Bridging Backgrounds is a youth program for that works to foster tolerance, expand mutual understanding, and increase knowledge of human rights among youth in Macedonia. The program is divided into two phases: the learning phase and the activism phase. During the learning phase, participants attend a seven-day conference in Skopje. At the conference, participants participate in human rights education activities, receive community activism training, and hear talks from leaders in the fields of activism, academia, and politics. During the activism phase, participants design and implement their own community-based projects with sustained mentorship from the Bridging Backgrounds organizing team. Participants are eligible for grants up to $200 to facilitate these projects.
Phase I – The Learning Phase
Human Rights Education Activities
The core of the Bridging Backgrounds curriculum surrounds human rights education activities. The goal of these activities is to provide participants with a foundational knowledge of human rights and, more importantly, enable participants to think critically regarding human rights. Participants learn the major principles of human rights, important human rights documents, common debates regarding human rights, and current human rights issues. These activities are modeled after activities in Compass, the Council of Europe’s manual on human rights education for young people, and are taught by certified human rights education instructors. Human rights education activities take many forms, including debates among participants, model human rights court proceedings, empathetic exercises such as privilege walks, and Socratic-like discussions on human rights philosophy. Regardless of the form they take, these activities are never structured as traditional lectures, and participants always impact the dynamics of the activity.
Community Activism Training
In preparation for the participants’ community-based projects in the second phase of the Bridging Backgrounds program, participants receive professional training on how to conduct grassroots social development work in their communities. This training focuses on how to conduct community outreach, local needs assessments, participatory project design, project development, strategic project implementation, project communication, and project monitoring and evaluation. The curriculum for the community activism trainings has been developed and will be taught by experienced community development professionals on the United by Love team in conjunction with certified trainers from the National Youth Council of Macedonia and is designed to be adaptive so that each participant can develop the perspective, knowledge, and skills to effectively complete a project in their unique local community. Near the end of the community activism training, the organizing team provides an overview of the second phase of the program, participants begin to brainstorm the types of local issues they wish to address, and they begin to design the community-based projects that they will implement to solve such problems.
Restorative Practice Workshops
New for the 2021 program, Bridging Backgrounds will hold restorative practice workshops. These workshops, modeled after those developed by the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, will guide participants through the process of restorative justice, equity and cultural sensitivity, forgiveness and healing, and social-emotional learning needed to lead themselves and their communities into peaceful coexistence.
Digital Field Trips
Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and the host city for the training portion of the 2021 Bridging Backgrounds Balkans program, contains numerous sites that help connect the topics students learn in the classroom to the real world. Most prominent among these local trips is the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, which documents the history of Jews in the Balkans and the atrocities levied against their community during World War II. Visits to places such as this help illustrate humanity’s darkest moments, show that their communities have the potential to return to these dark moments today, and teach participants that they have the ability and the responsibility to further humanity’s promise of human rights. For the 2021 program, these field trips will be digital as a result of the public health circumstances.
Discussions with Distinguished Individuals from the Fields of Activism, Academia, and Politics
To provide participants with various perspectives on how different public sectors work to foster mutual understanding, develop tolerance, and expand knowledge of human rights, the Bridging Backgrounds program includes numerous talks from leaders who work to create an equitable society. Speakers include youth activists, investigative reporters, political science professors, and diplomats. Past speakers have included the head of the Youth Educational Forum in Macedonia, Peace Corps community organizing specialists, the head investigative reporter for Macedonia Radio and Television, and ambassadors –
including the United States Ambassador to Macedonia.
Phase II – The Activism Phase
After the residential training, participants solidify their ideas for their project. Participants are given great flexibility in the potential projects that they can implement which allows them to design projects that fit both their interests and the needs of their community. The basic requirements for participants are that their projects focus on one of the themes of Bridging Backgrounds (tolerance, inter-ethnic understanding, or human rights), include at least twenty-five people, attempt to solve a specific problem or problems in their community with defined objectives, are culturally appropriate, and have a reasonable chance of success. First, participants submit shortened draft proposals to the organizing team in September. The organizing team evaluates each draft proposal and provides feedback for each participant. Second, participants write a full project proposal and budget in October. The organizing team reviews each proposal and budget in-depth and responds with necessary and recommended edits. Participants modify their project and budget until the organizing team approves. Third, once approval is given, participants are issued their micro-grant of up to $200 and commence with their projects between November and February.
After receiving approval from the organizing team, participants implement community-based projects, which can take place any time between November and February. Projects may take place in one day, as in a single afternoon of human rights workshops, or take place throughout a series of sessions spanning months, such as a series of local youth events. Regardless of the length of their project, the organizing team provides guidance and support throughout the project’s implementation. Past projects ranged from a week-long human rights caravan that brought human rights education to young people in five small cities around Macedonia, to community bike rides that worked to foster gender balance in sports in a small village, to the first inter-ethnic youth ping-pong tournament in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.
After participants complete their projects, they write short reflection pieces to review the challenges and successes of their projects, synthesize what they have learned throughout the program, and contemplate how the program has impacted them. After submitting these reflection pieces, participants have completed the program, and they are sent their certificates.