With the ongoing Russian invasion, Ukraine’s emerging democracy is in a fragile position. Supporting Ukraine is an extension of Polco’s driving mission to include residents in the decision-making process and ultimately strengthen democracy. In line with this goal, Polco partnered with YouLead youth program to sponsor a young Ukrainian to come to the US and learn leadership skills. Young Ukrainians today will soon have to step into leadership roles to overcome the current and future challenges and move their communities forward.
“As Ukraine continues to fight for freedom and democracy, we need to have young people who are capable of leading,” said Irina Fursman, the founder of the Minnesota-based program. YouLead is part of Global Synergy Group, a non-profit that runs other international initiatives and is currently providing humanitarian aid to organizations on the frontlines of the war.
The cross-cultural exchange gives young Ukrainians an opportunity to learn about life and government in the US. It also gives Americans a chance to learn about Ukrainians' way of life. The 2022 cohort included Ukrankian students who visited Minnesota this summer.
"We host the kids in a new environment and help them understand the key lessons of leadership and how that leadership might be different from a traditional hierarchical approach,” Fursman said.
Eligible participants must show leadership potential and be associated with any youth group. Four Minnesota cities participated in YouLead events, including Hopkins, Bloomington, Maple Grove, and Minneapolis. During the five-week exchange, the 18 participants stayed with host families and attended presentations, forums, and leadership training. They visited American high schools, libraries, and other government and non-government organizations, and had leisure and fun opportunities.
As part of the activities, Matt Fulton, Polco Vice President of National Engagement, gave a presentation on the value of resident engagement in local government, specifically in Bloomington. Bloomington is a long-term user of Polco’s National Community Survey (The NCS), an assessment that collects resident insights on quality of life in their city. Using the data from the survey, Fulton helped the group understand how engagement supports Bloomington’s strategic needs.
Fulton’s presentation also illustrated the value of measuring and collecting community data. “The whole idea of establishing measurements, that concept was new and impactful to them—understanding there are ways to measure trust in a community,” Fursman said.
That recognition was one of the many takeaways the YouLead participants brought back home with them.
"To be honest, I did not expect that it would be such an interesting and useful program,” said Julian Lazutin, one of the participants. He said he learned about financial wellness, as well how to foster teamwork, and prevent burnout. But most importantly, he said he learned about humanity.
“I learned that it's important to work for people with people, including giving everyone an opportunity to express themselves,” said Ksyusha Logvinenko, another 2022 participant, whose family was displaced as a result of the war. “[I] learned about building trust and gaining respect, [and] working with various types of personalities.”
Fursman also said that the feelings of support emotionally uplifted Ukrainian participants. “This is not something they hear everyday when they are in Ukraine,” she said. Participants marched in the state fair parade with the 4H club to loud applause and shouts of “Slava Ukraine” from the crowd. They received moral support from Minnesota residents anywhere they went with the blue and yellow flag.
Fursman said the service mindset is also very different. The concept of a non-profit or people taking on responsibility to address a social need isn’t common in Ukraine.
"They were also surprised that they would have people in positions of power being humble, being in service to them, so they felt they were surrounded by role models,” she said.
The contrast between American and Ukrainian systems was another notable realization. For instance, school boards are not elected in Ukraine. “They were able to pick up on a lot of differences,” she said.
The experience equally benefited both sides. “The impact the kids had on our lives was really just as meaningful,” Fulton said. “There is immense value in connecting globally. Learning from each other gives governments a broader understanding of how their decisions affect quality of life. We can learn about different structures and ideas."
The collaboration also reinforces that community engagement is essential for effective governance, no matter what country.
“Anytime an organization or community showcases its best self, there's camaraderie, there's a sense of self-improvement, and an appreciation for who you are and what you have, which is incredible,” Fursman said.