Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Youth Forum 2009: A first-time perspective

Participants of the Youth Leadership Program with Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoy breakfast with students from Oregon, US

Jahorina Mountain, Bosnia and Herzegovina --
It's difficult to know what to expect from the Youth Forum when you a) know there isn't a gathering quite like it; b) are new to debate; and c) don't meet kids from around the world every day.

It helped that I accompanied the enthusiastic team from Willamette Academy, which is a college access program at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, US (also home to IDEA-US). These bright students were well aware that an incredible experience lay ahead of them as we arrived at the airport for our first leg of the journey.

Andrea Alaniz said "I'm so excited!" once an hour. Her teammates Devon Cardoza and Shamir Cervantes insisted they were calm and collected, though Devon blogged from every airport hotspot along the way. From the San Francisco airport: “I would say that I can't believe this happening, but I can, seeing as I have made it this far.”All three kids marveled at the size of the plane we would take from San Francisco to Munich. It would be Devon's first time on a plane.

As soon as we arrived at the Hotel Bistrica on Jahorina Mountain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Andrea befriended everyone and Shamir and Devon found the pool table. Our three flights and 32 hours of travel hadn't slowed them down.

On the following day, bright and early, the team prepared for their tournament while I learned to judge the Karl Popper format, an excellent format for a beginner like myself; applying the basic rules and common sense allows even a novice to judge effectively. But shadow judging over the next few days proved that it is another thing to explain your decision and provide helpful feedback, a difficulty Bosnian teacher and debate newbie Vanja Kuruzovic seconded.

The Forum is a small world in itself. Vanja was part of the month-long 2009 IDEA Youth Leadership and Professional Development Program with Bosnia and Herzegovina (learn more), which brought 18 young leaders and three teachers to Oregon, US, to learn about debate, active citizenship and American democracy. 10 of the 18 students also joined Vanja here at the Youth Forum. In fact, student Zvjezdana Markovic won the Mixed Team Tournament along with her teammates, whom she'd just met (congratulations!). Andrea, Devon and Shamir had met the three teachers and 18 students during their visit to Oregon, and in Bosnia they picked up where they left off, gathering for meals and breaks.

The British delegation encouraged visitors to try the "love it or hate it" Marmite. I didn't love it.

I spent my last night of the Youth Forum at the Cultural Expo. All participants were asked to bring interesting items to share at their national table. Many brought food. To name a few, the brave sampled Kazakhstani horse meat, Twinkies from the US, Mexican spicy chicken-shaped candies, and British Marmite (a pungent, condensed vegetable spread).

The evening evolved into a dance party, the music shifting genres from Middle Eastern to American country. I was moved by the mingling of 30 distinctly diverse cultures before my eyes.

My final event at the Youth Forum was the Karl Popper Debate Championship. All 300 of us students, coaches and trainers climbed into buses for the trip from Jahorina Mountain to the parliament building in Sarajevo. IDEA's Forum partner this year was the Center for Cultivating Dialogue, which has a large presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina with its own televised debate competitions and news broadcasts. The televised championship began with a speech by the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, random dancing, and impressive fanfare.

Team USA Unicorns, Karl Popper Debate champions (from left) coach Jesse Towsen, Cara Eckholm, Isable Patkowski, and Toader Mateoc

What an incredible championship debate! Both teams were excellent, though the winner was clear. USA team "Unicorns" had team Korea running in circles in cross. Watch video here. It couldn't have been a better example of the mechanics of the format.

I left the Youth Forum reluctantly, knowing I would miss a week and a half of workshops, tournaments and festivals, which would continue to bring participants closer together by way of varying — and surprisingly similar — perspectives and experiences.

The IDEA Youth Forum is a two-week summer event aimed at bringing 200 high school students and their teachers together to attend debate training sessions and to engage in discussions on current issues. The 2010 Forum will happen in the Netherlands. To find out more, visit the site.
Crystal Jeffers, Communication Director, IDEA at Willamette University-US

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