When a state of emergency was announced in Kyrgyzstan in March, youth organizers were leading projects to help address some of the local infrastructure issues affecting their communities, such as parks that had fallen into disrepair or poor street lighting. With COVID-19 forcing everyone to remain home, six student organizers from the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek took action to ensure momentum was not lost. With support from NDI, these activists seamlessly pivoted their organizing efforts into the online space.
In spite of the pandemic, these students created an online training course to help other young people and aspiring community organizers have access to practical capacity building exercises, focusing on best practices and strategies for organizing during and after a crisis. Connecting participants with guidance and advice from international grassroots organizing experts, the 30-day course helped participants develop several hard and soft skills through video tutorials, virtual consultations with thematic experts and individualized lessons with the student organizers. With a focus on helping young people engage with local officials and other civic groups within their local community, the Youth in Action course included sessions on how to create an initiative group, communicate professionally with local and administrative officials, develop action plans and more. In early April, the students launched this free online course and have so far trained more than a hundred young people from different parts of the country on the fundamentals of organizing and leading projects in their communities.
In response to the wave of support and interest surrounding Youth in Action, the student organizers quickly followed up to create another five week course, called the 30-Day Challenge. Building on the skills and topics covered in Youth in Action, the Challenge is similarly designed to help young people and first time activists hone their civic organizing skills. This next stage in the training program, which started in late July, covers topics such as: stress management tips, social media literacy, monitoring and evaluation, grant writing, resume building and strategies to enhance online learning. Given concerns over stress brought on by the pandemic, participants are also provided space to learn and practice meditation and yoga, while engaging in friendly e-sport competitions.
Both Youth in Action and the 30-Day Challenge represent a novel approach towards youth participation and activism in Kyrgyzstan, demonstrating that these types of trainings can be appealing to young people while also equipping them with the skills necessary to bring positive change to their communities. These online courses not only created a forum for young people to connect and organize after the threat from COVID-19 subsides, but also established an online civic space that will continue to serve as a gateway for youth engagement in civic and political life. Thanks to connections established through the courses, young people have found partners with whom they can begin applying these skills in their own communities. As the program comes to a close, NDI will continue working with student organizers to follow up on participant plans and translate this learning into benefit for their communities. By embedding the courses within a reputable academic institution, NDI has ensured that these courses will be used with future cohorts and will remain accessible through the American University’s Center for Civic Engagement and other activist circles. Thanks to support from the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI has been able to help these organizers find creative ways to make an impact in their communities while simultaneously building a culture that fosters future engagement in local projects in person.