My memory of the Kosovo War in the late 1990s is somewhat blurry. Glimpses of paramilitary uniforms, burned houses, gray piles of debris, and crying children remain scattered in the back of my mind. This is where we put our most difficult memories to gather dust. However, the dust fails to erase their existence.

I was barely a kid and could not comprehend the wounds such cruel actions leave in the community. It is a lived history about which I am penning for the first time.

Flash forward to two decades later, I  am in Chicago, U.S., studying Media Literacy and Communication as a scholarship holder from the U.S. Department of State through the Community College Initiative (CCI) Program, where an acquaintance told me about the Goldin Institute.

It is undoubtedly not a coincidence that I am touching upon my vague war memories for the first time for a Goldin Institute piece.

I was particularly drawn to the Goldin Institute’s core belief that change should come from the bottom. I applied and was accepted for an internship at Goldin. I was honored and delighted to join the Institute’s efforts in orienting its mission and activities to make this a reality for as many people as possible.

Since its establishment 21 years ago, the Goldin Institute has believed that real and lasting social change requires those within the community who are closest to the issue to have leadership voices and decision-making power; only then can we see the creation of a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.

This is where the Goldin Institute’s mission and my story, beliefs, and ideals cross paths.

People who lived through similar experiences of war and other realities that require social change deserve to tell the story and find a way to rebuild their communities for good. Building stronger communities requires listening to those impacted by social issues, and the Goldin Institute has, for the last 21 years, offered a global platform and a supportive community to facilitate this.

In honor of the Goldin Institute’s anniversary and my almost one-year journey with the organization, in this article, I touch upon three shaping experiences for me.

The Beginning of my Journey

I walked into the Goldin Institute office in Chicago for the first time on a cold Tuesday in February. What first caught my eye was the wall filled with smiling portraits of the Chicago Peace Fellows and the Goldin Global Fellows.

I had read about the Goldin Institute’s work and activities before joining them. However, only upon seeing the work firsthand did I gain a thorough understanding of the actual scope of its honest dedication and embodiment of equity and justice as the core values of community-driven social change.

From February to June 2023, I joined the team as a Communications Associate; I mainly worked on highlighting the Global Fellows’ and Chicago Peace Fellows’ success stories and assisted in various other daily tasks.

This was an inspiring journey, giving me a better insight into how the Institute’s Fellows programs impacted the Fellows and their communities. I interviewed a few incredible individuals from Chicago, South Africa, West Africa, Nepal, Philippines, and these are a few who inspire me:

Nicole “Coco” Davis, 2021 Chicago Peace Fellow and CEO/President of Talk2mefoundation: Coco took young Chicagoans on a trip to Camp Duncan to support kids whose parents and caregivers are incarcerated and need healing and peace. Thanks to the generous support of her peers in the Chicago Peace Fellows Mutual Aid Collaborative, she made it possible for these young people to socialize, learn, exercise, and dance together.

“They say money cannot buy you happiness, but the Goldin Institute brought 25 smiles for youths at Camp Duncan.” – Coco Davis 

Dieudonne Allo, Global Fellow and CEO of Global Leading Light Initiatives, and Fatima Momoti, Program Coordinator: Marking International Women’s Day, Dieudonne and Fatima shared more about their success with Ibali Lam. This program provides women entrepreneurs with digital tools and innovative approaches to storytelling to connect them with existing and new customers and investors.

“The GATHER program of Goldin Institute inspired the model of Ibali Lam. Women, especially in this part of the world, do not have access to technology, so we give them access; we provide internet data so they can access the online platform. Women get tablets, too.” – Dieudonne Allo 

Andy Alegre, 2021 Goldin Global Fellow from the Philippines: among others, shared a few tips on working with people from diverse backgrounds while respecting their differences to solve issues affecting the community. Andy also emphasized the importance of being a Global Fellow and how it has offered him global perspectives obtained from his peers during the weekly discussions. While discussing influential resources, Andy mentioned the GATHER platform.

