IVLP Impact Awards Alumni Discussion Series: Promoting Social Change Through the Arts


Through the IVLP Impact Awards Initiative, recent alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Program administer community impact projects that bring the experiences of their exchange program home to their communities and promote innovative solutions to shared global challenges. 

On Wednesday May 15, 2024 Meridian International Center hosted a virtual panel of IVLP Impact Awardees with projects that creatively leveraged various artistic mediums to address social issues and bring about meaningful positive change within their communities. The panel was moderated by Alicia Payne Hurley (Barbados) and featured panelists Yaya Sanou (Burkina Faso) Nellya Dzhamanbaeva (Kyrgyzstan) and Gjylymser Nallbani (Republic of Kosovo.) The Awardees discussed their IVLP Impact Awards projects, how their IVLP exchange program experience influenced their ideas and work, and the ways they engaged their communities to bring about meaningful social change by leveraging the power of art. 

Some of the top takeaways from the discussion were:

1. Artistic Origin Stories

Alicia's project brought together the artistic community in Barbados and provided workshops on leveraging the power of art as a tool for creating social change. She began the discussion by saying "My entire life, pretty much, from the time I was three years old is the arts and has been the arts." Yaya, whose project used music and dance to raise the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities and encourage solidarity and respect between disabled and non-disabled people, shared a similar story of learning to dance at an early age and how he soon began teaching dance as well. He talked about starting to host workshops at a neighborhood school that had not previously had any cultural activities, "When I started, the students were very hesitant, but after two, three workshops, all the students in the school wanted to dance, every single one of them....I thought that there was this need for them to be able to dance...[I] saw the change that operated through these different activities, these cultural activities, that’s when I understood that this is something I wanted to create, because I saw the positive changes within these youths."

Nellya's project was a hip-hop camp for girls, where they worked with established artists to create a song about women's empowerment while discussing the challenges women face in the music industry in general and in Kyrgyzstan specifically. Nellya also shared the moment when she first began to see art as both a future career path and a tool for change: When I was a kid I was in a camp and me and my sister, we wrote a song and...this was played in the camp so all the kids were able to listen to that and I think for me it was the first time when I understood that actually you can do something that other people might like... but later, I had a chance to organize an artistic festival...it was the first time I saw that when you also collaborate with others, something that you are trying to talk about or change could be multiplied...I saw that you can make a change starting from one artistic idea. Gjylymser agreed and explained how she began to see the power of art as a tool to transmit messages to a target audience when she worked with an organization dealing with cultural activities, specifically murals. She discussed how art is a "universal language, everybody understands it...you don't have to be very well exposed to art to understand [murals]" making this type of public art an effective tool for public engagement. Gjylymser leveraged this "universal language" during her project, which educated youth about human rights, civic activism, and volunteerism and facilitated the creation of murals that touch on important social issues. 

2. The Power of Exchange Through IVLP

Each participant discussed the essential experiences that were part of their IVLP exchange programs and how this impacted the creation and implementation of the following IVLP Impact Award projects. Both Alicia and Nellya participated in the IVLP Project that shared the title with this session: Promoting Social Change through the Arts, which the Mississippi Consortium for International Development organized. Alicia talked about how her IVLP Impact Award project "was about sharing my IVLP experience with Barbados, with Barbadian artists, and for them to be able to get a taste of what it is I was able to get a taste of. Because you know, it’s a handful of us that are selected [to participate in IVLP] but why can’t we all learn and share an experience?”

Nellya shared that the most important part of the experience was "the ability to communicate with the other participants and talk about different topics each of us face in our communities...And it was really helpful and impactful. So, this is where the idea [for the project] was born.” Nellya also spoke about her visit to the Center for Artistic Activism in New York, saying, "I really like what they are doing, and I found a lot of connections with their activities with what actually interests me and motivates me." Yaya, who was a participant in the IVLP exchange Human and Civil Rights for Marginalized Communities, which World Learning organized, explained that he was able to lead a dance workshop during his IVLP experience and how the structure of the center that hosted his workshop in New York inspired him to set up a similar center in Burkina Faso, to engage people with disabilities. Yaya also spoke about being particularly struck by the "political will, and also applying the law for the protection of people living with handicaps in the United States.... [this] encouraged me to see the connection between my country and the US, [and ask myself:] how can I bring support and make things happen in my country?”

