Gerald Koller

Ashoka Fellow
gerald_koller_003.jpg
Austria
Fellow since 2011
This description of Gerald Koller's work was prepared when Gerald Koller was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .

Einführung

Based on the assumption that there is a human tendency toward seeking ecstatic feelings and risk, resulting in dangerous outcomes and potentially addiction, Gerald Koller trains individuals in local communities, citizen organizations (COs), and regional government programs to develop responsible behavior in risky settings. Gerald enables participants to become active co-creators of a new culture of reflection-based risk taking.

Die neue Idee

Gerald’s core realization based on his experience in the addiction prevention field is that young people naturally seek risky behavior, extraordinary sensations, and rule breaking. He directs teenagers and young people toward responsible behavior in everyday risky activities, including sports, driving, and recreational activities involving alcohol or drugs. Gerald focuses his approach on young people who are still developing an understanding of their identities and limits, rather than risk addicts or substance abusers.

Gerald’s programs build individual coping mechanisms for reflecting and reacting to risk and pressure, which can prevent the development of addiction. He believes that young people need to master the skill of responsible behavior under stress, since they are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and often lack a balance between routine and risk in their lives. Gerald’s programs provide practical, empowering opportunities for youth to experience extreme situations in an interactive space. This process allows them to observe their own behavior and reflect upon their actions. Gerald’s efforts reinforce an individual’s understanding of routine behavior while also equipping students to make deliberate decisions before committing to a situation of risk or danger. His goal is to radically change addictive patterns in Europe, while also establishing a functional model for risk-responsible behavior of youth worldwide.

The central pillar of Gerald’s growth strategy is a certification program that trains the next generation of risk educators. Teachers, youth, social workers, and decision makers in local communities are trained to become champions of the idea and co-create risk-education projects in their own communities. Gerald’s approach has already been implemented by youth and social service organizations, and has growing support from citizen-based initiatives and governments, including the cities of Vienna and Salzburg. In addition, there is increasing demand for his approach in Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.

Das Problem

Addictive behavior and depression are on the rise across Europe as unprecedented numbers of children and youth are diagnosed with psychological illnesses. According to a WHO survey, 10 percent of the Austrian population suffers from chronic or temporary depression. Austria has one of the highest alcoholism rates in Europe with an estimated 330,000 alcohol addicts and 870,000 leading a lifestyle defined by bouts of problematic alcohol consumption. Kids typically experiment with alcohol for the first time between the ages of 11 and 13 years of age. Ten percent of underage youth admit to alcohol consumption over 40 times and to intoxication at least twice. Moreover, over a third of illegal drug users are adolescents, many of which take advantage of the Austrian drug consultation services. An additional significant number of youth are affected by debt distress; every eighth client of Austrian debtor services is younger than 25-years-old.

Traditional approaches with addiction and irresponsible behavior in society, especially among youth, have only resulted in stagnation of the problem. Technology has not provided answers to addiction or reduced the desire for risk-taking. Traditional prevention programs have imposed high social costs, instead of tackling the psychological and behavioral roots of the problem. The traditional individual-centered approach labels addiction as a disease instead of a cultural problem. Gerald, however, views addiction as the result of a system that mistakes risk as a problem, rather than a natural part of human identity and psyche. Through his community-based approach, Gerald overcomes the traditional system of service delivery in the field of addiction prevention.

Die Strategie

To promote physical and psychological health and prevent addiction, Gerald uses an approach that combines workshops with interactive presentations and trainings. He works with young people and at-risk groups while simultaneously encouraging parents, COs, teachers, governments, and public service agencies to cooperate to create a responsible risk-taking culture.

Key to Gerald’s strategy are partnerships with organizations that target young risk-takers. Since 2000, he has partnered with debt-counseling and consumer spending organizations, for example. The most significant of such partnerships to date involved the region’s largest alpine organization, which gave Gerald the capacity to bring together thousands of risk-prone youth. Gerald’s workshops with these youth are teamwork-based and foster risk awareness by combining adventurous activities (e.g. common extreme sports) with risk management. Risky situations are evaluated by the group both before and after the sessions, which encourages participants to take home and apply the knowledge they acquire. Because risk experience during a climbing exercise resembles sensations experienced while speeding, for example, students can improve their reaction to risk, initiate peer-education, and benefit from mentoring in these sessions. Participants are made aware of group dynamics and gain an understanding of the effects of peer pressure on their decision-making process, which shows positive effects in program evaluation studies.

