Miriam Teuma’s lifelong goal has been to support young people. From her early days as a youth volunteer to her important position today as CEO of Agenzija Żghażagh, she places public service at the core of everything she does.
Today Miriam sees herself as having a number of priorities, although they are all interdependent and mutually supportive. “As CEO of the agency, I am the leader and manager of our people and resources,” she explains. “I drive the national youth policy and advocate for young people.”
But, alongside that, she also has other roles – such as with the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Youth, which she has been involved in since 2000. This gives her the opportunity to help shape European policies for young people. Miriam chaired the Committee in 2018/2019 and was re-elected Chairperson for the coming year. “I truly relish the opportunity to inspire young people to learn, and to learn from them,” she smiles.
Miriam says she always wanted to give back to society, but teaching – her original career – wasn’t enough for her. “I was always involved in volunteering in one way or another, so taking a place on Malta’s first Youth and Community Studies Bachelor course when it was launched in 1993 seemed like a natural step; I knew it would help me to volunteer in a more professional way.
“I spent most of my time as a volunteer working with ZAK (the youth Catholic Action) and worked my way up from a youth leader, to a youth worker, and then President of the organisation. As an organisation, it engaged more than 1,000 people at the time and is still active today, which is always satisfying to know.”
Switching thoughts to her professional career and its landmarks so far, Miriam highlights becoming a university lecturer as a key moment for her. “I moved from someone who was the primary science co-ordinator at the Directorate of Education, to a lecturer on the Youth and Community Studies course that I had followed myself,” she says. “That really was a landmark.”
After that, came the establishment of Agenzija Żghażagh in 2010, and her appointment as CEO. It became her job to fulfil its mission: to manage, implement and coordinate the national youth policy, and to promote and safeguard the interests of young people. “We’ve grown substantially since then,” the CEO smiles. “We went from three people in one room, to an organisation with over 30 full-time staff, plus part-timers, and even won a national quality service award.”
Since the agency opened, Miriam says she and the team have created a youth-friendly environment at their headquarters in Santa Venera that young people can use in a variety of ways. The organisation has also divided its services to cover Malta’s four regions, helping it to reach more young people than ever.
This enables the agency to offer a wide range of services and programmes to young people, helping them to increase their skills in active citizenship, democracy, and other important aspects of life. “We want them to be independent,” she continues. “We give them transferable skills for their future careers and other aspects of their life. This helps them to be more well-rounded and to achieve their potential in anything they want to do.”
There’s no doubt that the agency’s work is critical for the country, and Miriam and her team had to work especially hard to keep their services going in 2020 when the pandemic hit. “We believe in building relationships with young people; that’s our motto,” she says. “So, when lockdown happened, it was hard to know how we would sustain the group work that goes into keeping those relationships active and strong.”
As with so many organisations, everything at Agenzija Żghażagh went online. “I was surprised by how effective it was,” the CEO continues. “Young people are adaptable and tech-savvy, so in many ways it was easy – but I was still happy that it was such a success. Even our Youth Film Festival and Intercultural Week plans went virtual, and we actually reached a large amount of young people as well as adults. I am very pleased by what our team managed to achieve and by the very positive responses of the young people using our services and facilities. It certainly bodes well for the future.”
Now, as she assesses how her role will continue to change, Miriam is driven by the belief that you can be a leader in many ways. “You can lead everywhere,” she says. “My mother always steered our family, for instance; you don’t need to be in a powerful position to lead. But you do have to be at the front, and to approach what you do with humility and patience – with one eye on those you are leading, and another on the future.
“The important thing to remember about leadership is that such a position doesn’t last forever. You have to use it as best you can for the benefit of those you are working with – and in my case that is Malta’s young people.”
She knows that continuing to motivate both her team and the young people they serve will have its challenges going forward. “I worry that there is a move towards apathy among young people at the moment,” she explains. “They are tired of going online and, since school started, things have become more difficult. Young people are feeling drained. So, my role is to keep the pace and to encourage youth workers to keep working with them. It’s also a learning experience for me and I have been enthused by just how many good ideas have been sparked by COVID-19 and the circumstances around it.”
2021 will be all about the implementation of the new national youth policy. “For me this new policy is all about quality. It will support us to use our expertise to facilitate those working with and for young people to become better,” she says.
Finally, Miriam says her vision is for Malta to have a youth sector that is driven by young people themselves and by their desire to become active citizens. “This will give us a stronger civil society with a critical approach and the ability to be self-reflective. There’s a long way to go, but I believe the agency is trying to put this forward and to make the improvements needed. After all, there have been many positive results in the last 10 years already and that really is encouraging,” she adds.
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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