On a hill in Brattleboro, Vermont, a group of 70 master students speak a language more often heard in the cultural cafes of a progressive metropolis. The language borrows only the big words from the English dictionary that breathe of lofty goals and social revolution. Terms like cross-cultural, advocacy, social change, justice, exchange, political policy, peace and education are the cornerstones of communication at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont.
Alla Korzh is co-instructor for the course “Foundations of Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management”, and has been studying Razom as part of her research on youth activism in times of crisis. She chose to introduce her students to Razom as a successful case of young reformers that get organized and help to drive social change, and invited a group of Razom members to participate in a panel discussion. Eight Razom members from different parts of the US – and Sweden – didn’t hesitate to participate. What better way to spend a fall weekend than to make a road trip to Vermont, spend time together in the beautiful landscape and share their experiences of how they got organized to help build a prosperous Ukraine?
The teachers at SIT spend a lot of time engaging their students in a dialogue and discussions that combine theory and practice, and that combination seems to be very appreciated. Out of 70 students, 40 voluntarily showed up for a 3h panel discussion on a Sunday afternoon – and stayed to ask more questions after it finished. So what about Razom caught their interest?
Leading up to the visit, the students studied the “theory of change”, about how organizations should start from their visionary goals and then break it down into key initiatives necessary to build the path for accomplishing the wanted change. After studying material online about Razom, the students of SIT were curious about many things.
The general questions became the staring point of the conversation: What are the big and small goals of Razom? What is your path to get there? What challenges have you faced? When did you get organized? How do you measure success? What are your motives for volunteering? The Razom panel had a lot to share, and it was clear that they appreciated the exercise of getting to face and elaborate on those foundational questions. Fast-moving organizations like Razom that are driven by a shared purpose, the focus is often on getting things done but it’s also important to reflect upon the strategy and link between purpose and action.
Several of the students at SIT had their own experiences with leading or participating in volunteer work and wanted to learn more about the practical aspects of making it successful. What role does social media have for your work? What drives you to keep spending your spare time for this cause? How do you know which initiatives align with the needs of Ukraine? Running a volunteer organization is not easy, it can require sacrifices on both social and professional life. But it’s also very rewarding, and given the opportunity to contribute to real change there are many people who ask what they can do to help out.
One of the success factors for Razom has been its ability to build a community that likes spending time together – like during this weekend in Vermont or in recurrent social events. Without the ability to have staff on pay-roll, the pool of candidates with different interests and skill sets is vital to being able to run the initiatives that can make change happen.
In theory, an organization can plan their path to change by identifying the core initiatives that have the highest impact and executing on them. But when the people necessary to lead those actions are volunteers, the plans need to be driven with more of a “bottom-up” approach by asking the volunteers what they are passionate about and then matching that to the overall goals. Otherwise, there’s a big chance that the initiative drops down the volunteer’s priority list and doesn’t get the attention it needs. With the right volunteer on the right project however, that’s when the magic happens.
We are very honored to have been invited to engage with the passionate and knowledgeable students of the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont. Big thanks to the students for posing insightful questions, to Alla Korzh for the invitation and to her coworker Sora with husband Dinah for generously hosting the Razom team in their beautiful “barn” with a tremendously warm hospitality.
Photos by Bogdan Polovko.