BoldLeaders trip to Kenya postponed, but the explorations continue

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After months of planning and fundraising, this year's BoldLeaders trip to Kenya has been grounded, thanks to threats of violence from the Somali militant group, Al-Shabaab. The Denver-based group had flights arranged and was within a week of departure when the U.S. Department of State and its embassy in Kenya decided that the trip had to be postponed for safety reasons.

As a result, BoldLeaders is now out $75,000 in fees and expenses. Ironically, Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks is currently in Kenya, leading a group of business and non-profit leaders and four Manual High School students; since it's not an official State Department program, it was allowed to proceed.

BoldLeaders, which was established in 2004 as a conflict-resolution program for Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking students from the divided island of Cyprus, is a Denver-based, Fulbright-Hays funded organization. In 2009, BoldLeaders expanded from their annual Cyprus summit to include five programs: the Sub-Saharan Africa BoldLeaders Project, the Sub-Saharan African Youth Leadership Program, Youth Ambassadors, the Professional Fellows in Food Security Project and the American Youth Leadership Project. Each was designed to create new methods of interaction and understanding between participants through "alignment rather than agreement."

One way to do that? Travel. BoldLeaders has coordinated about fifteen international trips over the last eight years, both bringing foreign participants to this country and vice versa. Planning for the 25-day Kenya excursion began last year, when BoldLeaders applied for a grant from the State Department' Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for its American Youth Leadership Program.

Originally authorized for thirty participants (27 students, 3 adults), the program met with such a positive response that the State Department authorized BoldLeaders to sign up more applicants for the trip if they paid a bare-bones fee. Seventeen did, before they all learned on June 14 that the trip was on hold, and perhaps cancelled for good.

BoldLeaders will now petition the State Department to recoup some of its losses through a cost amendment to its initial grant. While it's possible that the Kenya trip can be rescheduled, BoldLeaders cofounder Brady Rhodes says that the organization will have to raise $20,000 to $30,000 to cover the cost of the additional seventeen participants who'd signed on for the trip. BoldLeaders hopes to get the new trip reset for June or July of 2013. One of the BoldLeaders who was all set to make the trip, seventeen-year-old Kent Denver student Lexi Mussleman, was stunned when, five days before her departure date, her mom called to tell her she wasn't going to Kenya. "I got off the phone and I started sobbing," says Lexi. "A bunch of the kids here got together at a park and [said,] 'Let's support each other in this.' They put me on speakerphone and I got to talk to all of them....all I wanted was to just go be with all the kids who are in this program with me."

And those kids aren't giving up on BoldLeaders, even if they can't go to Kenya. "It's more about the process than the result," Lexi explains. "We're all experiencing this breakdown together and there's going to be something that comes out of this, but we're going to have to be able work towards it....This program isn't just a trip to Kenya....That was a portion of it and, yeah, it was a really important part, but so many kids have already learned so much about themselves."

And about others. One thing that BoldLeaders prides itself on is the perspectives that the group pulls together. There's "a very wide age range," Lexi says, being one of the oldest. "We also have a lot of kids from different backgrounds."

According to Rhodes, "There's nineteen different schools represented, all kinds of different socioeconomic [backgrounds], different racial diversity, schools all the way from Mapleton School District in Boulder down to Colorado springs -- public schools, charter schools, private schools." And then, of course, there are the Kenyans, who are supported through the Furukombe Initiative, a group aimed at actualizing the potential of young Kenyans. The group's founder was associated with the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 2007, when BoldLeaders won a State Department grant for a civic education project involving Kenya. The organizations have been tied ever since, with the Kenyan participants for BoldLeaders programs chosen by Furukombe.

"This program helps you come out of your shell," says Lexi. "I've seen a lot of kids in this program who hardly said two words at the first meeting, and now they're dancing and being crazy whenever we get together....There's so much love and support and, like, everybody is cheering for you, but they're also willing to ask the deeper questions that most people aren't willing to ask."

Colorado 2 Kenya BoldLeaders Documentary Short from AwenProductions.com (Denver, CO) on Vimeo.

And that's been a primary focus of BoldLeaders from the start. "Really, the program is about who you're being in the world, which we say then allows you to take that knowledge context and use it in a different way," says Rhodes. The Kenya trip was designed to be "like a laboratory," he adds. "It's like, 'Okay, I'm gonna now go through all these things that I'm thinking I now have the potential and the ability to do and I'm going to see how it works.'"

How do you create that laboratory experience if you can't go to Kenya? In true BoldLeaders spirit, Rhodes, like Lexi, looks for the opportunity in misfortune: "Let's use the time that we have now, between now and when we go [to Kenya] in the future, if we go in the future, as the place to do all that experimenting and practicing, with the added level of 'We've gotta get creative and figure out ways to connect with Kenyans....who [we] can't see face to face, in person."

Many BoldLeaders recently connected via Skype with their Kenyan counterparts; during the session, the two sides sang to each other. According to Lexi, the American BoldLeaders can definitely use the delay in their travel plans to practice.

If you want to be a part of BoldLeaders here in Denver, you can volunteer to be a host family for young people from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean for two weeks in December, February or April as a part of the Sub-Saharan African Youth Leadership Program and the Youth Ambassadors Program. "It's not super time-intensive," says Rhodes, "but it's a great way to bring global dialogue around your dinner table."

You can also help BoldLeaders get connected with community programs to further enrich participants' experiences. "There's 45 students and adults who have this incredible passion and this great training all ready to make this time their laboratory time, so now we're looking for ways to get creative and connect within the community," Rhodes adds.

Right now, a trip to Uganda is in the works. The application process for that will start in November, and applications will be due in January. Read about another Colorado trip to Africa in "Pot of Gold," Joel Warner's story about Novo Coffee's hunt for the elusive Geisha.

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