Developing democracy in Banja Luka through high school student councils

The 150,000 high school students in Bosnia and Herzegovina are “the core of our country,” says Zeljko Paukovic, executive director of the Youth Communication Center (YCC). But most of them spent their earliest years in a region torn apart by a brutal war and ethnic cleansing that displaced thousands of citizens.

YCC, an organization Paukovic helped found in 1996 as a student at the University of Banja Luka, works with these young people to develop the skills they will need to re-create a country less vulnerable to hate.

Youth Communication CenterToday, YCC has grown into a vibrant hub of youth and civic activities at the local, national and international levels, offering more than 20 programs benefiting more than 6,000 young people annually. Since its establishment, YCC has developed into a model for community-based programming and national and international policy development and advocacy on youth, education and peace-building issues. The center has received almost $500,000 in grant support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation over the past seven years.

YCC has built a strong base of support for its community-based conflict mediation activities. It uses this work as a platform for systemic change within Bosnia and Herzegovina’s public education system.

YCC initially was established to provide desperately needed “neutral space” for teenagers to gather in Banja Luka, an important but ethnically divided city in the former Yugoslavia. Today, it is responsible for national legislation that mandates student councils in all Bosnia and Herzegovina secondary schools.

“We saw the need for something more permanent,” said Paukovic of YCC’s initial efforts to train young people in conflict resolution, peace-building and volunteerism — or civic education, as it is known at YCC. “We were working in a non-formal way — each year starting over with a new group of kids — and we realized we needed to incorporate this work into a structure.”

School councils — democratic organizations that provide students with a voice in decisionmaking — was the model YCC proposed to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Education. Convincing educational and governmental officials — who worried that their authority would be weakened — to accept the idea was a slow process.

“We’ve had our failures, but using schools provides a tremendous opportunity to help students learn how to become active citizens. If they are active in schools, they will become active in the community.”

Zeljko Paukovic

“It was very much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Paukovic said. “Before we could introduce the idea, we had to create a model. We worked with university professors and used our recognized work in primary and secondary schools to build a curriculum. We piloted the curriculum in 20 schools. We demonstrated results.”

Implementation of the 2004 law requiring school councils in the country’s 226 secondary schools has been slow, Paukovic admits. YCC continues to build awareness and generate support for councils by training teachers, school administrators and, most critically, students. The latter are linked together through peer education, YCC radio broadcasts, Internet and print publications, and, most recently, international exchanges with the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU).

“Everyone would like an instant solution, but this is a long-term process,” Paukovic said. “We’ve had our failures, but using schools provides a tremendous opportunity to help students learn how to become active citizens. If they are active in schools, they will become active in the community.”

YCC staff members are encouraged by the continuing interest of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Education, which is monitoring the progress of school councils. But they are challenged to create opportunities for young people to develop their decisionmaking skills.

“We want them to have more than the opportunity to meet,” Paukovic said. “We want them to have the opportunity to make visible contributions to their schools and their communities.”

YCC has initiated a modest re-granting program to encourage activism and volunteerism among students, and it continues to work through other local and national non-governmental organizations to provide leadership training and networking opportunities.

Despite significant challenges, not the least of which is identifying funding, YCC has been energized by the success of its program of peace-building and development of democracy.

“Ten years ago, who would have believed it (student councils) could be incorporated into society?” Paukovic said. “Today, if the government said there would be no more school councils, the students would stand up and say, ‘No.’”

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