I had the amazing opportunity to interview the CEO and Founder of Project AK-47 Marcus Young. When I first heard about Project AK-47 I knew I had to find out more of what they are doing, especially in reference to rescuing children who are child soldiers. The interview was incredible so I wanted to provide a transcript of our conversation. Hearing how Marcus got started with Project AK-47 is an awesome story. The transcription has been edited for clarity. Hope you enjoy.
Engaging Life’s Moments: G’day everyone this is a Special Edition Engaging Life’s Moments Presents. I hope you have been able to listen to my latest podcast, Children, Guns, and Jake Gill because there is some important information that I would love for you to hear. With that said, I am on the line with the CEO and Founder of Project AK-47 Marcus Young. Marcus how are you doing today?
Marcus Young: Doing great Eric. Good to be with you.
ELM: I realised that for the past 20 years i haven’t really thought about child soldiers. I know that for the past 10 years I have been trying to gain as much knowledge as I can to help bring awareness to human trafficking, then I realised i don’t know much what’s happening with child soldiers. I think Project AK47 is an amazing name. Can you please tell us how that name came to be?
MY: Yeah, well so, I was traveling in and out of some of these areas and just a bit frustrated saying how to help people understand what is going on. And I remember I just come back from Southeast Asia, I was laying on my bed 2 AM kind of jet-lagging, not being able to sleep. And started thinking about the gun. And the gun is actually the AK-47. It’s actually the first gun of modern warfare that allowed kids to start stepping back into war. So child soldiers have been around forever. And so it’s not a new thing. And it is part of the human trafficking problem. But the AK-47 its simple–point and shoot device a kid can handle, drag it through the mud. It keeps working so it’s very easy to service. And so it really was the advent of the modern child soldier when the AK-47 came on board.
ELM: So you mentioned that you were in southeast asia. Can you tell us why you were there. Was it something you were just on holiday for or you were actually there to maybe find more information about what’s happening as far as child soldiers?
MY: Well, my family has a long history over there in Southeast Asia. So my great grandad went to Burma (which is now Myanmar) in 1887. He was an American Baptist Missionary. He had a couple of sons who were born over there–one of them was my granddad. My great uncle, for example, ended up being a naturalist and started a zoo in Chiang Mai (Thailand). Anybody who tours in the Chiang Mai, in the direct cut mountains, they will find that zoo still functioning. The Thai government now owns it. Some of my relatives went into intelligence work. One of them (who was a pretty well known operative), If you read Lonely Planet, it will talk a little bit about Bill Young, my uncle Bill; he connected us back into some of this area (Myanmar ) where a lot of insurgent groups were operating. And that was in the mid 90’s. I got exposed to the issue of child soldiers during that time. I had no clue what a child soldier was. But, actually I had sent a friend to a very restricted access area with a video camera. He came back with shots of kids running around with fatigues. And I said “what are all of these kids doing dressed up like soldiers?” And he was like “They are soldiers. The are actually orphans. They have been constricted to the Army. That was kind of my first real exposure to the issue. And it broke my heart. I decided I had to do something.
ELM: So the organisation is stationed in Tennessee, is that correct?
MY: Yes. That’s our home base; in terms of where we have our U.S office. But we work with a lot of leaders in different places in the world, In Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines , even in Latin America (we’ve got some work going on there). Everything we do and build is very locally based. Part of that because of the kind of work we do, you have to work with local people and build local relationships to get access to work with these insurgent leaders/rebel groups so that we get access to these kids.
ELM: When you returned back to Tennessee (I’m assuming that’s where you are) what was that process like of okay, I’ve seen this, i know something has to be done what do i do now. Can you walk us through the process of you finally understanding of what you thought you could do.
MY: Well, actually I moved over to Southeast Asia for a season and worked from there. And I went through like an 8 year process of setting up kids homes, for kids with high risk. And try to build a relationship with some of these insurgent groups. And pretty much a high rate of failure for about 8 years. Just a rough go. Pretty much about the time I gave up and had moved back to the US (to Tennessee) that’s when we started to get some success. Essentially one of these groups got to us and (knowing that we were doing some education programs in the area) offered to trade us some kids for building a school in the area. So essentially they said, if you build a school in our areas, we will give you 50 child soldiers. And that’s kind of where we started to get a breakthrough in understanding how to access to kids. By negotiating and using education to get access to these children.
