Posted by: thebluemusicblog | November 23, 2017


I went back to Vancouver, one of my absolute favourite cities in the world. It is so beautiful and fresh and exciting, and it is the hometown of my good friend Bill Stewart. You see him below in a photo taken a while ago. Last time I was in Vancouver, it was the NAYDO-meeting (North American YMCA Development Organisation). This time it was the World Urban Network, ably led by Bill Stewart as its CEO. I love these meetings of the World Urban Network. It is a camaraderie and fellowship among YMCA professional leaders that is both inspiring and developing, enriching and motivating. IMG_8578I want to share a story about Bill and me meeting under a huge tree at Geneva Park YMCA Conference Centre outside Toronto more than 7 years ago, the summer of 2010. Bill had just taken over as CEO of the World Urban Network (WUN) and I had just been appointed CEO of the World Alliance of YMCAs, or Secretary General, as it is rightly called.


Already in March 2011 we had to present the new World YMCA Strategy 2011-2014 for the newly elected Executive Committee. “NEW WAY” was playing with the abbreviations. It obviously meant a new direction, a new way to walk into the near future. But it also meant a new W.A.Y., a new style of World Alliance of YMCAs, shortened down to WAY, a new way of structuring the World Alliance of YMCAs, a new way of living that structure, hopefully a modernized way.



As always a new message can give you new friends. It happened the summer before, a few weeks before Hong Kong. I was invited to the National meeting of YMCA Canada, was in fact made an honorable member of the National Council of YMCAs in Canada. In beautiful YMCA Geneva Park, the Canadian YMCA conference centre where I had been attending conferences several times and been jogging along the lake, through the beautiful, mighty forests. I love that place!



During the National meeting of YMCA Canada I was asked for a meeting by the CEO of World Urban Network, Bill Stewart, the former CEO of Vancouver YMCA, a great personality, a very respected and admired leader of the YMCA and an outspoken critic of the World Alliance of YMCAs. IMG_1096

In fact the World Urban Network was established in the middle of the 50 years period I mentioned earlier in this text, the time up to the end of the 20th century, when the World Alliance of YMCAs basically lost its way. A group of large, local and urban YMCAs felt at the time that the WAY was not giving them the focus and the service they needed, and they established the World Urban Network. For a long time it was an alternative structure to the World Alliance, not officially, but practically it functioned that way. It was ongoing tension between the different structures.


Bill and I met under a big pine tree. It was a warm summer day in early June, and we were sitting on the roots of the tree, very informal, very unofficial.IMG_1104

I told Bill about my visions for the WAY, about the dream for a more unified YMCA movement, a movement with more visibility and stronger voice, a movement focused on Youth Empowerment. I talked about my hopes for a movement where all of us were moving together to reach common goals, at the same time as the local YMCAs were keeping all the freedom to decide on their own priorities and strategic goals. No empire building in Geneva, but a smooth, decentralized operation to serve the movement in modern and effective ways.



Bill just told me straightforward: If this is your real message, you will get a lot of new friends. We shook hands and decided that World Urban Network and the WAY should work hand in hand and collaborate as closely as possible.



Bill Stewart has been one of my closest and strongest partners in the work that has been done in the 7 years after that informal meeting under a pine tree in Geneva Park, close to Toronto, Canada. We have participated in one another’s meetings and conferences and always demonstrated friendship and close collaboration.

IMG_1156When we introduced the Property Development Project, a vision to take care of the large property portfolio of the YMCA around the world, Bill was the first one who really believed in the need for such an idea, and invested his personal reputation and authority to keep the vision alive in the first difficult years. Bill had himself facilitated a famous example of Property Development in Vancouver YMCA, resulting in the most successful development project ever seen in the YMCA.


Seven years later and we meet in Vancouver to discuss leadership challenges in the YMCA and how we evaluate the federated structure of the YMCA around the world. What are the burning issues related to our federation?

IMG_1176An exhibition from the Vancouver Museum of Art. I always use the opportunity to find my way to a museum of modern art, if they exist.

Below you can see examples of what was discussed during the week in Vancouver.


It was a great week with a full and rich content, served by our excellent host, the CEO of the local YMCA in Vancouver, Stephen Butz. What impressed me the most, was at the end of the programme. There was a panel of four YMCA leaders from different parts of the YMCA Federation, Peter Dinsdale, CEO of YMCA Canada, Carlos Sanvee, General Secretary of Africa Alliance of YMCAs, Kevin Washington, CEO of YMCA of the USA and humbly yours from the World Alliance.


We all had a 15 minutes input on the theme and then we had questions and answers and a general public debate. It was top interesting. The language had changed since last time i was at a similar conference. All of us used the term Youth Empowerment in stead of Youth Development, and one speaker after the other was underlining the importance of reconnecting with young people. One said: But we do not know how to do that. We need to relearn it.


Another one said: We need to have young people together with us. We need to listen to the young people and listen to their needs and see their perspectives on life and society. We need to change as YMCAs. My good friend Medhat Mahdy, the President and CEO of Toronto YMCA said that they looked upon themselves more like a social movement working with thousands of young people, than a business like institution. I loved the conversation and I can see a continuation of this great debate at World Council in the summer of 2018, July 8-14, Thailand.


Together with Peter Dinsdale, the new CEO of YMCA Canada, we took the cable car to the top of the mountain and had a great farewell party for Bill Stewart. He is retiring after 7 years as CEO of WUN. There were many well deserved speeches and gifts and we all appreciated Bill’s leadership so much. Another good friend from years back, Bob Gilbertson, President and CEO of Seattle YMCA, is appointed to take over after Bill next year.


Sunset over Vancouver as we were gliding down the mountainside in a silently moving cablecar.



  1. Thanks Johan I appreciated your retrospective and enjoyed working with you over the past 7 years. I wish you every success in the future. All the best my friend, Bill

  2. Another excellent posting, I always learn so much.. Vancouver is one of the world’s most beautiful and exciting cities! In 1989, I visited the Geneva Park center — as part of the YMCA ‘Roots & Wings’ group! Thank you, Johan

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