I remember when I first came to Lezhe for my sitevisit back in May, Peter Hoge, a previous Lezhjane and Group 11 volunteer, told me about the “box.” Everyone has their box. You know, the things that make them who they are, that influence their decisions….past experiences, family members, how you were raised, for example. The constraining factors that limit their decision making. Remembering that everyone has their specific box is hard to do when working in the field of community development, but definitely necessary in Albania. Going into a meeting you have to try your best to present your ideas, but have absolutely no expectations about what the other person will say about working with you. It’s a frustrating environment, for sure, but keeping the idea of the box in mind helps soothe my consequential “what the f do I do now?” feelings after they say “no, no, no.” Well, it helps a little.
An example “box”:
This past weekend Jen and I got a good dose of the box to the face. On the end of a busy busy week, we were both traveling down to Elbasan to help run a youth environmental leadership training for Outdoor Ambassadors (OA). We are both taking over positions on the 7-member national OA Committee that plans trainings like this, so we felt we needed to be there. In addition, we are trying really hard to get a new OA club started up here in Lezhë, and a few of the girls from our English class seem interested. We suggested that they come to the leadership training – so three girls applied and were accepted. Unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons, they didn’t end up coming and Jen was stuck waiting for them by the bus to Tirana for several hours without being able to contact them – mixed up phone numbers, fathers not allowing people to come at the last minute, etc. all came into play…..in other words, THE BOX.
Jen and I both ended up still going to the training, and there were about 40 kids there from all over Albania. It was an inspiring 3-day event for me as well as the kids – full of sessions on problem solving, community project design and outdoor leave-no-trace skills. There were guest speakers from a few large national organizations (Vodaphone Foundation and REC) as well as Peace Corps, and we even managed to squeeze in a hike between the rain and all the other activities. The sessions that the kids had about thinking up community projects and brainstorming the problems in their own cities were really amazing. These highschoolers know a lot about environmental issues and how multifaceted they are. And I have a feeling they didn’t get this knowledge in school here.
For example, we were having debates about what problems exist with trash collection here in Albania. A big thing that came up was the fact that after the trash is collected (even if it’s separated for recycling like it is in Lezhë), it all gets burned most places. I don’t think most high schoolers in the US know what happens to their trash after its collected, much less their recycling. Granted, the systems are much better developed in the US, but we often don’t know if things are ACTUALLY recycled when they say they are (here they most definitely are not).
I was so impressed by the students’ energy, attentiveness and questions throughout the long days of the training (us PCVs have shorter attention spans most of the time), and I found myself thinking back to the “box” idea again. Here I am, with 4 years of sustainable environmental planning education under my belt and a lifetime of living in an environmentally “aware” household, while these kids have none of that. Yet, they are still asking more poignant and focused questions about their home environments with a passion for action than I think I ever have. They may not know about international environmental legislation or green building techniques or alternative energies, but they definitely are more attuned to the problems existing in their own backyards. AND all of this knowledge about the environment they have gained by venturing outside their own boxes, by joining and sticking with groups like OA, by doing research on their own time, by standing up and saying “I care.”