Fifty inspiring leaders from four European countries shared their small victories at the ‘Professional Fellows Alumni Reunion’ in the High Tatras in order to get professional feedback and support from U.S. mentors, as well as other Professional Fellows Alumni in the program and to work together on current challenges and future projects in the field of community organizing, minority empowerment, citizen participation.
In the middle of June, 50 community organizers out of 166 Professional Fellows Alumni reunited at the 3rd regional conference in High Tatras – a beautiful mountainous part of Slovakia. The Professional Fellows Program (funded by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Great Lakes Consortium for International Training and Development at WSOS Community Action Commission, Inc.) since 2012.
To implement the knowledge learned and the U.S. experience successfully in local communities, GLC/WSOS organizes a Professional Fellows alumni reunion event on annual basis. According to the testimonies from the former participants, these international alumni reunions are a great asset to the PF program. This year, the event took place in the City of Strbske Pleso (in the Eastern part of Slovakia) and was co-organized by GLC’s Slovak partner: Center for Community Organizing (CKO). The main goal of the conference was to re-connect Professional Fellows alumni from five countries including U.S. mentors, to share their accomplishments, as well as current challenges and future plans. Fifty participants coming from rural and urban areas of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and belonging to various minority communities (Roma people, LGBTQI+, and people with special needs) attended. They recognized themselves as one growing family of organizers.
“The conference has been a great reminder of how similar our struggles are and how important it is to share ideas and ways of leading them with people’s power in the center. Analysing experience from the ground level, rethinking old methods and learning about new ones have been an important part of this process. To me, this 3rd reunion has been particularly important with regards to consolidating people and organizations across borders around LGBTQI+ issues with concrete plans that have great potential,” said Vladislav Petkov from Bulgaria, a 2013 PFP alumnus upon leaving the event re-energized to work for change with new dimensions of motivation and concrete ideas for follow-up. “As a community organizer, I am always under high stress, so it was good to meet fellows who understand exactly what I am doing in my home country. They were listening to me and I again felt the real support from all alumni, as well as the U.S. mentors. I had the opportunity to facilitate two particular conference activities so I could practise my knowledge and skills in that field too,” added Boglarka Dombi from Hungary, a 2016 PFP alumna upon leaving the conference prepared to transform her ideas into actions in the field of social entrepreneurship working with disadvantaged/unemployed youth.
The conference participants compared their experiences from working with Roma people, LGBTQI+, people with special needs or refugees and immigrants in small groups and learned from each other. The results from the World Café format, as well as focus group discussions will definitely grow into multiple-country collaborations with new projects. A Hungarian-Slovak project on building social enterprises is already going on. The U.S. mentors helped the participants with their ideas and how to get more people involved in community organizing activities on local level. They also led sessions on how to get money for community activities – how to do successful grassroots fundraising and grant writing.
During their free time, people could explore the High Tatras and Spis Region. They relaxed and walked around the big lake, Strbske Pleso, and tried traditional Slovak food in the Zbojnicka Koliba. Alumni also visited places that were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List – one of the most beautiful European castles, Spissky Castle, in the historical center of the City Levoca together with the 500-year-old altar by Master Paul. Conference participants were truly amazed by the Slovak nature and culture.
As Aurora Martin from Romania, a 2016 PFP alumna stated in her testimonial (part of the conference’s evaluation form): “The devotion of Slovak organizers really helped in creating a familiar working space, a real regional incubator for community organizing reflection and initiatives.” Both professionally and culturally this event was a great success and made a lasting impact on all participants.
Written by: Boba Markovic Baluchova, Photo: Boba M. Baluchova & Emil Metodiev