Fully aware of the honor of the circumstance, which could have felt intimidating, Ashley Yong focused on the importance of the message she was there to deliver as she addressed the international audience at what was dubbed “A super-session for nature” at the United Nations.
It was Tuesday, July 19, 2022, and this was a High-level Thematic Debate entitled “Moment for Nature.” The gathering was convened by Abdulla Shahid, the President of the 76th UN General Assembly, and took place in the hallowed General Assembly Hall of UN Headquarters in New York City.
Moment for Nature aimed at “achieving the level of cohesion needed among the global environmental work streams to keep the 1.5 degrees target alive, and rapidly accelerating the implementation of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and resilient COVID-19 recoveries.”
A Memorable Moment
It was the first time anyone from Tzu Chi was delivering an intervention in the UN General Assembly Hall, a space revered as it is where the UN’s main policy-making organ provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter. Before then, members of the Tzu Chi team only came here as the audience.
Ashley Yong’s address was part of the High-level Thematic Debate’s “Cultivating coherent system-wide responses to tackle interlinked planetary crises” segment. As Youth Representative of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to the UN Department of Global Communications (DGC), she had been invited to speak on behalf of the DGC’s Civil Society Youth Representatives Programme, composed of young people affiliated with the 1,600 NGOs accredited to the Department, including Tzu Chi.
She highlighted that “the programme has been serving as an advocacy platform for young people across the globe, ages 18 to 32, working within or leading organizations that are in association with the DGC and focusing on the global issues discussed at the UN,” adding, “These youth representatives have been crucial in mobilizing local communities to take action for the planet and inspire other young people to speak up in international spaces.”
Every Story Has a Start
Ashley Yong has been a Tzu Chi Global Partnership Affairs Department (GPAD) staff member since joining the team in October 2018. She is GPAD’s Youth Representative and the Project Manager for Tzu Chi’s activities in Sierra Leone. Yet her involvement with Tzu Chi began years before, her first contact stretching back to age three when her mother had her little girl participate in a dance performance at a Tzu Chi Malaysia Service Center in Melaka, where Ashley was born and grew up.
Her mother’s curiosity about Tzu Chi only deepened with time. “Mom was a kindergarten teacher, so she started to join Tzu Chi as the educational team volunteer in 2007,” Ashley recounts. Three years later, in 2010, her mother became a certified Tzu Chi volunteer, and, wanting to bring her daughter into this new world, she insisted that Ashley, then 15, join a Tzu Chi Youth Group (Tzu Shao) in Melaka, where the family lived.
“I love community work,” the teenager discovered as she visited care centers for seniors, participated in plant-based cooking activities, and more. She also confides that the Tzu Shao programs in Malaysia “helped improve the relationship between my mother and me – she was busy with Tzu Chi, I started to understand better why she was busy, and what she was busy with after I joined Tzu Shao.” While Ashley felt more empathy toward her mother, they now had “more topics to talk about together,” too, she adds.
In fact, by 2011, Tzu Chi was central for the entire family, as both of Ashley’s parents were certified Tzu Chi volunteers actively engaged in the work. That year, Ashley traveled to Taiwan for the first time and stayed at the dormitory of Tzu Chi University in Hualien. She also visited the Jing Si Abode in Hualien – the heart of the global Tzu Chi community and where Master Cheng Yen resides.
Ashley remembers being “mesmerized by the environment and ambiance of Tzu Chi” and decided to attend Tzu Chi University, where she studied from 2015 till officially receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences, majoring in Biomedical Science, in 2019. During the graduation ceremony on June 6, 2018, Ashley became the valedictorian of the convocation, gave a speech, and held Master Cheng Yen’s hand at one point, which she values as the most memorable event of her time at Tzu Chi University.
By then, Ashley Yong’s commitment to Tzu Chi had blossomed into one for life: Tzu Chi’s role as a charity and humanitarian organization aligned with her pursuit of contributing her life’s efforts in that direction. And soon, like her Tzu Chi volunteer parents, she would be quite busy.
Opportunities and Challenges
Ashley Yong felt excited upon joining GPAD, “That was the beginning of my journey towards global issues, sustainable development, and humanitarian affairs.” She also felt inspired to pursue a Master’s Degree at Malaysia’s Sunway University Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development during the process, explaining, “I’m going to commit my time and effort to sustainable development and am grateful for the learning opportunities that Tzu Chi provides.”
To support her GPAD role, apart from membership on the UN DGC’s Civil Society Youth Steering Committee (for youth engagement at the UN), Ashley is part of the Asian Region Steering Committee for the Women Deliver 2023 Conference, Sunway University Masters in Sustainable Development Management Network, the Movers Programme and others related to UN ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) annual Forums on Sustainable Development (Main, People’s, and Youth).