ELM: If you could, you mentioned the frustration, the failure the battle for 8 years…were you looking to throw in the towel earlier than that? What was that like for you seeing things you know just seemingly being dragged through the mud and nothing is happening.
MY: Well, there is a number of different context to think about. I think during that time of course we did work with a lot of kids who needed help and it wasn’t like it didn’t have good fruit or impact during that time. But in terms of just being able to access kids, nobody trusted us. Yeah, you can come in and you can kind of in the dark of night try to steal some kids (from the Army that is) or you can find children who are deserters. We did a few times. And actually that ends up not going so well either because when the insurgent groups found out that we took kids (that were deserters) it created more problems for us. So we actually learned over time to build relationships with the insurgent leaders and to build a trust and a friendship. And through that getting the access where they know they needed educated kids because they need to be able to compete with the outside world. And we’re able to get those kids and give them a good value set and train them as people of peace. Then they get seated in position of authority over time–Is the way we work that program.
ELM: That is awesome! You mentioned education which is important, that’s information that you have to possess in order to move forward. You talked about educating students so how did you get or what is something that your family kind of did of coming up with education material so that you can educate more people. How did you become more aware of the education part of it in order to continue to build Project AK-47?
MY: I remember I think it was about 2008 or 2009 one of our houses got raided by a military leader and took about 100 kids out of our home. It was a really bad day. I was pretty bummed out. And then I began to realised what had happened was actually amazing on one level; because most of those kids they took never ended up back in the Army. They sent about 20 of them out as village teachers. They sent about 10 plus out as kids they were gonna go into nurses training. I think about eight of them were sent out as computer programmers. But the amazing thing was that, two of them ended up as basketball trainers for this (insurgents) group team (paid positions). Two of them ended up as volleyball trainers. Two of the ended up as ping pong trainers. And I came to realise that, you know, you don’t have to give them a whole lot. Just because we play competitive sports (and that became a skill for those kids) that kept them from becoming front line soldiers. So I realised over time you just give kids skills. You know– any skill you can give’em (which includes trying to get them through school) Any skill you can give them makes them not expendable; makes them important to their community. And so one of the best things you can do to protect a child is to give them skills. That was a big (kind of a) Ah Ha moment for me. Sort of what we’ve done is– we created curriculum (we put in alongside) a lot of these (education) programs, where we are teaching kids how to be proactive leaders in their own space. And to care about their outside worlds, their communities. So there are things we have developed of that nature. But really we look for opportunities in a particular situation to say what kind of skills we can give them.
ELM: Awesome! You talked about working with the local government and how has that process been. You talked about relationship as well having to build relationships with the local governments. Was that kind of a hard process?
MY: It is a difficult process and it really depends place to place (Where we are working) because you know if you are working with a rebel group or an insurgent group, sometimes the national government isn’t too happy with you having a conversation with them or trusting you building any type of relationship with these insurgents. That’s why it’s really important to work with local leaders and to really empower the local leadership teams to be their point of contact; verses trying to come in as some guy from the U.S. or Canada or wherever and trying to negotiate those processes. So, we work a lot more behind the scenes to work with local leaders; give them the skills that they need. And find the people who have the guts to go in and do it; because not everybody will. We work with heroes more than becoming the heroes ourselves. If you try to be the hero yourself, you stand out like a sore thumb.
ELM: Okay that makes sense. Now in reference to Project AK47, if I’m correct, you typically work in Southeast Asia so like the Philippines is that the main location in Southeast Asia?
MY: We have a lot of projects in the Philippines. But we also have projects in Myanmar. We have a number of people who live in Thailand as well. There is a pro soccer team in Mexico. We have a soccer project in a Cartel area in Honduras. And just so you get a flavour for how tough some of the areas are, like in Honduras–January through April, I think there were about 25 people in a program of 200 that were killed by the MS-13 Cartel. So very violent areas. Some of these places. But those are the kinds of places we really want to be seen on the ground.
