In was a cool day in November and the girls from the high-school in the village of Orllan had gathered in a classroom, sitting in their benches in deep silence, almost mute.

They were puzzlingly listening to a visiting group of young people from UNICEF Innovations Lab who came to present a project idea and to ask the girls to become a part of it.

This development was very uncommon in a conservative and isolated community such as Orllan, where opportunities for young people are scarce, and where early marriages are a problem for girls.

So the girls simply did not know how to react to the somewhat revolutionary prospect of designing and implementing a community project!

The crew from the Innovations Lab had driven to Orllan from the capital city of Prishtina, some thirty kilometers away to the south, precisely hoping to break the silence they encountered on the first day.

“We could not get a single word out of their mouths when we came to present our idea. The school principal was also a bit reluctant to cooperate, but he eventually agreed.” says Nita Zeqiri, the project’s implementing officer.

So the crew worked carefully with the girls to build trust and spent about a month doing trainings. They taught them about advocacy and how to think about problems in their community by doing community assessments.

They had them do an experiment in the village by doing a survey on the most pressing needs.

Orllan is located next to the Batllava lake, which supplies the capital Prishtina with water and is a local tourist destination in the summer. Littering and water pollution are a problem to the ecosystem and the local economy.

A month into their training, the formerly silent girls were organizing an anti-littering campaign which included various public awareness activities, including a theatre play.

“At the end of the training they felt completely different and empowered and you could not get them to stop talking. They even reached out to the youth department in their municipality to continue their work. They asked to engage in another project”, Zeqiri adds.

This is precisely the effect that the project she leads, called Podium, aims to achieve: to get vulnerable groups in places like Orllan to feel empowered and understand that they can make a difference.

Podium is part of the Young Empowerment Program (YEP) pillar of the Innovations Lab’s diverse portfolio of projects. It reaches out to underserved communities – whether its girls in a village or ethnic minorities in the periphery of a town – and teaches them advocacy skills.

Formerly known as the YCAP project, it has reached out to around 5,066 direct beneficiaries over the years

This grassroots community work has been complemented by other YEP initiatives in building a spirit of voluntarism, such as the establishment of a volunteer platform, training CSOs on best practices and distributing grants to facilitate volunteer recruitment and management.

YAP also worked on national advocacy campaigns such as the Know Your Rights platform, where young people can find out what rights they are entitled to.

These are all parts of a puzzle in a program that has evolved in time in response to needs and feedback from beneficiaries – part of the human centric design philosophy underpinning all of the Innovation’s Lab work in Kosovo.

The focus on the end-user has led the Podium project to also evolve over the years and make changes to its training curriculum. Recently the latter has moved away from the theoretical to the more practical implementation aspects of advocacy, while also keeping the focus on local context.

“The curriculum is being developed in a way that accounts for possible changes in implementation depending on the idiosyncrasies of the situation and local context. The change in the curriculum of Podium is a good example that shows that YEP is constantly on the lookout for possible modifications that can make our projects more responsive to youth’s needs”, Hana Sahatqija, the YEP pillar coordinator says.

What this means in practice is that young people are not only taught to identify problems in their community, but also not to use a hammer for a problem that can only be solved by a computer.

In programming terms, the evolution of Podium also illustrates the methodical way in which the Innovations Lab designs solutions.

It keeps pressing various buttons, through grassroots engagement and trial and error, until it finds the one that turns off the mute in young people.

Just like it did with the girls in Orllan.