Being on the GPAD team is a full-time commitment. Ashley’s days encompass meetings with external partners across different time zones (New York, Malaysia, Africa, Thailand); Planning Tzu Chi’s engagement at the UN, which encompasses applying for side events, exhibitions, and speaking opportunities; Developing content and materials for sustainability awareness workshops/programs; Studying about different global issues, especially those related to upcoming conferences/forums; External group/committee meetings, and; Project management, as she is one of the project managers for Tzu Chi’s programs in Sierra Leone.
Doing the work is not without challenges. Ashley confides that, at times, she must confront her lack of knowledge on sustainable development and global issues, as concerns are constantly emerging, “therefore I continue to learn every day by studying, listening to podcasts, reading, and learning about other organizations’ work.” She also continually strives to improve her project management, writing, and public speaking skills.
To surmount any self-perceived shortcomings, Ashley says she gladly welcomes advice from experienced Tzu Chi volunteers with corporate jobs and professional backgrounds “to help guide and mentor me, to ensure my work is effective and impactful, and aligns to Tzu Chi’s values.” She also credits advice from pioneers in the field (UN/SDG experts) as helpful and inspirational.
Among other possible difficulties, she cites a lack of human resources in doing the work, so she seeks to “identify volunteers (especially young people) and invite them to participate and contribute in the projects, also empowering them to lead some roles.” And if any interpersonal relationship issues arise, Ashley applies Buddhist teachings, and by heeding Master Cheng Yen’s guidance, she’s learning to endure and let go. Overall, though, “I love new challenges, so I feel motivated to address challenges even though sometimes it is frustrating,” she concludes.
Fulfillment and Frustration
Active on the international stage, one can wonder how Ashley Yong feels about her GPAD role and work:
Sometimes, she admits she feels frustrated, even helpless, as “time is so limited (as we have only a few years left before the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold is reached), while what I can do is also limited,” she explains. Ashley also points out that there are “many systemic barriers that we could not overcome, causing disappointment and frustration.” Nonetheless, Ashley is optimistic.
Ashley sees “many uncharted territories to be discovered and developed, especially in SDG localizations and globalization,” and feels “grateful to have the ability to develop and spearhead some programs.” She credits the support afforded to youth at Tzu Chi for much of her progress, saying that the opportunities offered “are vast, providing huge spaces and trust to the young people to engage in UN platforms and develop programs and events for SDG implementation. Even though I’m young, many volunteers and decision-makers believe in me and allow me to be innovative and creative.”
A Growing List of Milestones
The July 19, 2022, address during the Moment for Nature High-level Thematic Debate of the 76th UN General Assembly was undoubtedly a milestone for Ashley Yong. Still, this Tzu Chi youth has had other memorable experiences along her journey. She cherishes a trip to Sierra Leone in 2019, her first time on the African continent. It was also the first time, then 24, Ashley had traveled solo on a 35-hour voyage flying from Malaysia with three layovers before arriving in Sierra Leone.
“I fell in love with that country after the trip; the people are so kind and generous,” she recounts, noting that although materially impoverished, “they are rich mentally.” “I became good friends with several of our local partners and volunteers,” Ashley adds, whom she now sees “as my African family over there.” She had the opportunity to visit disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and the impact remains, “the memory of the trip always appears in my mind to remind me how blessed I am and also to encourage me and keep me motivated.”
Ashley also fondly recalls her involvement in SDG programs in Melaka, Malaysia, in 2021, when she could apply knowledge and experience gained from her UN engagement and SDGs learning in the field. “I always liked community-based programs, especially awareness and training programs on SDGs, as those are most impactful.” She guided over 20 young people to lead that year’s programs. “We worked together to carry out cleanup events, exhibitions, and workshops that attracted more than 1,000 people to learn about SDGs and climate change.”
Recently, on March 29, Ashley spoke at UN ESCAP’s 2023 Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) in Thailand. ESCAP, one of the five regional commissions of the United Nations, is the most inclusive intergovernmental platform in the Asia-Pacific region. This address, part of the 10th APFSD’s “Review of Regional Progress and Opportunities for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” session, was a first for her, too, within the ASFSD context and in speaking in the ESCAP Hall.
Ashley was there as the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Youth Representative and more: The Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) had nominated her to speak on behalf of the APFSD Youth Forum, representing more than 400 young people across 36 countries in the region, and Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) to speak on behalf of the CSO (Civil Society Organizations) Children and Youth Group.
“The clock is ticking,” she declared as she drew towards her conclusion, saying:
“It was fun and motivating,” she remembers, adding that she received much encouragement from CSO and UN partners afterward.
Ashley also attended the APFSD Youth Forum as one of 70 out of 1,400 registrations selected by the organizers to participate in person, and nominated by ARROW, she moderated a panel discussion. She equally contributed in various other ways during the APFSD People’s Forum and Main Forum.
Go, Ashley Yong, go! – on behalf of Tzu Chi, and even more importantly, on behalf of the sustainable future the world seeks.