Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Project is Born/Projekt ka lindur.

Preface.  In the last post I gave a “sort-of” excuse for being missing in blog-tion that I had been busy with work.  So…to be fair, I’ll now spend some time writing about this work!  Elbasan Youth Council (EYC).  Those three words represent, far and away, the most rewarding experience of my Peace Corps service.  All thanks to the 29 brilliant youth participants and my six program colleagues.  The next few posts will be dedicated to this program… “my baby” and the EYC family.

I had been doing some youth development programs with area high schools.  It was fun and important work, but I felt a nagging sense of guilt for being outside the Municipality of Elbasan- my host agency (PC jargon for primary assignment.)  I shared this guilt with my new site-mate, Luis, and whined about (he deserves a medal for tolerating me!) how I wanted to develop a city-based youth program.  Together we hemmed and hawed over multiple ideas.  How can we make this work?  And then, because he is awesome/ai eshte i tmerrshem, Luis nailed it – A Youth Municipal Council.  We pitched the idea to our Mayor, who has a soft spot for youth programming.  In fact, Mr. Qazim Sejdini started HIS career in youth development.  SLAM DUNK!  We were off and running!

Elbasan Youth Council’s program design closely resembles a model of my own experiences with “Tempe Leadership,” a civic initiative that educates future community leaders.  Never re-invent the wheel, when a great model is available.  Cheers/Gezuar to 28 years of the Tempe Leadership tradition... now paving the way for the future of Albania!  A debt of gratitude.            http://tempeleadership.org.  

This BRAND new youth leadership program, publicized to all 14 high schools in the city, brought quite a draw… nearly 100 applicants.  Wow!?  Was it because the Youth are ready to have their voices heard?  Was it because this program provided a chance to further their English skills?  Was it because Albanians LOVE America and two Americans were part of the program?  Was it because Albanian Youth value opportunities for developing their leadership skills?  I think the answer is YES, to all of it!  However, certainly the “America card” is the least important or should be!

From 100 applicants, we had to cut the field to 30.  Yikes/O bo bo!  No one wants to be the “bad guy” who has to turn away hopeful and eager applicants, especially when they are teenagers/adoleshentet! But learning how to deal with disappointment is a leadership lesson in itself.  It had to be done.  So we devised a score card that ranked applications based on the quality and completeness of answers to essay questions.  And also took into consideration reference requirements.  We made every effort to be as fair/i drejte and transparent as possible. 

As you might imagine, in a culture where nepotism is the norm and favors are often paid… this was not easy/kjo nuk ishte e lehte. Soon after the selection announcement, my Albanian counterparts were subject to phone calls from irritated parents asking, “Why wasn’t MY child selected!?” This would be followed by defenses such as “But we’re neighbors!” Or “Our kids go to school together!” Or “Our family supported the Mayor in his last campaign.”  I can only imagine how uncomfortable these calls must have been. 

I was nervous, “Will we have to waver, make exceptions?”  The thought of it made my stomach hurt.   I worried that we were pushing our American standards on a culture that might not be ready for them…and frankly, might not even want them!  Even with months of cultural and community integration, at the end of the day, I’m still and outsider.  I’m not Albanian/Nuk jam shqiptare

As it turns out, my worries were unnecessary. (much like my Mom's usually are about my nutrition, skin care routine, online profile, etc. but I digress.) My Albanian counterparts made me proud, as they remained firm time after time. They countered the inquiries by explaining; “We followed an American system for transparent and fair scoring.” They invited parents to review our process.  They invited disappointed applicants to go over their applications to receive tips and advice for strengthening their case next year.  And for the most part, with this explanation, came acceptance from nearly all those who challenged.  I was encouraged by students who pledged to try again next year.   And I was touched by the level of respect shown to American values.  And although America is far from perfect, this is something of which I can be proud!

In the end/Ne fund, we invited 30 young men and women to the First Class of Elbasan Youth Council.  One by one, as the selected Youth arrived for Orientation on an early Saturday morning… smiling, eager, curious and full of hope, I knew we’d done something right!  Very right.  And that was only the beginning/vetem fillimi!

Peace, Love and Doing the Right Thing.

PS:  More to come on EYC including… Youth Priority Issues, Community Projects and Making it Happen!


  1. My name is Ashley Wood and I found your blog a few months ago through a Google search. I really like the personal stories about your time in Europe and I love reading about all your adventures.

    I am working on a story-telling book mission that is called Project Albanian Voices (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/albanianvoices/project-albanian-voices). Due to the fact that it is a crowdfunding venture on kickstarter, I am in desperate need of online exposure. My project is not political in nature and only intends to focus on positive aspects of Albanian culture, history and language, so I was wondering if it might be something you would like to feature on your blog. I know you probably get a lot of emails from people asking you to feature their content on your site, but I was hoping you would consider my project because I am incredibly passionate about it and I believe that more projects like this are necessary to reshape public opinion about Albania. I hope you will take just a minute to read why I believe this project is so important. Kickstarter gives all projects a deadline and I must raise these funds by May 26th, 2013 at 11:59 pm or I receive nothing, so this is time-sensitive. I would greatly appreciate any help promoting that you might be able to offer. I have attached a press release that I wrote and I have pasted a short description of the project below. Thank you so much for your time and have a great day.



    “The true history of mankind will be written only when Albanians participate in its writing.” This statement is as true today as it was in 20th century when the Austrian linguist Maximilian Lambertz said it. The interest in Albania that led to the creation of this project was due to the presence of and assistance by Albanians in a time of dire need. Awestruck by the history of the Illyrians, their language and the lack of that information that had been present about all of it in most U.S. formal education, one of the aims of Project Albanian Voices is to shed light on aspects of the Albanian culture that are positive (not to portray them as Hollywood villains). So, the goal of this project is to focus on the aspects of Albanian culture that are positive and inspirational. One motivational aspect of Albanian culture is the history of how they have defended their homeland from a multitude of antagonistic invaders, saved it from multiple wars and tolerated almost constant political instability. These stories about the necessity for migration, be it due to economic factors, deportation or blood-feuds are harrowing and exhilarating. The tales of bravery in the face of adversity are truly overwhelming and inspirational. The goal of this Kickstarter project is to raise the necessary funds to travel to Albania to complete interviews and chronicle individual stories related to migration. In order to raise this money by the deadline (May 26th at 11:59pm), we need your help. Only the efforts of an entire community interested in the fair and honest preservation of Albanian history can make this a reality. If you can donate, please do so at any amount. If you can help in other ways such as publicizing this via social networks or writing about it in blogs and newspapers, we would thank you immensely.

  2. Hi Ashley....I'm developing a new post for this weekend and am happy to include your information. Also....I'd encourage you to try to connect via Facebook with a gentleman named Nicholas Crowe. During his Peace Corps service, he lived in Kukes and Vlore and captured some incredible history and stories from Albanians of all ages and walks of life. He partnered with the University in Vlore and might be a great resource for you. I'll post your information. Pac fat dhe gjithe te mirat!