ELM: That’s actually my next question for you. I was on your website and I saw the soccer program you all are doing and with the video in terms of talking about the importance of building a soccer program, Can you tell us how that came to be especially since the World Cup just ending a few weeks ago but before you answer, i want to play this clip of the video:
This summer, the beautiful game is bringing fans together all around the world. But in Latin America’s cartel country, soccer is doing much more than that. It’s helping rescue hundreds of children from being stripped from their childhood forced into working for dangerous drug cartels. At project AK-47, we work in Latin American communities to rescue at-risk kids in the violent conditions they encounter everyday. We provide children with a community that doesn’t just keep them safe, but helps them flourish for more than 30 years. Our program has been transforming lives by creating low-cost, locally sustainable, soccer initiatives in conflict areas. We have put more than 200 children to college and kept countless more lies from cartel danger and Latin America is just the starting point. Through programs like this we have the opportunity to rescue children all around the world, but we need your help. Every dollar you give makes a tangible sustainable difference in a child’s life. With your help we can save lives through soccer today.
MY: Yeah well again I’m not the hero in most of these stories. I am the guy that is a part of the Project AK-47 community, helping them connect with a lot of their heroes. The guy that has done a lot of the work there he is kind of like me, he is a multi-generational guy. He is Canadian married to a Mexican gal. And so his family is three generation deeps. At this point they are in Mexico all the way through. He had tried to start with a baseball program that was just a failure. And eventually found that working with youth and soccer really worked well. And when you are working with a lot of insurgent groups (that we work with) in Southeast Asia, education tends to be the thing that helps us fulfill need so that they will have that conversation with you. But when you are in a Cartel area (even though there are similarities) between working in Southeast Asia and Latin America, they’re businesses verses government type people. And So Cartel think about more in terms of money, and so we found that soccer is kind of that universal piece instead of education (even though we use education quite a bit in Mexico) and in Honduras; that soccer really is what allows us to really get into these nook and crannies Cartel ridden areas and work with kids. And having a fun invitation to do it.
ELM: That’s great now i’m assuming with the world cup just happened there was a spike in students wanting participate more into the soccer program, is that correct?
MY: Absolutely. And we really never have a kid not showing up, wanting to play soccer. It’s a universal sport. And most people call it football around the world (it’s just in American we don’t), but yeah it’s (especially when you have a pro team kind of at the top) kids aspire to be great leaders right? So they are always in the soccer sphere, so they are chasing that. And so it gives us an opportunity to start to walk with them. And again, we do the same kind of thing to try to lay the foundation, so when we get access to them (those character foundations we are kind of laying) but there is also giving them an opportunity to get an education. So that, you know not everybody is going to be a pro soccer player, so laying the foundation for them to not be expendable and not be dependent on the Cartel for their livelihood.
ELM: That’s awesome Great thank you so much for that information. Now Marcus if it’s possible if you can in the next 20 secs to give the audience what can they do now, if you can talk about how we can do to help project AK 47 for the future
MY: Sure. well, obviously you know some of the big ones is giving. Because we have a lot of needs out there. And jumping in and getting your community involved. The awareness through social media. Jumping in some of our blogs or social media and passing it around to your circle of influence. As well as just creating an awareness. Most people when they think about child soldiers, they think about Africa; and there’s definitely an issue with child soldiers in Africa, but what eve have found is that there are child soldiers all over the world. And so, walking around with eyes wide open sorta speak. You may not think there is human trafficking in your city but there probably is. You may not think there are child soldiering that is going on but child soldiering really is going on around the ways you wouldn’t imagine. And just so kind of opening their eyes and understanding that. And communicating that to their communities so that people are actually engaged in doing something. So I think those would be some great starting points. Obviously all of us can’t just waltz up in to a different country and tackle the issue head on. But we can begin to educate ourselves and figure out ways to create impact.
ELM: So good! Thank you for that. I know that what you are doing is great work and as someone who is helping to try to bring awareness I am really excited that I can at least help partner with you by spreading everything that you all are doing and whatever i can do to spread the message to bring hope to other children who are in the same situation that’s what I hope to be able to do with that. So I really do appreciate your time, Marcus.
MY: Thank you Eric. Well, we appreciate you being an advocate. It’s a big deal. We need more of you.