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Obama Foundation: Leaders Europe Program Concludes with Collaborative Projects Across the Region

The best kind of leadership isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s about helping people see who we can be as individuals and as a community.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, 2021

A core responsibility of becoming an Obama Leader is to serve as a role model and mentor for other young people who are eager to change the world around them. To mark the end of our inaugural Leaders Europe program, our 35 Leaders came together to design collaborative projects to support the civic engagement of other emerging leaders across Europe.

These projects are just the first step in what we hope will be many years of civic leadership for the next generation of Europeans, and we’re inspired by what our Leaders have accomplished so far!

A zoom grid features a group of leaders smiling to camera.

A Conversation About Tackling Polarization with Young Europeans

Many young Europeans are frustrated by the growing polarization that is driving communities apart and eroding trust in their societies. That’s why, on March 15, Obama Leaders Joseph Power (UK), Ahmed Abdirahman (Sweden), Fanny Hidvegi (Hungary), Peymana Assad (UK), and Andrej Nosov (Serbia) hosted a roundtable with young leaders from 10 countries across the continent to discuss the ways in which polarization has affected their communities, and to share ideas on how to tackle the problem. Experienced political and government leaders from the United States and Europe joined the conversation, including: Anna Donáth, Hungarian Member of the European Parliament; Cat Smith, UK Member of Parliament and Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement; Jesse Bernstein, the US Director for Human Rights and Civil Society at the National Security Council; and Ben Rhodes, the former Deputy National Security Advisory under President Barack Obama.

The young leaders identified factors driving polarisation in their countries, from education systems that fail to teach students how to bridge differences, to social media algorithms that spread disinformation and divisive content, to political parties that are hostile to young people with new ideas. You can learn more about the ideas that emerged from the conversation  here (Opens in a new tab).

A purple graphic reads "let's run for office" with a woman holding a megaphone.

A Call for More Women to Run for Office!

The only thing better than women running for office, is more women running for office. That’s why onInternational Women’s Day, Obama Leaders Julia Mouzon (France), Katharina Schulze (Germany), Flavia Kleiner (Switzerland), and Federica Vinci (Italy) published a joint opinion piece in  French (Opens in a new tab) Italian (Opens in a new tab), and  English-language media (Opens in a new tab) urging young women like themselves to run for office.

“Women are still underrepresented in every parliament of every country on this continent,” they argued. “That is why today, on International Women’s Day, we advocate for the equal representation of half of the population in political offices: the representation of women.”

For these four Obama Leaders, encouraging women to take a leadership role in politics is part of their life’s work. Katharina ran for parliament in her home state of Bavaria at 28-years-old and became the youngest parliamentarian ever to serve—today, she’s the head of the state’s largest opposition party. Federica founded the Italian branch of Volt Europa, the first pan-European progressive party and today helps run the party’s local, regional and European campaigns. Julia is the founder of EluesLocales, the largest network of elected women in France. And Flavia is the co-founder of Helvetia is calling you!, a Swiss campaign to increase women’s representation in public office that helped raise the number of women by 10 percentage points in the 2019 national election. They’re committed to making sure that other young women follow in their footsteps and help make politics more representative of the rest of Europe.

A Call for Yezidi Youth to Help End Child Marriage

Isabel Broian (Armenia) and Farhad Shamo Roto (France) are both members of the Yezidi community. Isabel grew up as part of the Yezidi minority in Armenia, where Yezidis experience significant discrimination, and Farhad is a genocide survivor who is helping his community rebuild in France and seek justice. After meeting during the Leaders Europe program, they decided to work together to raise awareness about the ongoing problem of child marriage in their community—many Yezidi girls are married before age 18. The practice is a violation of these girls’ human rights and often leads to them dropping out of school and giving up their dreams of an education and a career.

In response, Isabel and Farhad created a documentary to explain why early marriage is so harmful for children, share stories from their own communities, and call on fellow Yezidi youth to join them in speaking out against the practice. They plan to use the short film to kickstart conversations with others in their community. Check it out here. (Opens in a new tab)

A Documentary About the Fight for Democracy and LGBTQ Rights

When pro-democracy protests erupted in Belarus in the spring of 2020, news channels across the world showed millions of people marching with Belarusian flags, the symbol of the new movement. Obama Leader and co-founder of the LGBTQ project MAKOUT Nick Antipov (Belarus) joined other LGBTQ activists in taking to the streets, alongside their fellow citizens. But other protesters were angered at the sight of the rainbow Pride flags streaming into the march and turned on the group. Meanwhile in Poland, Bart Staszewski (Poland) was fighting against the government’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. A filmmaker by training, Bart worked with local LGBTQ groups to create a documentary about Poland’s “LGBT-free Zones'' and fought to organize local pride parades. Like Nick, he faced attacks not just from his government, but from fellow citizens.

