I recently attended ZhasCamp, the first youth conference held in Kazakhstan, in Almaty last October. Young people and representatives of youth NGOs gathered from all over the country, joining expert guests from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, and other nations. Under the slogan “Think Informally, Act Efficiently,” the camp was a great opportunity to network with other active young people, share skills and experiences, and collaborate on projects.
One of the main goals of the camp was to discuss reform of the Kazakhstani government's law on youth policy, and to give youth input to government representatives who attended the conference. I was lucky enough to have won one of 48 travel grants to attend the conference, for which I must thank the ZhasCamp organizers as well as the Soros Foundation–Kazakhstan, which sponsored the event.
One interesting innovation was the idea of “open programming,” in which time was put aside in the schedule for participants to sign up and lead their own sessions. This was a bit chaotic, but it did result in a very democratic and participatory conference format. I signed up to lead what would be a packed time slot with my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Michael Hotard about volunteerism in America. I prepared another presentation on our youth leadership center Dostar and our peer-to-peer model of volunteerism development with my fellow volunteer Zauresh Amanzholova. We discussed successful models of volunteer development at both Peace Corps and Dostar, which I think was beneficial for a lot of the participants.
There were also several interesting “master classes” held throughout the camp on topics including fundraising for youth NGOs, cooperation with local government, social media for youth PR campaigns, and once again volunteerism (cohosted by some of our own Peace Corps staff). These discussions continued after hours in various “thematic evenings” over dinner at venues around Almaty that had agreed to partner with the conference and give discounts to participants.
On the last day of the conference, a “Projects Market” was held in which youth NGOs could present a project to a panel of judges in competition for one of two 300,000 KZT ($2,000) grants. Sixteen organizations from around Kazakhstan presented a variety of projects, and it was fascinating to see all the activities that were happening around the country, such as youth camps for disabled children and orphans, volunteer clubs, and a youth entrepreneurship center. While passivity was listed as one of the "youth problems" to be discussed at the camp, this certainly was not applicable to our fellow conference participants!
Our team went up to present our project: Summer Youth Leadership School 2010. They had told us in advance that our project would be judged based on four criteria: sustainability, creativity, previous realization of the project, and that the initiators and beneficiaries of the project were both youth. We constructed a Powerpoint presentation with a single slide addressing all four points.
Then we used the rest of our precious five minutes to show a short video clip of our project results that volunteer Aziz and I had stayed up putting together the night before. It included interviews of camp participants sharing the knowledge and perspectives they'd gained, and a slideshow of all the pictures from our camp (see YouTube clip below). We ended up winning the grant, which was a huge honor and an affirmation of the great work our volunteers are doing!
Overall, I met some wonderful and interesting people at the conference and discovered many additional opportunities for cooperation and skills-sharing among youth organizations, not just in Kazakhstan but around Central Asia. Cannot wait to see where some of these new partnerships and ideas take us!