From February 28 to March 4, 2018, 55 FLEX and YES alumni from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia gathered near Prishtina, Kosovo, for the IDEAL Workshop. Divided into four small groups and guided by eight experienced mentors – all alumni or participants of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs – participants explored ways to address needs they identified in their communities through arts, sports, digital storytelling and social media, or debate and public speaking. The program included a day in Prishtina filled with site visits to local organizations and institutions, activities led by alumni for local middle school students, and a reception hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Prishtina at the residence of Ambassador Greg Delawie in celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the YES program and the 25th Anniversary of the FLEX program.

Participants exploring the ARTS theme experienced first-hand the power of art to get the public’s attention and make people care. Alumni watched a powerful film that featured all forms of art -including rap, sculpture, performance, and film – being utilized as tools for social change. They learned how to research, portray, and understand multiple perspectives through performing forum theater. They created visual and multimedia art pieces that sparked discussion about their community concerns. During the group’s site visits in Prishtina, the alumni met Sadije Suhudolli, a visual artist and activist, and Zana Hoxha Krasniqi, Founder and Executive Director ARTPOLIS, a Kosovo-based NGO that promotes culture, arts, and multiethnic co-existence through social dialogue and use of theatre as a tool for promoting diversity and social change.  Both shared how they utilize art to help productively disrupt socially accepted norms, including definitions of gender and feminism. A highlight of the workshop for participants in the ARTS theme group was guiding 25 middle school students in using comic-style art to explore bullying and how to overcome it. “Actually doing things really helped me understand the meaning,” one participant reflected.

Participants in the DEBATE AND PUBLIC SPEAKING theme group learned how to utilize techniques such as effective listening, appropriate body language, argument development, and overcoming anxiety to engage in productive dialogue and share their own messages convincingly. They debated, practiced civil dialogue, and developed and gave speeches, including addresses made during the closing of the workshop. In Prishtina, the alumni met the city’s mayor, Shpend Ahmeti, who inspired them with his story of founding his own debate club in high school and continually working to overcome his own anxiety as a public speaker. He encouraged participants to take initiative and create their own opportunities. The alumni also led 25 middle school students in debates about uniforms and cell phones in schools.  “We got to actually do what we learned, gain experience, and learn from feedback from mentors,” one participant explained, highlighting that this is what made the entire workshop experience valuable.

Participants exploring the DIGITAL STORYTELLING AND SOCIAL MEDIA (DSSM) theme were challenged to tell stories that were honest, impactful, and memorable. Alumni analyzed first their own stories, then the work of successful bloggers, virtual news media, and social media phenomena, and finally created their own blog posts, videos, and social media campaigns highlighting their exchange experiences, all utilizing professional tools and best-practices shared by their mentors. During the group’s site visit in Prishtina, participants were inspired by Granit Limani, who co-founded the media company Entermedia in 2004 with a classmate when he was just 18, and has since grown the company to a team of more than 40 professionals in three countries serving more than 250 clients.  Like the other theme groups, DSSM participants also had the opportunity to share what they had learned with approximately 25 middle school students.

Participants in the SPORTS theme group learned how sports can be utilized to teach leadership and teamwork and to promote social inclusion, conflict transformation, and healthy habits. Through activity-filled sessions, alumni learned not only how to engage others, but also how to apply core lessons and values to their own lives. As one participant shared: “Leadership was something I was never comfortable about, but now I’ve learned a lot about it and I think it will be very helpful in my projects and life.” In Prishtina, the alumni met with the captains of Prishtina’s first league men’s and women’s basketball team and watched the team practice, which sparked a dynamic discussion on gender equality in sports. All that they learned was put to use as they guided 25 middle school students in creating, leading, and playing their own sport activities.

Throughout the workshop, participants in all theme areas received support from FLEX and YES Alumni Coordinators, mentors, American Councils staff, and fellow participants in developing their own community projects.  “I found project implementation sessions VERY useful and I won’t feel afraid to address a problem and organize a project. I will struggle much less,” one participant shared.  Another shared that through the combination of project implementation and theme sessions, “I learned a lot of practical skills and now have concrete goals to reach.”

In a post-workshop survey, the average participant reported significant growth in at least four out of seven areas measured.  Ninety-six percent of participants reported an increase in their sense of connection to the alumni community and their determination and/or inspiration for taking action to address community needs.  Ninety-two percent reported an increase in their competence and confidence in implementing a community project and their understanding of and interest in their theme topic.

The IDEAL Workshop program was developed and implemented by American Councils for International Education and made possible by support from the FLEX and YES programs, together with grants from the U.S. Embassies in Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Macedonia. The program will continue through the end of 2018 with post-workshop projects through which participants will share and utilize what they learned, supported by up to $250 in grant funding.

To hear more about the IDEAL Workshop, follow the hashtag #atIDEAL18 and check out this video!