Nick and Bart decided to work together to create a documentary raising awareness about the intersectional fight for democracy and LGBTQ rights, focusing on Belarus. Their film features three activists, like themselves, who have risked their own safety to speak out for LGBTQ rights and for their right to be fully included in the struggle for democracy. You can learn more about their project here. (Opens in a new tab)

A Mentoring Project Called Yes Youth Can!

Obama Leaders Maïmonatou Mar (France), Bhavagaya Bakshi (UK), and Liban Sheikh (Finland) and Anna Ascani (Italy) know firsthand what a difference role models can make in helping kids develop the confidence to chart their own paths, and they only wished they’d had more of them when they were younger. Maïmonatou, who is French-Senegalese, and Bhavagaya, who is of Indian descent, are both women of color in the tech and start-up space, where women remain vastly underrepresented. Liban was elected as the first Black president of the Left Youth of Finland, an important youth political group. They teamed up with Anna, Italy’s Deputy Minister for Education, to create a mentoring toolkit for Obama Leaders to share their stories with school children from underserved communities in their countries.

Anna and Bea have held her first mentoring conversation with UK and Italian school classes, and Liban has spoken at community meetings in Finland. The Leaders are hopeful that the project will continue to grow as schools reopen across Europe. Just as they were inspired by the Leaders Europe program, they’re hoping to inspire and empower the next generation of young people across Europe.

Two young girls look at a laptop together.

A Personalized Language Learning Tool for Refugees in Greece

For the millions of people who have left their home countries to build a new life in Europe, learning a new language can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. Obama Leader Wael Habbal (Greece) knows the feeling all too well: he fled Syria as a young man and is now leading the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum to help others like him make a new home in Greece. On the other side of the European continent, Joel Hellermark (Sweden) transformed his frustration with traditional schooling into creating an advanced personalized learning platform with his tech start-up Sana Labs.

Teaming up with Vidhya Ramalingam (UK), an expert in using online tools to connect communities with resources, the team of three worked together to bring personalized language learning to students in Greece. They’ve tested the platform for English and Greek with children living in The HOME Project, an initiative that provides shelter and care for unaccompanied refugee children, run by Obama Leader Sofia Kouvelaki. Their hope is to support both the children’s language learning and basic literacy.

The team has also provided access to the platform to residents of several other refugee camps. So far, they found that 96 percent of learners improved their pronunciation and 80 percent improved their self-confidence through the platform. They hope their tool could eventually be used by many others arriving in Greece and other parts of Europe.

An illustration of young people hugging, facing away from the viewer.

A “Leaders BnB” to Support Human Rights Defenders

Many Obama Leaders, especially those working on human rights issues, weather threats and negative backlash as they pursue justice and challenge existing power structures. Their work takes courage and persistence, and it can be hard to sustain over many years. That’s why Obama Leaders Raquel Vazquez Llorente (Spain), Marina Agaltsova (Russia), Iva Čukić (Serbia), and András Léderer (Hungary) took a different approach to their joint project. Raquel and Marina are human rights lawyers tackling issues of national and international justice; Andras is a senior advocate fighting for refugee rights in Hungary; and Iva is a fierce activist working to protect public spaces in Serbia. They have all experienced the unique burdens that human rights defenders can face.So, they decided to pilot a “Leaders BnB”—a fun-spirited effort to create a network of support for human rights defenders made up of Obama Foundation European Leaders.

More than 20 Leaders have already signed up to host or visit each other for a few days in September once they are vaccinated and can travel safely. These trips will provide both a much-needed mental health break for the visiting Obama Leaders, and an opportunity for mutual inspiration and learning. Leaders will shadow each other at work, show each other the best parts of their hometowns, share meals and conversations, and have a chance to build deeper relationships. They hope to create a network that could eventually grow beyond the European Obama Leaders to a broader community of Human Rights Defenders.

A group of people wearing mask sit around a table in conversation.

A New Way to Foster Social Cohesion in Cities

Over the course of the Leaders Europe program, Maïmonatou Mar (France) and Federica Vinci (Italy) kept returning to a core challenge: how do you reach people in Europe’s remote towns and villages, where economic slowdowns have weakened local infrastructure, frayed the social fabric, and led many people to feel a growing alienation from politics? What can be done to rebuild hope and resilience in these places where so many residents feel abandoned?