Gjylymser participated in the IVLP Youth and Civic Engagement, organized by the American Councils for International Education. She specifically mentioned her meeting in DC with the Peace Corps, noting that she was impressed by their ability to create a culture of civic engagement among US citizens and abroad. Like Nellya, Gjylymser reflected on her fellow IVLP participants, sharing, “Definitely it helps a lot when you know you are not the only one who is facing these difficulties...The fact that you meet participants, friends now...aspiring young leaders, is also crucial, and it gives another perspective for the topic itself.” Additionally, Gjylymser closed out the session by relating a story of her meeting with Steven Billet from George Washington University: “He was talking about how US citizens have developed this sense of not being so tolerant towards injustice, and how they are willing to be persistent when they want to make a change. And when I asked him, ‘What have you done? How have you managed to be at this point?’ he said ‘It's all about the mindset, and how you see yourself as a human, and that you have to understand that you have the power to make the change...it’s definitely very important to understand that each of us has responsibilities, along with our rights. So, this is a great lesson which I definitely implement in my everyday work now.” 

3. Challenges and Successes of Community Outreach

As with any project, the panelists faced multiple challenges during the course of their project implementation period. Interestingly, each panelist cited bringing their target audiences together as one of the most difficult aspects of the project, which speaks to their commitment to reaching out to diverse and underrepresented groups. In Nellya's case, she talked about the difficulty of acquiring parental permission for the girls to participate in her camp. She explained that "many families are quite traditional, and they were scared to send their girls somewhere far (to the capital, the wild capital!) So, it was challenging, and I had to work with and speak with each of the parents to make them sure that everything will be safe.” Ultimately, Nellya gained the families' trust, and 13 young women participated in the camp. She also noted that "At the end I received a lot of feedback, from both sides, from the mentors and those who participated in the program that it was kind of therapeutic, to share their experiences, because for the mentors, the celebrities, it was also their first experience to participate in such a project. And for the girls it was also inspiring that they can also be heard--that music could be used as a tool not just to sing nice songs, but also to put some ideas [out there] and share them with a wide group, and you can also influence through music.”

Yaya shared a similar hurdle with recruiting participants for the project, specifically given that his goal was to connect two different communities: high school students and people living with disabilities. He also brought up the language barrier between Deaf and hearing participants, which he addressed through sign language training. In the end, however, these challenges were overcome, and Yaya shared, "We reached about 600 people in the different towns, and through dance, we managed to do that. And the first day, the second day it was challenging, it was difficult to be together, but then it became very interesting, and people wanted to keep going.” He also shared some feedback from participants: "One of the participants said that after her schooling she wants to do some research and do some training to see how she would be able to raise awareness in her region about people with disabilities.”

Gjylymser also had a hard time initially as she started with the question: "How can we gather youngsters, and how can we somehow convince them of what we are doing here?" She solved this issue by holding lectures about human rights, civic action, and volunteerism, explaining that "it's important to care about your country, to care about your community." From there she explained to the participants, "Here you have a space to express your creativity through murals [and] graffiti, but also other people of your community can benefit." Gjylymser also mentioned how her participants have continued to engage in civic activism with her partner organization, whom they were connected with through the project, leading to long-term effects not only in the participant's lives but also in the broader community through their active engagement. 

"We think the world is big, but in one room we all share the same emotions, the same concerns, same aspirations on what we want to do and how we want to make a change for the better" - Gjylymser Nallbani

If you have any questions, please reach out to the IVLP Impact Awards Team at IVLPImpactAwards@meridian.org.

If interested in attending more IVLP Impact Award events click here.

Project summary

IVLP Impact Awards Alumni Discussion Series: Promoting Social Change Through the Arts | May 2024
Countries: Burkina Faso, Barbados, Republic of Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan