© Illustration by Coline Robin

© Illustration by Coline Robin

European citizenship at the edge of our times: reconfiguring youth work practices in a world in transition

by Nuno da Silva



This article explores the relevance of renewed practices of European citizenship in youth work within a global context that invites us to slow down, listen deeply and engage in generative dialogues and regenerative actions. To do so, I will explore the following questions:

 What kind of European citizenship approach can serve a potentially better future for Europe and the world?

 Why does it matter?

 How can youth work be a playground to experiment with a kind of European citizenship that can be of service to the more beautiful future our hearts know is possible?

Let me start by going directly to the heart of it.

 Why does European citizenship matter?

Europe is in the middle of a global-scale civilisation level collapse. By global scale, I mean that for the first time in human history, all human beings are living within a single civilisation framework,1 which has got us, so far, with 7.5 billion people and a huge productive capacity, wealth and well-being that has never been seen before. Now, it’s starting to fall apart.2

For the past decades it has been possible for most people in Europe to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress and exponential growth. Thanks to events like the 2008 financial crash, Brexit or the election of Donald Trump in the US, there is a significant increase in the willingness to accept that the current system is running amok and everything is in a mess. This is actually a deep insight because it recognises simultaneous that things aren’t working and we haven’t got a very good way of describing what is going wrong.

In this time of great uncertainty, absurd inequalities (by the end of 2016, eight people owned the same wealth as 3.6 billion people3), a growing sense of insecurity and unpredictability, it may seem that the world is falling apart and we (young people included) are the casualties – stressed-out and depressed, disconnected from our full-potential selves, from each other and from nature. A huge number of young people throughout Europe feel like passive bystanders disenchanted with the state of European representative democracies and the traditional forms of participation through parties and voting. The gap is even bigger in relation to the European institutions, which feel distant, opaque, illegitimate and diffuse. While small, powerful elites make the decisions behind closed curtains and try to rig the wealth-extracting social, economic and political structures, the younger generations face the grim prospect of a more difficult life than their parents,4 for the first time in a few generations.

 We need to collectively sensemake5 what’s happening!

It’s crucial to become conscious that we either face a decline into disorder and chaos, with lose-lose results for everybody, possibly human extinction, or we live the emergence of a system foundationally different from the one we have. Consider this: biosphere metrics6 are getting exponentially worse from the misapplication of technology, while technologies well applied are making things fundamentally better. But technology is giving us the capacity to do things like having data-analytic capabilities to inventory all the worlds’ resources to then be able to allocate all the worlds’ resources to meet all the worlds’ needs with optimum efficiency – we never had that ability before.

In his context of complexity, interdependence and uncertainty, we need to collectively sensemake what’s happening and prototype systemic solutions that offer win-win solutions to everybody, including all forms of life. The zero-sum games of win-lose that, for thousands of years, brought humanity to the current scale of civilisation achievements won’t be useful to address the current challenges and might end up in lose-lose results like potential human extinction. If we do our job right, it will be a transition to something else.

 The current convergence of crises – in finance, energy, education, health, water, soil, climate, politics, the environment and more – is a crisis of birth, expelling us from the ancient world to a new world.” Charles Eisenstein7

 The question arises: What kind of European citizenship approach can serve a potentially better future for Europe and the world?

The concept of citizenship has changed throughout history. In the last decades, it has moved beyond the legal status (a set of rights and responsibilities) that implies notions of equality and social justice, to a more fluid concept involving identity and sense of belonging, an expression of one’s membership in a political community. In this perspective, the role of citizens can be exercised at a multitude of levels, from local government and functional interest groups, on to the region, nation, and eventually on to the cosmopolis.8

Habermas’s answer to the conflict between the universalistic principles of constitutional democracies on the one hand, and the particularistic claims of commitments to preserve the integrity of habitual ways of life on the other, is “constitutional patriotism”: an idea that is neither individualist nor communitarian, neither liberal nor anti-liberal. According to “constitutional patriotism” a nation of citizens does not derive its identity from some ethnic and cultural properties, but “rather from the praxis of citizens who actively exercise their civil rights”9 and it is therefore this praxis that generates a common identity and forms the basis of socio-political allegiance, or socio-political cohesion. Therefore, the “demos” (or people that constitute the political association) is potentially inclusive of all those remaining outside, legally, socially and physically, as well as of those who, in their private or personal lives, have a specific conception of the good or different ethno-cultural backgrounds.

On the other hand, the notion of European citizenship usually refers to individuals who are citizens of the European Union member states. The term is perceived as a condition by which people from member states should have similar rights to be asserted vis-à-vis the European public courts and public officials. In fact, this conception of citizenship has by and large been accomplished10 within the European Union and this is a major achievement, which should not be belittled.

There is, however, a broader and more open conception of European citizenship – the one that considers European citizens as those who chose to be European citizens, in a context of complex, intertwined multiple identities, feeling a common responsibility and the excitement and anticipation of future common endeavours.

© Illustration by Coline Robin

 We need equal respect and commitment to collaborate for a future that serves all people

This envisages a conception of European citizenship in which the core elements of citizenship, rights and identity, are not “attached” to citizens as members of separate member states that together form the European Union, but to citizens as citizens of the wider Europe, where several transnational public and private entities – such as intergovernmental institutions like the EU or the Council of Europe, corporations, international NGOs, among others – operate. In this perspective, European citizenship is the disposition of different people to consider themselves, their compatriots and their foreign fellow-Europeans as equal members of the European continent: it refers to equal respect and commitment to collaborate for a future that serves all people, based on the respect for human rights, democracy and cultural diversity. Civil society11 is the arena where this kind of European citizenship is exercised and the glue that generates a sense of belonging and socio-political cohesion that is inclusive to everybody and anybody who shares an interest in developing democratic, diverse, human rights-based Europe.

This understanding of European citizenship and its potential collaborative synergistic practices, can inspire us to (1) figure out what “everything is in a mess” might mean, on one side, and, on the other side, (2) envision what a good, positive direction might look like.

© "IMG_2746" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by don_macauley

A phenomenon of nature where hundreds – even thousands – of starlings fly together in a whirling, ever-changing pattern: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY. It is worth exploring a little bit about swarm intelligence.

This emerging notion of European citizenship is disruptive in the sense that it challenges mental, cultural and political territories, as well as power and control structures, well established in our praxis. Due to this, it is quite often met with suspicion and disapproval, especially if we avoid the dialogue about the dynamic aspects of identity, culture, citizenship and nation states, and their evolution throughout history.

So, how can youth work be a playground to experiment with a kind of European citizenship that can be of service to the more beautiful future our hearts know is possible?

 Youth work needs to be transformative

Coming back to why European citizenship matters, I believe it’s because the sustainability of our future is dependent on citizens (especially young people) who realise that system change is personal, it’s an “inside job”, as Peter Senge puts it.12 And from that inner place of openness, act locally, with a European and global perspective, connecting more intentionally with others to co-shape a deeper shift that comes from the activation of the intelligence of the mind, heart and hands in a way that can lead to eco-systemic regeneration. European citizenship matters because in its wider concept, it implies a motivation and commitment to be an active historical participant in the shaping of local, national and European societies’ future, taking into consideration the relevance of the European continent’s developments in relation to the rest of the world. In order to do that, youth work needs to be transformative and invite young people to work on the personal level, as mentioned before, both in terms of inner deeply rooted narratives, memetics, beliefs and values, and in terms of exterior pressures to our physiology such as nutrition, and lifestyles that impact our health and energy flow. On the other hand, youth work must also involve creating ideas and prototyping initiatives that experiment with changes in the collective level of social structures like economics, governance and law, and infrastructures such as modes of production, technology, agriculture, energy, transportation through endeavours that result in win-win-win13 solutions.

© Illustration by Coline Robin based on THE EMERGENCE MODEL

In this context, how can youth workers and educators stimulate this kind of common sense of belonging and willingness to be part of and to collaborate in building a better future for all?

The most important competence we need to develop is to stop reconfirming our beliefs, assumptions and opinions. We must figure out how to unload the current civilisation toolkit, our assumptions, the things that worked so well, and dig down into the mind-frames, beliefs and worldviews, so that we can design and experiment with solutions coming from a different mindset than the one that created the current problems.14

One key aspect of this reframing is changing the narrative from a Cartesian predetermined world – where the main metaphor has been a machine constituted of separate parts and the brain as the computer that operates it – to a more accurate view of the world as a web and flow of relations that create synergies and constitute different scales of wholes with emerging properties – the systems view of life.15 In our bodies, cells and organs cannot compete with each another; they do, at the same time and symbiotically, what is the best for each one of them and for the whole. Current knowledge of different scientific areas – such as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, complexity and chaos, and cybernetics – is allowing us to really start grasping how nature has been evolving for millions of years. We must integrate this knowledge and start to tune in to it! A frequent argument used to promote these views is that if we benefit the whole we benefit ourselves. But this is still an understanding coming from a notion of separation and the fact is that there are no real borders between us and everything else. If we start to think about our life without the oxygen we breathe, the ancestors who created the multitude of things like language, music, tools and artefacts, without the rivers, the bees that pollinate the flowers, or the trees that transform carbon into oxygen, there wouldn’t be us. We wouldn’t be anymore.

© "Whole Earth (AS11-36-5355HR, detail)" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by jimforest

 Youth work needs to be about deep listening and generative dialogue

Youth work needs to organise educational activities and hold spaces where deep listening to ourselves and to each other takes place. That way, we can aspire to engage in deep generative dialogues from which we leave transformed, in better versions of ourselves and with deeper understandings about what is going on around us. That is the only way to get out of the echo chambers we have caught ourselves in. Listening to each other can take place in different degrees: one can listen only to confirm what we already know. We can listen to find new data or we can listen to really understand the other person’s point of view, to get into his or her shoes and see the world through that person’s perspective. A deeper level of listening and dialogue is possible: one that comes from a generative place where we access, individually and collectively, the source of intuition and creativity. We usually know we have been at such a level of listening and dialogue if we come out of it different from who we were before. Something changed inside of us. What does this mean for youth workers?

 Our impact in the world depends on the inner conditions we are operating from

To develop such competences one must nourish inner conditions and acquire a habit of giving attention to and observing our inner landscape of emotions, thoughts, feelings, moods, as well as our bodies as sources of wisdom, in relation with the world around us. We need to learn to practise our presencing,16 through mindfulness exercises, meditation, slowing down and focusing our attention on ourselves, considering that energy follows attention.

Exploring nonviolent communication and building the capacity to clearly express our needs and ask others about their real needs, is fundamental.17 To do this we must befriend our own monsters – invite them for lunch or dinner and spend some time getting to know each other, discovering that we have many things to learn.18

But this inner work is not enough. We also need to do this collectively. There are two fundamentally different states of awareness that we can operate from, in the collective space. The first state is the one we see embodied in the rise of terrorism, populist leaders and the far right, but also start to see emerging in people considered to be part of the political left spectrum. It’s a social-emotional logic that operates through prejudice, anger, blame and fear. This results in a self-reinforcing cycle of polarisation and violence that begins with denial (disconnecting from reality outside), deepens via de-sensing (dehumanising the other) and disconnecting from reality within, and finally results in various patterns of destruction (of things, of others, and of self). These make our human essence less present to the world, to each other, and to ourselves. This is a pattern that lurks all around us, including in politics (the rise of polarisation and extremism), economics (structural violence of exclusion) and culture (the rise of fundamentalist ideologies). This closing in is enabled by habits and technologies that keep us inside our own filter bubble, and it is supercharged by a global landscape of historical trauma that, once reactivated, amplifies yet another round of violence in all its forms (direct, structural, cultural).19

 More agencies and more symbiosis at the same time is what define the arrow of evolution

The other story of our time lies in activating a second state of the collective space that is increasingly available to groups and communities across all cultures. Otto Scharmer calls this the social field of presencing because it makes our human essence more present to the world, to each other and to ourselves. It’s a generative social field that comes into being whenever groups move outside their habitual filter or bubble and engage in processes by opening the mind (curiosity), the heart (compassion) and the will (courage). What results is a cycle of co-creative action: seeing with fresh eyes (open mind); sensing other perspectives (open heart); presencing our highest future possibilities (open will); co-creating those possibilities through learning-by-doing (realising).20 Youth workers must be conscious about the existing dynamics of these two fields, both within themselves, in the young people and communities they work with and in the wider society, and hold spaces and facilitate processes that stimulate the intelligence of mind, heart and hand, contributing to community building, embracing the existing diversity and stimulating it in synergetic combinations.

We must take into account that the universe has been evolving by selecting for diversity and then more synergistic combinations – for more diversity and unification across the diversity. More agencies and more symbiosis at the same time is what define the arrow of evolution.


