Kosovo Summer Youth Leadership Academy
Young Kosovars Reach for the Future
High school students take on their generation's challenges to become tomorrow's leaders
On a warm summer day in Prizren, Kosovo, a group of teenagers crowds into the town’s central square. One by one, they stand up and speak loudly and passionately about issues that affect them: barriers to education, unemployment, simmering ethnic tension, the desire to emigrate for greater economic opportunity. Children and their mothers stop and listen. Fellow teenagers ask questions, and seniors engage the speakers in conversation. The voice of Kosovo’s youth is being heard.
By any measure, Kosovo is one of the youngest countries in the world. Just two years old (and recognized by only a third of all U.N. member states), Kosovo boasts the youngest population in Europe; over half of Kosovars are younger than 25. This generation is coming of age in a society that has been ethnically divided—both socially and legally—for decades, and one that provides poor economic prospects for people from all backgrounds. If the fledgling democracy is to survive and thrive, young people will need to stand up and lead the way.
Enter the Kosovo Summer Youth Leadership Academy. Run by Common Ground Consulting in partnership with ISC, the academy is a unique residential program for high schoolers who are dedicated to improving the lives of their peers in Kosovo. Through experiential learning (such as the “Street Speak” heard in the Prizren town square), open dialogue sessions, workshops, and the development of micro-lending programs, the academy prepares young people to be effective leaders and agents of change.
This last August, the academy held its first weeklong session in the Sharri Mountains for 23 teens selected not only for their commitment to civic engagement, but also for their ethnic and regional diversity—ethnic Albanians, Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Roma, Serbs, and Turks from across the country were represented.
The street speaking event in Prizren square proved to be a culmination of the academy for the teens. “Street speaking made me feel like a leader,” one student said. Another remarked that “the public speaking was amazing, a jump in cold water.”
“It was amazing,” agreed Craig Bowman of Common Ground Consulting. “The activity is always powerful, but with this group, even I was awestruck by how much it seemed to move people. They used the power of their voices to demand change, to bring attention to the issues that affect young people in Kosovo, and they got people thinking. We had little kids and mothers, teenagers, and seniors all stopping, listening, asking questions.”
While the Youth Leadership Academy’s primary purpose is to help teens develop the passion, skills, and networks they need to create lasting change, organizers understood that these need to be cultivated through tangible projects that address immediate concerns.
With that in mind, the students designed and planned three micro-grant enterprises that allowed them to put their new leadership skills and inter-ethnic relationships into practice. At the same time, the projects also gave them practical experience in project design, business planning, and budget development. The students created a video documentary that raises awareness about ethnic discrimination; a series of workshops and debates—focusing on subjects not covered by the school curriculum, including AIDS awareness, basic IT skills and English—aimed at increasing the performance of primary school students; and a youth conference focused on improving ethnic tensions in Kosovo.
Many reported that a valuable lesson taken from the academy was an understanding of the challenges faced by peers who were not of their own ethnic background. “It made me let go of stereotypes that I had for other nationalities,” admitted one participant. “We are now the future mix of Kosovo!” declared another.
As these young people mature along with their new nation, their ability to rise above ethnic friction—and bring others with them—will be crucial to Kosovo’s stability and development. And if their experience in the Prizren town square is any indication, Kosovo’s people are ready to follow.