Staff Spotlight: Justine Yu

Communications & Marketing Director

Tell us a little about Operation Groundswell and your role at the company.

Phnom Penh OG

Justine: Operation Groundswell is an incredible non-profit organization that runs a number of experiential learning and volunteer programs to various regions around the world. We engage youth through ethical travel, cross-cultural exchange, and community service. We are sparking a movement of globally active and socially conscious travelers…what we like to call “backpacktivists.”

I am the Communications Coordinator at OG and am responsible for growing this community of backpacktivists, ensuring that youth know about our programs and get involved!

How did you get involved in the volunteer industry?

Justine: I’ve been working in the non-profit sector since 2009, but took some time off in 2011 to volunteer in the Philippines. While I was there I did an internship with a media monitoring and press freedom organization called the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

It was an incredible experience and I returned home to Toronto, Canada with renewed vigor and determination. I knew I wanted to combine my passions in communications, volunteering, and travel. I was just lucky enough to have stumbled upon Operation Groundswell to do just that!

What makes OG unique?

Justine: Ethical travel is at the crux of our philosophy and our goal is to show this generation that there is an alternative to vacation package travel. We pride ourselves in these five principles:

  1. Non-profit: We are a non-profit organization and though we use business principles to maintain a sustainable enterprise, all our revenue is reinvested back into the organization and our projects.
  2. Meaningful and Genuine Experiences for Volunteers: Our trips are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region we go to. We want students to delve into new cultures and experiences from a local perspective. Our volunteers eat local food, use local transport, and essentially survive each day as a temporary local.
  3. Serving Our Partner Communities: We do not go into a community with the expectation of being saviors and solving all problems. We work in partnership with local NGOs and charities and work only on community-requested projects. We are not a development organization, but rather a network of curious, hardworking, and socially conscious youth that want to contribute to the beautiful communities that host us with open arms.
  4. Environmentally Conscious: We realize the carbon footprint we are leaving behind during our travels. As such, we carbon offset flights for all of our programs, working in partnership with PlanetAir.
  5. Financially Accessible: We honestly believe that our programs offer something unique and want to make this opportunity available to all youth. That’s why we keep our program fee as low as possible and even provide bursaries for those experiencing financial barriers.

How do you ensure your programs are sustainable and mutually beneficial for you, the community, and the volunteers?

Philippines Operation Groundswell

Justine: Partnerships are central to our programming and the key to sustainability. As I mentioned above, all of our projects are community-requested and entirely based on the needs of our partners.

We support local organizations that exist before we arrive, appreciate our support when we’re there, but will be continuing the work long after we leave. Our volunteers are there to learn from the locals who have the most intimate knowledge of their hardships and strengths and in turn, are able to apply these learnings back home.

What does the future hold for OG?

Justine: It’s an exciting time to be a part of OG! We are truly blossoming as an organization and have grown immensely. We’ve expanded to nine regions and are now running over twenty trips this year! The future is full of growth, learning, and even more fun!

More than that, we’ve got a really groundbreaking project underway. We’re in the midst of developing a hub in Guatemala where we will be able to support our local partners 365 days a year and involve backpackers passing through the country in our experiential learning programs. It’s going to be something that’s never been done before...stay tuned!