In addition to Gerald’s interactive workshops, he has designed a training program that educates professional youth workers and teachers to become certified risk educators, which subsidizes a portion of the costs of his work. This training program also ensures the spread of his model because it incentivizes trainees to bring the work into their own communities. After completing the training, trainees implement their own community projects and contribute significantly to the spread of the approach. One example of a program developed by one of Gerald’s trainees redefines the dynamics of social gatherings and parties. It uses the perceived authority of bartenders to redefine drinking behaviors of their young consumers. Based on the finding that young people consume significantly more alcohol than in the past, directed interaction with the bartender can slow consumption of alcohol. The bartender is trained to invite the party-goer to mix his/her own drinks and casually discuss his/her drinking habits. Impact evaluations show that this simple intervention reduces alcohol intake and influences future drinking behavior significantly. The program has been taken up by bars, youth centers, and municipalities all over the country and has been independently replicated by young people. To date, Gerald has trained experts in Austria, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. About 280 people have graduated from his training programs either as certified risk educators or multipliers of his ideas.

Today, he holds about 150 sessions every year and is working on extending them both in content and geographical reach in the coming years through his training network. In these sessions he is adapting cultural methods and inspiring co-creators of his strategy. For example, he has altered the culture of tent-festivals, which are huge entertainment festivals that have become very alcohol-focused in recent years, rather than a community-led and driven festival as they used to be. There are thousands of tent-festivals held all across Europe, most of them similar in the way they are set-up. In these sessions, Gerald works with local communities that host tent-festivals, changing the organizational structure of their events toward more ownership by the participants. In his model, participants not only pay and consume, but are inspired to co-create the program and set-up of the festival. The approach has revitalized the celebratory environment without the overuse of alcohol and violence.

Gerald’s training programs and interactive sessions with risk-prone youth and adolescents are central to his expansion. In the future he plans to continue focusing on shifting the negative culture around addiction in Europe. Gerald is also designing tools to make his approach accessible and practical for parents to ensure they support the health and mental well-being of their children. His goal is to reach as many young risk-takers as possible through his educational tools and to partner with COs in the implementation of concrete risk management programs. Gerald also aims to rapidly increase the number of qualified risk educators.

Die Person

Born into a difficult social background, Gerald was exposed to alcohol abuse and its implications for families and personal relations at a young age. Amidst his turbulent situation at home, he developed a strong relationship with his grandmother, who became his mentor. As a teenager, Gerald dedicated his free time to work as chief editor for a student newspaper. He successfully conducted interviews with high-level Austrian politicians, such as former Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky, which made him realize the significance of open dialogue and young people’s need to be heard and appreciated.

Gerald later pursued various curricula at university, majoring in philosophy, psychology, and religious education. Always drawn by practical and spiritual experiences outside of the classroom, he frequently engaged in arts and cultural activities. Even before completing his studies, Gerald began to teach at a high school, where he encountered a rigid system of intimidating teaching techniques and hierarchies between students, parents, and teachers, which were fear-based. He reacted by launching school programs that created room for dialogue between students and their parents. Moreover, Gerald offered his students trainings in meditation and trance to support their personal development.

Director of a drug consultation center by age 26, Gerald launched one of the first Austrian initiatives in the field of social medicine and prevention. However, it was not until his encounters with drug addicts in a prison that he realized the shortcomings of his work which only combated the symptoms of addictive behavior. Gerald quit his job to start addressing the root causes of addictive behavior. He pioneered the Austrian field of addiction prevention by founding the country’s first prevention agency. Based on his growing expertise, he was asked to develop prevention centers all around Austria and across Europe. Gerald’s wide range of experiences, knowledge, and scientific expertise led him to launch his risk management approach with his “Risk and Fun” program in 2000. Gerald has enabled significant successes in shifting both young people’s behavioral awareness related to risk and radically changing communication and learning structures between educators and youth.