During my first week in Albania, Sajmir, a dedicated volunteer said to me, "I have the energy of a 14-year-old, the tenacity of a twenty-five-year old, and I think like an 80-year-old." His words struck me because I understood his sentiment all too well. It is a sentiment shared by the same young people that brought Barack Obama into office in America. I knew it wasn't hubris or over-confidence that motivated his words. It was a unique boldness, a hopefulness, a feeling that he had the ability to change the world around him, a world in which he had too often seen his elders set on the wrong track.
I've been in Albania nearly a month now, an American who worked on the Obama campaign and with other international youth movements, who came to help give shape to an emerging political party's operations as a volunteer-consultant type. I was inspired by the work and message of the G99 Party, an outgrowth of the Albanian youth movement that began in response to rampant government corruption in 2003. They challenge citizens to participate in democracy in a similar way that Obama challenged Americans.
Last November, the U.S. decided to embrace a new vision for its democracy and strike a new path. Now it is Albania's turn to decide what will constrain them and what will afford them their dreams. I see more cynicism in people's eyes here than I did in America, though. Living during communism and then the subsequent transition to democracy has been much like a child growing up in a broken home of warring parents: The child is told that marriage works, but the child only sees marriage as pain and dysfunction. The majority of Albanians view democracy in a similar way. When all they have seen is corrupt politicians with little difference in their corruption, they are skeptical when anyone tells them their politics can be different.
But they can be different. I have seen my own country, rife with the worst of cynicism, ignorance and arrogance change in a matter of months to embrace a new vision for itself and for the world. I witnessed people awaken and become part of the solution rather than allowing their government to dictate the solutions. I lived through the years of George W. Bush, and I saw my worst fears played out: a worsening environment, a dead end war in Iraq, and a global economic crisis crumble people's lives -- all because people stopped paying attention.
The American people allowed fear to take hold and let the government rule their lives rather than telling the government how they were going to run their own. But, I have seen my country overcome their fear to not just vote for something different but to become part of that world-sifting change.
If America can do it, so can Albania. But it will be hope and a willingness to be the change that will be the determining factor. G99 knows that, in a country where the average age is twenty-eight and only getting younger, in step with global demographic trends, it is not just that Albania's youth will inherit Albania's problems. They already have and market themselves as, therefore, the best ones to fix them. The older generation of politicians currently in power reflect a politics that does not accurately reflect the issues of the majority of the population - its youth.
I have watched G99 bring more people into the political process, challenging them to be a part of democracy here. This drives my conviction that people can change, and they will fight when they recognize the struggle for a freer and more open society is a worthy battle.
This moment in Albania brings so much possibility for hope yet also so much possibility to lose that hope. The youth of America made Barack Obama a reality because they saw themselves as part of the change and were willing to work for it and struggle for it and be the inspiration that would lead America into a new phase of its history. But this could only be a reality if Americans of all ages were willing to give us a chance, harness the hope we held so dear and work with us to be the ones to make that difference.
What I have encountered in Albania is a generation of youth with little difference than the youth in America. New technologies have allowed us access to free flowing information and to connect with people around the world. The more our borders open, the more we become borderless. As I travel, the staunch differences between us has become abundantly clear: Cultural and linguistic variations aside, it is the systems of government that either constrain us or afford us opportunities to live out the possibilities the world offers us.
We are a "transition generation," shaped by our childhoods in transition -- whether in America transitioning from a Cold War to a post-Cold War worldview or in Albania, where youth have either lived under communism or experienced it through their parents, to the now post-communist transition.
We empathize with the past yet are not constrained by it, allowing us to also embrace the potential of tomorrow, ripe to be shaped and defined into a new phase. We see the world not as it is but as it could be. Instead of playing into the failed ideologies of left versus right, of communism versus capitalism versus socialism that has constrained peoples of all nationalities for so long, we see the practical solutions in between. We are post-ideological and pro-practical -- seeking solutions that work rather than the ones that fall into a category.
These factors add up to a cross-cultural generation rich with hope that has the ability to change the world around them. I have known this mentality to be true in America, and I suspected it to be true here as well. Youth like Sajmir tell me I am right. We are standing at an important movement for this next generation throughout the world, but we have to harness this potential and exuding hope and provide the tools for it to succeed. Otherwise, Albanian youth, and other youth struggling to reshape the world around them, risk losing it all.
I have watched G99's mission give some of the smartest and boldest people I have ever met -- Albanian, American or otherwise -- a new hope. Instead of leaving, they choose stay in Albania, determined to make their home country the place of boundless opportunity they envision and hold with bold determination close to their hearts. They know that, as the future of the country, they have to be the ones to determine their own fate. Rather than accepting the passive reassurance that "Albania is changing" (the campaign slogan of the current ruling party), trust me, they live up to the challenge of "Yes we can" (G99's adopted slogan) and become the ones changing it.
It's not just that this generation will inherit Albania's problems; they already have. It will be up to them to fix the mistakes of the country's troubled past and catastrophic global challenges. Albania's youth are the hope because in their hands lies the fate of their country. The stakes of Sunday's parliamentary election is not a question of the left or the right and more the question of will Albania let hope rule so that this generation can live out its potential. The alternative could have catastrophic effects. For the sake of the young people with the energy of teenagers but the wisdom of an empathetic generation who has seen the past but also envisions a better future, the potential of this generation cannot wait four more years.