Becoming aware of my lens

Kosovo – I must admit that I did not know much about it, before participating in EUtopia – Diversity in Changing Europe training brought me to Prizren, a city in southern Kosovo touching borders with Albania. This place became for me the embodiment of different identities, realities and stories that made me question what I thought I knew. Diving deep into the world of ambiguity turned into really challenging and transformative process.

The training, organized by the Latvian National Agency and the SALTO South-East Resource centre Europe, aimed at giving participants a first-hand experience of the challenges young people in Europe face today.  I traveled to Kosovo as part of a group of trainers, youth workers, teachers, psychologists and storytellers from all over Europe. For 6 days we explored, how we can apply a value-based perspective of diversity to our day-to-day work in order to help solve some of those challenges. What does value-based mean in this context? It means actively recognizing and appreciating values like tolerance and inclusion that belong to the term „diversity“.

To bing us on the same page, before coming to Prizren everybody completed 3 intensive home-lab tasks consisting of reading, reflecting and sketching out our own mind-map of the diversity issues we see in the world today, as well as reflecting what diversity actually means in our contexts. During the trainings we have dived deeper into these issues, have explored them from different perspectives and questioned our own biases.

Impactful encounters

While there were lots of learning opportunities, for me, the pivotal moment was, when we were able to engage with local communities in Prizren. Panel discussion with locals from Roma, Gorani and Turkish community, brought invaluable insight to everyday life and challenges of the panelists. They very generously shared their stories and opened up window to everyday life in Prizren. One thing that resonated with me was hearing how they celebrate their hybrid identities – belonging not only to their ethnic group, but also identifying with the place they live as well. I got the feeling that for them, personally, being a Kosovar is how they can reconcile past with present. Yet, only a couple of days later, I have heard of another example. On a free afternoon, couple of participants have visited a Serbian village nearby, where the inhabitants shared their experiences and hopes, which were very different than those I heard during the panel discussion. I have started asking myself – how is it possible to reconcile these differences? Is it at all possible to find a common narrative, a compromise, on issues that are deeply rooted in a society and have perhaps generations of experiences, hopes and beliefs attached to them? How can we, all over Europe find a common agreement on “hot” topics such as migration or intergenerational equity? Is a dialogue at all possible and if yes, how can we facilitate it?

Useful tools to check our own bias

While I don’t have a full answer to these questions, I have started with one simple step – exploring my own biases before calling others out theirs. During the training, we were given two tools that can help us to question the way we experience and make sense of the world: the ladder of inference and DIVE method (describe, interpret, verify, evaluate). Both of the tools make clear, that it’s very difficult to see reality “as it is” – since the way we see the world is influenced by our beliefs and previous experiences. Based on these, we make assumptions and interpretations. For example, if my neighbours, who I don’t really know, are playing loud music all day, I can make assumptions that: a) they are unemployed and don’t have anything better to do or b) they are disrespectful and don’t care about others. Without verifying or checking these assumptions and talking directly to my neighbours, I might make assumptions that are simply not true and what is more can be hurtful to others. The reality might be, that they are students studying for exams, who simply learn better when listening to music and were simply not aware of how thin the walls are, since they just moved to the building. This is one very harmless example. Think about what consequences it has, when we start to stigmatize whole group of people this way.   

After the panel discussion, as the second part of the “local day” we went to visit the Roma neighbourhood called Terzimahala. When going outside of our cozy hotel, one became quickly aware of the privileges we were enjoying as visitors to city: the city was less generous to its people. On the way, I started seeing these contrast right in front of me: people enjoying their coffee while Kfor soldiers patrolled the streets, some children playing – and others begging. When we entered  Terzimahala, I felt a bit insecure. Weren’t we invidating by being there without an invitation from the locals? Yet, Edi, our local Romani guide, quickly dispersed my fears, when he introduced us to a group of locals of every age waiting at the entrance and told us that the residents are very happy to welcome visitors interested in their community and stories. His explanation of local history was often interrupted by greetings and curious questions from locals. Both the panel discussion and the visit to Terzimahala, were so powerful because I was able to truly, actively listen. Often do in our day-to-day life, when confronted with other opinions, we listen just for the sake of us agreeing or disagreeing. On this day, I have immersed myself in these local stories: just listening, not judging or challenging, but giving others space to share.            

What I have taken home with me

At NOW, one of our 5 learning areas is “diversity” which means that our programs aim at stimulating the development of competences such as understanding diversity, practicing inclusiveness, understanding privilege and tolerating ambiguity. This training was a lesson for me in the last one: I have experienced again and again that in order to actively engage, I need to step out of my microcosmos of like-minded people, out of my comfort bubble. Yet, who does that willingly? During the time in Prizren I could immerse myself in values, positions and experiences very different from mine, while being in safe space to experiment and learn. I have worked on my ability of active, non-judgemental listening – a task that is especially challenging when discussing topics close to one’s heart. Engaging with “others” means not dismissing their fears as invalid – as there is not “the reality” everybody experiences life through their lenses. This training made me re-discover mine.

Written by Zlatka Niznanska, NOW co-founder and project manager