Born and raised in the small town of Isernia, Italy, Federica knows many people who feel this way. But as the founder of the Italian branch of Volt, the first pan-European progressive party, she thought she might be able to bring some of what she’d learned building civic action movements in Italy’s bigger, more progressive cities back to her hometown. And perhaps even develop a model for other cities like Isernia.

Her fellow Obama Leader Mai loved the challenge. Mai has a background as an engineer working on batteries for the space industry, but she has put her creative and analytical expertise into solving issues in her neighborhood in Paris. To support the mostly immigrant women and women of color in her neighborhood, she founded the social enterprise Gribouilli, which provides career opportunities for childcare workers.

Together, Mai and Federica decided to test out a project they called “Esisto!”, which means “I exist” in Italian; what they describe as “a movement to save our cities.” They created a toolkit focused on reengaging communities through a mix of empathetic listening and local activism. To test it out, Federica applied the toolkit in Isernia. She and her colleagues at Volt held community listening sessions to understand what people wanted to change, reaching 300 people through one-to-one conversations, open surveys, and local NGOs and businesses. They also held listening sessions with the local political parties to get a full picture of the problems confronting the town.

Through these conversations, Federica’s team of citizen activists has grown from 7 to 45 people. Together, they plan to analyze everything they’ve heard in their community conversations to identify the three top priorities for local residents. They will be hosting a lunch event for everyone they’ve engaged with to share these priorities and then develop local initiatives to respond. Throughout, their hope is to refocus the community on the local issues of shared concern, as a way to slowly rebuild trust in the power of civic action.

And of course, Mai and Federica are writing up their activities on the website of Esisto! to share with organizers in other cities and towns across Europe.

Want to change the world but don’t know where to start?

A Few Lessons on Community Organizing

Like President Obama, many Obama Leaders start their changemaking work as community organizers. As Executive Director at Change.org in France, Sarah Durieux (France) has been helping to shape grassroots national campaigns on issues from anti-racism to economic justice; Deniz Selmani (North Macedonia) works with the Roma community in North Macedonia to fight for Roma rights; Nika Kovač (Slovenia) founded the 8th of March Institute in Slovenia as a home for grassroots organizing campaigns of all kinds, from a national fight for equal marriage to a referendum on a new water law. In Greece, Sofia Kouvelaki (Greece) founded the HOME Project to provide shelter for unaccompanied refugee children, but she also sees herself as an organizer, creating opportunities for local Greek residents to meet the children and build greater understanding about issues of migration. The four Leaders partnered with Zuzanna Rudzinska-Bluszcz (Poland) who, until recently, served in the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland, representing marginalized communities and winning dozens of landmark civil and human rights cases.

Together, they wanted to share some of the lessons they learned from years of working with local communities to push for large-scale, transformative change with young people who may be interested in taking action, but don’t know where to start. In a short video, they and their fellow Obama Leaders shared their learnings. They hope it will offer a small nudge to the many young people eager to start changing the world to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

A Discussion with Young Climate Activists

Over the past year, European climate activists have found creative ways to continue organizing for climate justice during a global pandemic. Some movements adapted, using online organizing, others continued to take to the streets with masks and social distancing. With the pandemic entering its second year, Obama Leaders Gresë Koca (Kosovo), Hannah Martin (UK), Luisa Neubauer (Germany) and Nima Tisdall (Denmark) wanted to create a space to reflect and learn from what has happened with their fellow European climate activists, so that they can continue to build powerful and resilient movements.

The four Obama Leaders represent the breadth of Europe’s youth-led climate movements: Gresë is an activist from Kosovo—at just 22-years-old, she founded the NGO Keep it Green and led the advocacy effort to pass Kosovo’s first-ever environmental law. Hannah is the founder of Green New Deal UK, an experienced organizer who has also helped mentor younger activists and supported the largest youth climate strikes in UK history. Luisa is a lead organizer and speaker with the Fridays for Future movement in Germany; she recently won a lawsuit forcing the German government to revise its emission goals in line with the Paris Accords and is the host of one of Germany’s top podcasts, “1,5 Grad” (1.5 degrees). Nima is a climate-focused social entrepreneur in Denmark and the founder of Blue Lobster, which aims to make sustainable fishing profitable for local fishermen.

In June, the four Obama Leaders will invite a small group of leading European climate activists to a workshop with the European activist organization Canvas to learn and reflect on their experiences on organizing during COVID-19. They will bring in organisers, activists and teachers who have studied crisis management and organising under pressure to inform the discussion. Most importantly, they hope to create a space for activists to meet across countries and create connections and relationships to continue strengthening climate movements across Europe.