From April 25 – 30, 17 Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and 11 Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program alumni attended the FLEX & YES Global Leadership Forum on Disabilities: Media for Inclusion workshop, in Washington, D.C. This workshop brought together alumni with disabilities for five-days of content related to telling and sharing stories about disabilities, learning how to create stories that are accessible for all, and highlighting the tremendous work that alumni have undertaken since participating in their exchange year.  

The event began with opening remarks from Andrea Cilliers, Chief of Staff for the Special Advisor on International Disability Rights. Ms. Cilliers spoke about efforts being made by the U.S. Department of State to advance disability-inclusive diplomacy and ensure that persons with disabilities have access to effective promotion, protection, and advancement, both in the United States and abroad. Ms. Cilliers’ opening remarks were followed by Lisa Choate, President and CEO of American Councils. Ms. Choate provided an overview of the work that American Councils does to promote programming for students with disabilities as well as her own experience as an alumna of American Councils’ programming.  

After introductions, participants began their storytelling journey with an Introduction to Storytelling session, led by Benjamin Thurn, Media Literacy Program Manager. Participants learned about the foundations and structure of storytelling and important storytelling concepts that can be applied to their personal stories, academic essays, job applications, and professional advocacy. Next, Mobility International USA (MIUSA) Program Specialist Jessica Bansen led a session on best practices for inclusive storytelling. Jessica discussed how participants can add inclusivity features to the stories they are developing, including subtitles, audio descriptions, and other accessibility features.  

After more storytelling practice, including scripting and recording, participants divided into two groups – a video group, led by David Malana, an award-winning videographer from Los Angeles, California with an emphasis on social action, and a podcasting group, led by Marina Sharipova, a chart-topping podcaster from Kazakhstan and FLEX alumna from 2002. Groups focused on how to apply storytelling principles to tell personal stories using the tools and techniques of their respective medium.  

Groups were assisted by a team of alumni mentors. Ana Sikhashvili ’18 (FLEX, Georgia) and Zee Toroev ’14 (FLEX, Kyrgyzstan) assisted with the podcasting groups, and Gaoussou Diarra ’16 (YES, Mali) assisted with the video group. The mentors also led elective sessions, during which they highlighted their accomplishments as alumni within the disability community and the advocacy that they have taken part in. Ms. Sikhashvili highlighted her work in Georgia using targeted activism to highlight disability rights for the blind, including accessible pedestrian lights in Tbilisi. Mr. Diarra highlighted his work on making voting centers and polling stations accessible to people with disabilities in Mali, highlighting the necessity of inclusive practices in the democratic process. Finally, Zee discussed the intersection of social media activism and personal reputation, highlighting insights and challenges experienced as a burgeoning public figure.  

The final projects created by participants, who worked in small groups, included a two-minute long video, adhering to the accessibility best practices outlined earlier in the workshop (captioning, audio descriptions), as well as a ten-minute podcast, uploaded to Spotify and other podcast sharing applications, that also adhered to the accessibility best practices (audio captioning, a two-minute teaser trailer of the podcast). The final projects presented by participants in both audio and video groups can be found here: 

On the final day of the workshop, participants visited the U.S. State Department, where they were welcomed by the Managing Director at the U.S. Department of State, Chris Miner.  Alumni presented to a group of Youth Programs Division representatives and other honored guests about their experiences during the workshop and shared their final storytelling projects. Participants also visited Capitol Hill to share their exchange experiences and share information about the FLEX and YES programs with staff.  In total, 22 meetings took place over the course of the afternoon. The evening closed with a FLEX 30th and YES 20th Anniversary celebration.   

Survey results show that one hundred percent of participants reported that, due to the workshop, their ability to produce media had increased, while 91% reported that they plan to continue using the skills they gained as a result of the training. As one participant put it during their closing remarks: “This felt like a masterclass. I was genuinely impressed with how awesome everything about this workshop was, from start to end. I’m deeply thankful for this opportunity. It has a profound impact on me, on a personal, interpersonal, and professional level.” 

FLEX Alumni Featured:

Marina Sharipova ’02 (Almaty, Kazakhstan, placed by MCID in Hattiesburg, MS) 

Ana Sikhashvili ’18 (Tblisi, Georgia, placed by ASSE in Faribault, MN)

Zee Toroev ’14 (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, placed by PAX in Fort Collins, CO)


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