rating site Great Non-Profits, YJI is one of the top-rated charities of 2023 with 230 positive reviews. She also talked about how it is educational, teaching kids and teenagers how to write in journalism style and learn about journalism in general.

It helps build bridges between kids and teenagers around the world, and helps offer kids and teenagers great educational opportunities.

Majerus also said that in YJI, kids and teenagers can delve into topics they care about, like sports or video games, and tackle serious topics, too. She talked about how the students use their real names and can have their photo on their profile page if they would like when writing articles for YJI.

Some of the students live in countries where it might be dangerous to be writing articles, Majerus said. If that’s the case, they can ask Majerus to take down their photo and replace it with a YJI logo to keep their image private.

Majerus said that after YJI grew bigger, it began holding global conferences. The first global conference was in Istanbul in 2022. At the conference in Istanbul,  Majerus said, one of the students – an Iranian girl who is forced to cover her head and body at home – first experienced feeling the sun on her shoulders and wind in her hair.

Another thing she said was that the students found that the conferences helped them build self-confidence because some of them would stand up in front of a huge group and talk.

Majerus talked about a very accomplished alum named Arooj Khalid, who  joined YJI at the age of 14. One of many stories Khalid wrote was about a girl who couldn’t go to school – she could only work as a maid.

A few years ago, Khalid was invited by the Malala Fund to be one of 25 girls in the whole world to share her story about getting an education and advocating for girls. She later was one of three YJI students from around the world to talk about women’s freedom at a YJI forum called “Three Women. Three Countries. One Goal: Freedom. Silence Will Not Save Us.”

Khalid recently finished her Masters degree at Harvard University after winning a Fulbright scholarship to study there.

Linus Unah

Then, Majerus introduced Linus Unah by saying that when Unah wrote stories he wrote them on a T9 phone, which is a tiny flip phone with a keyboard that only has numbers 0-9, no letters.

Majerus also talked about how once he joined YJI, other people from his part of Nigeria wanted to be journalists for YJI, as they felt inspired by him.

Unah talked about how before he joined YJI he was taking classes on journalism at his university. He said he felt that he had an “inability to do what I was taught” and that he was “desperate to find a platform where I could write.”

Unah said that he felt like maybe he wasn’t qualified enough to join YJI. He talked about how he remembered how “I just couldn’t sleep” when his first story was published.

He recalled how at one point he felt like there was nothing to write about when his school was shut down because of kidnappings and that Jackie told him that he could write about that.

“What mattered was getting published,” he said.

Unah later said that he got his job because of YJI and that he thinks if he had graduated with just his degree – and no experience – he wouldn’t be where he is today. He said he believes people bring all of their experiences when writing stories.

Among those in the audience were Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline.

Lewiston Mayor Carl Scheline listens over lunch at the Great Falls Forum. (Linus Unah for YJI)

“I thought it was great,” said Sheline. “I think we need journalism now more then ever.”

When asked what she thought about the forum, Children’s Librarian Sara Turner said, “I think it was great to hear about YJI. It’s about people, and stories, that’s what.”

Turner said she is very happy that the library is a part of the Great Falls Forum, which is also sponsored by Bates College and the Lewiston Sun Journal newspaper.

Charlie Wallis-Martel is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Watch the Lewiston Public Library’s recording of the forum:

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