I first met Gypsee Yo in 2006 at the Southern Fried Poetry Slam in Birmingham Alabama. She was a fiery poet who threw her shoulders into every syllable. I was captivated by her relentless energy, which was especially impressive considering she was rapid-fire slamming her poem “Girls Get Cut” while several months pregnant with her first daughter Ema. Over the years Gypsee (or Jonida as I have come to know her) has become a close friend, and I even competed with her on the Atlanta Java Monkey team at the National Poetry Slam in 2008.
I have always thought of Jonida as a teacher. At poetry events we would often talk at length about social justice, and whenever she told me about the political landscape of her native country of Albania, I would nod my head and try to keep up. In 2013, that landscape changed when the Albanian parliamentary election resulted in a victory for the Alliance for a European Albania. Many political refugees like Jonida found that they could return, and she surprised the poetry community soon after by announcing that she and her family would be moving back to Albania. I was a little sad, but mostly I was really excited for her.
It has been very inspiring to keep up with Jonida’s work since she has left the United States. She was recently appointed as the head of the Tirana Youth Center, and has been effortlessly raising money and building partnerships for programs in the center. I wanted to talk with Jonida about her work as an educator in a community space, and I am thankful that she had the time to answer my questions.
You and your family recently moved back to your native country of Albania. What has that transition process been like, both for yourself and for the country.
Cultural re-entry is a process that all expatriates have to go through regardless of what countries they are traveling to and from. In my case, I left Albania when I was 18 and returned 17 years later, so half of my life was spent in the US. While I still have to deal daily with micro-aggression and the disbelief that most people express upon hearing of my decision to return, I came back with a clear vision and mission. I decided that for me it was not enough to just speak of youth and women’s struggles in a global context in my poetry; I wanted to be committed to the work at the front lines.
Congratulations on your new appointment at the Tirana Youth Center. Can you tell us more about the Center and what your position entails?
Tirana Youth Center is the first and only all-inclusive public center serving youth age 15-25 in Albania. Our city is coming close to 1 million, 2/3 of our population are young people. I have a staff of four, including myself, and we serve on average 1500-2000 youth per month. All our services are free to our young people. We have a very modest operational budget, so we rely on volunteers and partnering organizations for the 30+ events we host per month. These events vary from training sessions, conferences and public discussions to poetry shows, exhibits, and concerts. So my position includes strategic planning and policy consultancy, creation of programs and projects, developing relationships with organizations, politicians, and educators, as well as developing a generation of active volunteers. I also sweep and mop the floors, clean toilets, handle repairs, hang exhibits, and hook up sound systems.
There is currently a crowdfunding campaign for GLOW TIRANA. Can you tell us about the program and what you are raising funds for?
20% of graduating 8th grader girls in Albania do not go to high school. The number does not include the ones who enroll but do not graduate. These girls face incredible obstacles like poverty, lack of access to schools, physical danger, early marriage, human trafficking. GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a program that Tirana Youth Center—with the help of Peace Corp and college-age Albanian women—is implementing in 14 public schools in at-risk areas in the city. In GLOW clubs, girls are trained by older Albanian girls on topics of leadership, reproductive health, gender equity, self-love, and future planning. We currently have 350 girls enrolled in the program.
We have to split 4 boxes of sharpies and 3 boxes of craft paper in 350 parts. We are fundraising to offer better quality activities to the girls. In addition, we will host 12 GLOW summer camps at the Youth Center this July. We are firm believers that emancipation is not an imported product, and the only way to achieve sustainable change for the women of Albania is for women themselves to be the leaders and shapers of that change.
I have long admired your commitment to sharing the art of writing, performance and storytelling with people. Why are those discourses so important?
Storytelling and poetry are two powerful tools for community education. In fact, I have found the model of the educator and youth worker that has shaped my work in the poetry slam community. The best education I have personally received on the issues of race, gender, geo-politics, education, and intersectionality has been as the result of sitting and listening to performance poets in open mics, slams, and workshops. I am proud to have been part of the fourth wave of poet-activists which is a phenomena beyond the US. For that reason I am committed to use storytelling, poetry and performance as education and empowerment tools for this generation of Albanian youth.
Finally, what is next in store for you and your work in Tirana?
We are working to expand the scope of GLOW in every public school in Tirana. We will launch our creative writing and performance series for high-school students in the Fall, as well as the first youth slam in Albania. We plan to start a series of public conversation sessions called “Courageous Conversations.” These public discussions will present a constructive framework for speaking on the issues of race, gender equity, agency, LGBT youth, ageism, inclusiveness, and so forth. We are committed to digging deep and working for long term impact in our culture, serving the youth of Albania to the best of our abilities, with all the passion and love they deserve.
To learn more about GLOW Tirana and the fundraiser, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/girls-leading-our-world#/story. Please donate if you can. Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper EG post without sharing a poem: Gypsee has a prolific amount of great poetry on YouTube, and today we will be looking at a poem recorded at the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam titled “The Sea of Unforget.” Enjoy.
Follow along with Gypsee Yo using the links below:
Follow along with Henzbo using the links below: