Illustrations by Xavier Gorgol

Illustrations by Xavier Gorgol

Hic sunt leones

An exploration of rural youth civil society around Europe


  by Rareș-Augustin Crăiuț  



This article investigates the topic of rural youth civil society, as the social space where individuals and groups organise themselves to express their views and fulfil their interests in rural areas. Because research and policy are direly missing, in June 2020, I virtually visited and talked about this with several youth work organisations throughout rural Europe.

The places I explored ranged from an organisation invested in rural youth work research in the Republic of Ireland, to the 2019 Rural Youth Capital in Romania, from an Austrian rural open youth work organisation, to a co-ordinating organisation for rural youth leisure time centres in Wallonia, and two civil society organisation with rural youth clubs in Armenia and Cyprus.

Following this European discovery expedition, some of the conclusions about youth rural civil society are obvious, and some discoveries maybe not so obvious, such as the fact that youth organisations do not enact civil society in ways that we formally know, or that there is deficiency of diverse rural youth identities.

When I started working in youth work, almost 20 years ago, I was engaged in a poor area in the north-west of Romania, “particularly disadvantaged” as it was called by the Romanian Government. An area trapped somewhere in between rural realities and the urban aspirations of local politicians. We did not know we were doing youth work; we were just active organising an agricultural festival, artistic projects, Christmas fundraisers, school reintegration projects and many other projects. Anything that we wanted and could do, we did together with, and for other young people from the area. Many things were possible, also because we were lucky and unlucky to be there towards the beginning of organised civil society in the region. A lot of effort, passion and investment went into creating better conditions for youth.

Looking back, I see that almost none of those young people stayed in the region. Everyone moved to “the city”. This migration is not specific just for this one region in Transylvania, nor is it a thing of the past. Today, across various parts of Europe, rural youth are looking for better conditions and opportunities away from their original communities (a good article on the topic is “The mobility imperative for rural youth: the structural, symbolic and non-representational dimensions rural youth mobilities”; or the FAO study Addressing rural youth migration at its root causes: a conceptual framework).

But we do not talk or know much about the urban–rural migration, or about the conditions of youth in rural areas. Research and data are essential to any delivery of public services, rural development strategy or policy making. And when we want to talk about youth rural migration, youth public participation or the democratic response of youth in rural areas, data are rarely available, not used or accessible at local levels, not comprehensive or comparable between European countries (for more on research needs and directions, check outGlobal perspectives on rural childhood and youth: young rural lives edited by Ruth Panelli, Samantha Punch and Elsbeth Robson).

Rather than forgotten, rural youth and their civil society is an unknown European territory. If we look at the Council of Europe map of youth civil society, rural areas are these large unknown patches. We should mark them, just like in ancient and medieval maps: “Hic sunt leones”, also known as unexplored territories.

In the way we lack research, we also lack policy addressing European rural youth specifically. With big exceptions being the development of the EU Youth Goals, or the recent adoption of the “Conclusions on raising opportunities for young people in rural and remote areas” by the Council of the European Union, two pan-European policy documents that name rural youth per se. Only for brief periods, especially during electoral periods, we hear mentions about rural youth and civil society, and more recently because right-wing populism has gained high levels of support among rural populations in Europe (Gilles Ivaldi, “Populism and electoral choice: an analysis of the effects of populism on vote choice”), or because the Brexit referendum results remind again of the rural–urban divide. (There are some resources on growing nationalism and polarisation, touching also on the lack of appeal of rural life for young people. One good examination is “Backwardness revisited: time, space, and civilization in rural eastern Europe” by Chris Hann.)

In June, encouraged by the fact that everyone was mostly online, I went on a virtual exploration of my own. I wanted to discover these unknown territories of rural youth civil society. I tried to go to the furthest cardinal European points, starting from close to home.


 Romania: it is not just a question of lacking funds

I made a first stop in the south of Romania, in the village of Izvoarele, virtually visiting Curba de Cultură, an NGO that engaged local youth, and won the title of Rural Youth Capital in 2019. Cosmin, one of the main initiators of the NGO tells me that they cover a very wide range of age groups with diverse needs. Before starting their activities in 2013, they ran a needs analysis of the area and came up with a myriad of youth demands related to the scarcity of local transportation, lack of diverse cultural offer beyond traditional folk dancing, lack of public policies and many others. After they started their projects it soon turned out that there was an all-year-long need for their offer. So, from 2015 they went “permanent” with a youth centre managed by young people. In the discussion I was surprised to find out that, in their experience, it is not necessarily funding that is preventing other rural youth NGO, or informal initiatives, from taking shape:

“Key competencies are needed for young people to be able to build a future based in the opportunities they have in the local community. Like trust and communication. We have also invested a lot in accountability and risk taking. After years of being punished for mistakes in the school system, of course they (young people) are not going to take any more risks.”

Unique in Romania, not just for a rural area, the NGO is also transferring their competencies and experiences in advice for public policy making, now a bit slowed down because of the COVID-19 crisis. During the discussions, Cosmin casually takes out architectural plans for the expansion of their youth centre since they also want to become a recognised quality-labelled European Youth Centre. A small youth community, with no small plans!


 Austria: when youth work is also a political practice

In rural Austria the situation feels different says Karin, the manager of Jugendzentrum Perg, an open youth work youth club in the region of Perg. Though they may not have a rich cultural offer in the region, like in the urban areas, they have a good local transport network, access to services, making the point that: “In Europe, rural and rural mean something very different, from region to region.” She knows youth have fewer opportunities: “It’s pretty limited. So, we don’t have a movie centre, no big shopping centres, not many NGOs.” And the formal NGOs or initiatives that offer direct participation to young people outside of youth centres are split into sport, traditional music and dances, and Red Cross or fire department- type activities. Youth in her centre are showing a keen interest in topics like climate change and care of the local environment. I also ask her if the local community or politicians understand the work and are supportive. “People are appreciating what we are doing, but sometimes only part of it. Because I’m working with a target group which is not so much supported in society. So, they sometimes blame you for working with such a target group.” So, youth work is not simply youth work, and touches upon the political. Research on youth work has decreased over the past 10 years, and advocacy skills would also be needed. They do not have the funds to carry out independent research on rural youth and in terms of advocacy they are a member of bOJA, the Austrian national network for open youth work. Young people benefit and learn a lot from travel experiences and with COVID-19 this is not possible. Also work has slowed down because computers are shared in rural households. So, electronic equipment would also be a good investment for the future: “But at the moment it’s funny because they are talking much more to each other in person. They really appreciate that!”



 The Belgian French-speaking community: the need for diverse rural youth identities

Going towards the north, I met Ana, who is running a rural-based youth organisation called Coordination-CRH (that translates as “The Office for co-ordination of meeting and accommodation centres promoting youth tourism”). They are based in Genval and cover a lot of the Wallonia region. Without me suggesting it, she mentions many of the points made by Cosmin and Karin: transport connections, limited cultural offer, and a divide when it comes to grants that cover activities or research in the rural area. She thinks in general we are missing a key issue: the crisis of identity, and why young people do not identify as rural or having a rural background. And not only do they not identify as such, but from policy makers to researchers, no one seems to identify them as such. In the past they had an instance where they risked losing funding because they could not prove that there is a target group such as rural youth. But there is and it has particular needs: “How do you want to participate and have initiative in the political life as a young person, when you have zero bus in the weekend?! Or what kind of identity do you develop when your parents have to drive you around?” Perception is key, and the closest you can get to a correct identification is by passing yourself off as a young farmer, and it’s like no other rural youth identities exist. She is proud of the young people in her region and centres: “In an urban environment you have all these NGOs and initiative groups and such. In a city you can hang out with other people who share your interest and hobbies. In the rural area you hang out with who’s there! Rural youth has a more initiative-driven identity, since you have to ask, or do things, because there is nothing.”


 Republic of Ireland: it is hard to do research, but harder to do without research

Further up north, Youth Work Ireland has pointed me in the direction of Limerick Youth Service, a youth work organisation that has commissioned a professional study on the realities of rural youth. There I am greeted by Maurice, the regional youth work manager, Fiona, the CEO of the organisation, and, also, Fiona, who is the data evaluation and monitoring officer. Their study, very practically entitled: Baseline study & needs analysis of young people aged 10-18 in rural County Limerick has just been made public. I want to know what it says about rural youth and civil society. The questions seem to be a bit of a stretch, because the report does not talk about civil society like I know it, or like I talk about it. But my wonderful guests are doing their best to provide me with an answer, and it is a very good one: here in rural parts of Limerick, youth leadership programmes are a big part of what we would call youth civil society: programmes that support young people to volunteer in their communities and to take on leadership roles in local communities. I also learn that they financed the study through a LEADER project, to understand more about their young people and what kind of youth work is needed in rural areas. Following the study, the increasing stress and mental well-being of young people would be one of the priorities of their work. Though they have come a long way in terms of youth participation in Ireland, with a national strategy on youth participation, there is still room for improvement: “You know programmes are designed at national level with urban areas in mind. So, for example they design a programme and say that in this programme you have to target 50 disadvantaged or vulnerable young people. And 50 vulnerable young people in a rural context could actually be spread over half a county! And not only that but they might not want to be identified as disadvantaged because everyone knows them there. In an urban area you can target, or you can work with an entire community.”


 Norway: getting closer and closer to tackling the urban-rural divide

At Ungdom og Fritid, translated Youth Work Norway, Amund shows me three research pieces on rural youth, touching also on the topic of civil society … thankfully one of them is in English: Rural futures? edited by Unn-Doris Karlsen Bæck and Gry Paulgaard. For the other documents I need his help to translate at least some of the diagrams: the majority of young people are engaged in sport activities, then in youth club activities, followed by music and choir activities, cultural and music schools and religious organisations. Over half of Norwegian youth clubs are located in rural areas. But these youth are not well known, says Amund: “In research we know very little about rural youth and how it is different to grow up in rural areas compared to cities. That’s a result in itself.” After we talk a bit about the history of youth clubs – originally established to handle city problems – and we talk about urban positive discrimination – their big southern funding scheme is apparently called “the big city grant for youth clubs” lol! – I return, a bit monomaniacally, to my question about youth civil society in rural areas and he observes: “Youth clubs are definitely contributing to civil society because we are obliged by the law to have local youth participation platforms engaging with local municipalities and politicians at local level. And in most of the municipalities, outside of the cities, the youth clubs create the platforms and follow up on young people’s actual participation.” He hopes that their next big statutory meeting will be open to change more clearly in favour of rural youth, who have been vocal about not recognising themselves in some of the topics that the organisation is focusing on.


 Armenia: learning about rural youth is a constant process, also for those working in youth

Going to the east I stop by at FYCA, the Federation of Youth Clubs of Armenia. Diana is my guide into rural civil society in these parts of Europe and I feel my question about rural youth and civil society hits close to home: “In FYCA we always have this strategy to organise massive group study visits to our marzes (regions) and have meetings with our rural youth clubs. In 2020 the activation of rural and regional youth, especially the ones from the remote and close to border areas were selected as the priority of the organisation.” They organise study visits to their rural youth clubs. Sometimes politicians deplore youth not being active enough, but youth are not engaged, and participatory mechanisms are disregarded, and they don’t feel empowered. We end up talking about micro-geography of spaces for young people: “So, there are almost no existing physical spaces for young people. If the urban youth has more chances for their leisure time and other activities, rural youth can struggle to get access to a room belonging to the community for several hours. Of course, rural youth has fewer opportunities.” Maybe those missing spaces would be an opportunity to really send the message about wanting young people to feel empowered.


 Cyprus: a lot is about local community relations

In the south of Europe, Evie and Paraskevi show me around the island of Cyprus. In KOKEN, the Cyprus organisation dedicated to youth clubs, a vast majority of their members come from rural areas. In enacting anything that has to do with a possible civil society life, locality is important: “Independent of how young people approach the council of the village, if the relationships are good, then it is taken seriously. Otherwise young people struggle to be part of the village society.” There is a lot about how they work – I liked youth workers having their own Viber groups (Viber is a free call and messenger service) – intergenerational relations, the need for capacity building, especially in terms of advocacy. The list of needs and wants is long and leads to points that others have also mentioned: “Generally, young people in Cyprus should change their mentality of thinking. For example, to be more open-minded, creative, etc. In that case, education and self-development should be the solution.”



 Taking some distance

We know we don’t know much about rural youth. And, though I don’t have a big literature review about just how scarce research is, I can vouch from personal experience in youth work practice, and social science academia, that it is not easy to find basic research about rural youth or rural civil society in Europe. Let alone research on these two categories combined! If we want to support rural youth and if we want an active and positive rural civil society, we need to do our research and we need to remember that our policies are at least as good as the research they are based on. As Amund was saying, we know very little and that is in itself a result.

There is of course a lot of information that had to be cut out to fit an article. For instance, after about the fourth encounter, I started noticing that there was an interesting conceptual category: “the age gap”, referring to youth that must leave the rural communities because of study constraints. Are they an asset? How could they be engaged? We could have done one big article just on that concept. Also, everyone invariably and without being prompted to referred to how rural youth organisations are perceiving the impact of COVID-19, and, besides all the projects modified and put on hold, there could be opportunities that also emerge like the fact that currently the new long-distance learning and online platforms give young people the possibility to study without commuting away from rural areas. The consequences of COVID-19 could have been another article.

A lot was cut out because this article is one version. Here the intention was to show that these territories don’t have to be, and should not remain, unexplored. Fiona was pointing out that an issue with research in rural areas is that young people are sometimes not concentrated in terms of population, making in difficult to access them quickly or in large numbers in one place. One way forward would be to adapt our research methods to go beyond sociometric data and statistics.

And when it comes to young people we could certainly work more with their narratives. What is rural youth saying? What are their stories of civic engagement? To do that there are multiple qualitative methods we could choose from: situational analysis, narrative inquiry, constructivist grounded theory (if you don’t know them, you can maybe check out The SAGE handbook of current developments in grounded theory edited by Antony Bryant and – my absolute all time favourite – Kathy Charmaz or Situational analysis in practice by Adele Clarke, Carrie Friese and Rachel Washburn; or Engaging in narrative inquiries with children and youth by Jean Clandinin, Vera Caine, Sean Lessard and Janice Huber). And many other research methods suitable to (just) talking and collecting narratives of youth, and those working with them, to advance our understanding of rural youth. Without investing in research, we are not going to “take rural youth forward”.

I deliberately tried to not quote anyone other than the people who have so generously offered insights into the uncharted territories of rural youth civil society. Before I sign off, allow me to bring many thanks to them, my travel companions: Cosmin, Karin, Ana, Maurice, Fiona and Fiona, Amund, Diana, Paraskevi and Evie. Thank you all for your guidance and your work supporting rural youth civil society!

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