“The GATHER platform tremendously contributed to my learning as a professional and community activist. The platform was easy to navigate and use and facilitated intuitive and practical learning by providing useful concepts and examples for community leaders like me.”- Andy Alegre 

Evolving into a Fellow

Hearing directly from Fellows made me appreciate the organization’s approach. Upon returning to Kosovo after my internship, I was encouraged to apply for the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows program. This saw me evolve from being an intern for four months to one of the 20 chosen Goldin Global Fellows. I became the first Fellow representing Kosovo.

Although I already had a general picture of the Fellowship and its immense impact on community activists, it was only while being part of it that I fully understood its importance in uniting and bringing activists together to hold timely and important conversations.

We shared our backgrounds, passions, and motivations and set the terms for global cooperation, such as that of two remarkable peers, Jill Langhus-Griffin from Arizona and Tarun Masapeta from India, who have created a financial literacy program for trafficking survivors in the U.S.

It was at this point that two notable things happened for me: 1) I gained a fresh perspective on my community assets, and 2) I became part of the Gather Care team.

A Fresh View of My Neighborhood: One of the Fellows’ first assignments was to walk through our neighborhood and identify the existing assets within our community assets, rather than focusing on what is lacking.

Unlike how I was used to seeing community deficiencies most of my life, this approach was entirely authentic and fresh and impacted my long-term thinking, too. After this, I walk through my neighborhood differently. I reflect on the asset map I created, highlighting more of what we have rather than giving power to what we lack.

This approach gives Fellows a life-learning lesson and perspective on helping their communities by finding innovative solutions that are authentic to each community. For instance, I listed traditions and coffee shops as existing assets in my asset map. They serve as places and platforms for gatherings, sharing, and a place for community activities. Without this newly gained perspective, I would not recognize the potential in these everyday things.

GATHER Care Platform: Co-facilitating GATHER Care: Caring for those who care for others online forum was an amazing, fulfilling, and tangible outcome from my time as a Fellow. With our peers and people from other cohorts who joined us, we met and discussed the importance of mental health for community activists and came up with solutions to improve the situation.

One of the key outputs of this summit was the creation of a Buddy System. Through this system, Fellows who were keen to support each other were assigned voluntarily and matched with another Fellow for additional support, learning, and connection to help alleviate the anxiety that they may be feeling, acknowledging their mental health and well-being as a priority.

We have seven pairs of buddies and are considering extending this system to the next cohort, as it could hugely benefit their well-being.

“It became apparent there was a need and desire within the group to create deeper connections and to support one another.”- Jill Langhus-Griffin, Creator of Gather Care, 2023 Goldin Global Fellow.

A Global Perspective: From Chicago to Prishtina, Looking Forward

Now, I am back in Prishtina and working for the Goldin Institute as a Media Coordinator. The global nature of the Goldin Institute’s work fits my current remote engagement, offering me a say and participation in community work that, to date, touches over 100 cities in over 40 countries to build meaningful partnerships rooted in the needs and assets of local communities.

Coming from and living in a small country in the Western Balkans, with its socioeconomic struggles, makes my engagement with the Goldin Institute of unique significance and potential. Since joining the team, I evolved my perspective on my role in my country’s history and its community-driven solutions. I have adopted a more proactive approach to participating in socioeconomic narratives, community discussions, and initiatives.

As each day goes by, my interest and engagement in my community continue to grow, thanks to the supportive environment provided by the Goldin Institute, including its dedicated team and inspiring Fellows. In the five months I have been back from Chicago, this fellowship has greatly complimented my work and goals.

For me, being part of the Goldin Institute is meaningful because it lets me connect with peers from around the world who have been through destruction and social upheaval. It has been mighty for me to learn what other Fellows and community activists are contributing to their communities, and I know that they will be there for me in the future, too- just as I will be there for them.

Today, on behalf of the Goldin Institute, I extend our wholehearted thanks to our supporters, Fellows, and partners for believing in and standing with us as we look forward to entering a new decade and expanding our impact and global network.

As the Goldin Institute will open its doors in Colombia and Tanzania, establishing two new offices in these countries, we remain committed and optimistic for a future that facilitates community-driven social change through and with grassroots activists.