© Illustration by Coline Robin based on Theory U by Otto Scharmer, http://www.ottoscharmer.com

However, what’s apparent is that almost all the media coverage and attention are devoted to the destructive cycle of absencing. The generative cycle of presencing, even though it is a profound experience in the life of countless change-makers globally, remains a gaping blind spot in our media, and in one too many public conversations. That is why one shouldn’t trust in broadcasted information. Youth work needs to stimulate critical thinking, media literacy and the search for facts before entering into any kind of judgments. Youth workers need to invite people to talk to each other more deeply, to collectively make sense of what’s happening and to understand that the multiple challenges we are facing are GLOBAL, INTERCONNECTED, HUMAN CAUSED and they are SOLVABLE. We can together build a future where the biosphere thrives and humanity with it.

When it comes to methodology, non-formal education is a great way to develop European citizenship. However, it must be understood not only as a set of interactive, dynamic and fun exercises, but as a transformative process, a kind of meta-system of creative, collaborative sustainable methods, based on the same principles as for instance Dragon Dreaming or permaculture: personal development – commitment to your own healing and empowerment; community building – strengthening the communities of which you are a part; service to the Earth – enhancing the well-being and flourishing of all life.

Non-formal education practitioners must become experts in the Art of Hosting conversations that matter (hosting ourselves as much as hosting others), using Nonviolent Communication doing the kind of Work that Reconnects (Joanna Macy).

The framework of Theory U offers a path to explore a non-formal education approach to European citizenship that is based on three movements: observe, observe, observe (and collect trustworthy data); individually and collectively take a moment of stillness to sensemake based on the results of observations and then act in an instant, doing small-scale prototypes that can be a landing strip for the future.21

The most fundamental questions we can arrive at in our youth work with young people are:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What can you actually do to make your life of greatest use to all life?

These are the questions that can lead to conversations that matter and projects and initiatives that can inspire young people to find their path to a meaningful life, and ultimately support the transition to an Europe  and a world of abundance, peace and a flourishing biosphere.

 Some practical ideas for your consideration

My practice with these approaches has required some personal inner work to host myself better while I host others in their learning journeys. It involved realising that “If you don’t know that you are lost you will not seek a way home.”22 Finding ourselves lost in a world running astray can feel scary and painful. It recalled my own vulnerability and the fragility of life. It became crucial to practise gratitude for being alive, appreciating all that there is and has been, making it real, as well as humility that I am just human and have my own limitations in the grand scale of life. It has also been fundamental to develop the capacity to respond to mine and others’ suffering, instead of viewing it as a private pathology. Moving beyond intellectually validating it, to also experience and express the pain for the world. With this comes the power to take part in the healing of our world. We experience not only our interconnectedness in the Earth’s community and the human community, but also mental eagerness to match this experience with new paradigm thinking. Significant learning occurs as the individual reorients to wider reaches of identity and self-interest.23

I have started to use movie forums and public talks to raise awareness on our current predicaments and open up the public spaces for these conversations that matter. I’ve also hosted a local hub of the U.Lab Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) and several courses to build our capacity and develop competences to work with the full complexity and ambiguity of social transformation.

Those have been my ways to explore the question: How do we find each other, and start to find people with whom I can explore how we regenerate community in different ways? Some of the interconnected practices emerging from the fusion of deep ecology with citizenship (in what could also be called Civic Ecology), involve reimagining education through the development of learning communities, doing urban farming through permaculture with regular PermaBlitz events, stimulating local work connected with the Transition Network, designing organisations managed through Sociocracy 3.0 and according to teal principles, organising new kinds of public events based on the concept of unconferences, or developing new perspectives about paradigm shift and the great transition, connecting with the Cultural Evolution Society, among others.

There is no specific focus on the term youth work, because an important part of these practices are community-based and involve intergenerational dialogue and equal participation. Some parts of the work might be focused on young people in particular, but these are always a part of the ongoing investment in community development.

The open approach to European citizenship that I’m proposing here, shared with other colleagues, is part of the work that I’m doing; in the many ways that we enlarge our individual and collective perspectives of where we are and what we can do to act in the service of a flourishing future, the ecosystems we are part of and the generations to come, both locally as well as connected with other citizens in Europe and beyond. This is an ongoing exploration, embracing the complexity and tensions arising from navigating without a definite map or fool-proof compass, between local and global, order and chaos, dreams and reality, always with the humility of not knowing exactly the next steps, meeting the universe halfway.

© Illustration by Coline Robin

There is a path to take between chaos and order that leads us to the new, collective learning, real-time innovation. This is part of the Art of Hosting practice.

 There are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly.” Karen Barad24

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Partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth
c/o Council of Europe / Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation Youth Department / F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex, France
c/o Council of Europe / Brussels office / Avenue des Nerviens 85 / B-1040 Brussels / Belgium