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Sometimes the formal language we use to describe what we do just doesn’t capture the full experience. For example, our project in Serbia is called the Civil Society Advocacy Initiative. But really, that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. We’d be getting closer if we called it the “teach a hundred people to fish, and they’ll feed their whole country” initiative. Or the “show smart people what works, and they’ll do the rest” program. Or even the “What happens when you bring Bojan and Natasa to Vermont, and they learn about composting?” project. Yes, it’s true that “civil society and advocacy” are the correct technical terms. But when you get right down to it, the work itself is a lot more exciting – and engaging – than that.
What do we do in Serbia? Well, we help Serbian nonprofit organizations and their leaders find ways to team up with citizens, government, and business to make their communities better, stronger, healthier places. Over the past year, we’ve worked closely with three nonprofit coalitions, each tackling a problem that, unfortunately, is all-too-common in Serbia: the illegal garbage dumps that (literally) litter the landscape, the lack of protections for low-paid workers against abuses or harassment at work, and the limited options for citizens to communicate their priorities to the politicians who supposedly represent them.
One important way that we support these groups is to bring coalition members to the United States to participate in ISC’s Advocacy Fellows Program. The Fellows Program is an intensive two-week experience where advocates see first hand how their United States counterparts tackle the same or similar issues. Because partnership is such an important part of this work, we make sure that the Fellows have a chance to talk to all the folks affected by the issue in the US context—state and local government officials, journalists, business leaders, citizen activists, and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes. We build the Fellows Program curriculum to address the burning questions and priority issues that the Fellows themselves have expressed in their conversations with us. Even more important, perhaps, is the (rare) opportunity it provides advocates to step back from the daily grind and reflect as a group on their own work and how they can apply what they see in the United States (or learn from mistakes we’ve made!) to be more effective.
Then, they head back to Serbia to dive back into their own work with renewed energy and perspective and to apply the lessons learned on their home turf.
Last September, we hosted a group of Advocacy Fellows from the Green Initiative – a coalition of nonprofits from Serbia’s budding environmentalist movement. The Green Initiative includes 7 large advocacy organizations as well as a coalition of grassroots environmental groups, the Green List of Serbia, that ISC has been supporting since 2009 that work together to improve how Serbia, as a country, deals with its trash.
The Fellows visited Vermont and D.C., where they heard from advocates working on reducing toxic waste, and promoting composting, recycling, and the concept of ‘zero waste’. They heard first hand from these folks how they deal with the common challenges faced by advocates worldwide—getting government to take them seriously, ensuring that policy is written and implemented so it actually accomplishes its intended goal, and encouraging citizens to speak out and take action on behalf of their communities. They also talked to the folks responsible for actually dealing with Vermont’s solid waste: from the private companies that haul trash, to the management of one of Vermont’s two landfills, to the organizations that run two of the state’s regional solid waste management districts. They visited several of Vermont’s trash and recycling centers (officially known as Materials Recovery Facilities) as well as the High Fields Center for Composting to see different approaches to solid waste management in Vermont’s rural landscape. We packed years of solid waste advocacy education into a two-week trip! And now, nine months later, we at ISC are humbled by the Serbian Advocacy Fellows’ accomplishments. They have developed a wealth of resources for those looking for good information, held exciting environmental events, and are drawing a whole new generation into environmental leadership and advocacy.