Photos by Sara Sušanj

Photos by Sara Sušanj

Making the Youth Council work in a rural area - things I have learned


  by Sara Sušanj 



Since 2017, I have been involved in the work of the Youth Council of Opatija, which is established as an advisory board of the City Council that links young people and decision makers and directs youth policies at a local level.

If done right, and in fruitful partnership with decision makers and youth workers, youth councils in small towns and rural areas in Croatia are places of learning about democracy, where youth can host meaningful activities and set their own agenda, be empowered to become active citizens, experience their impact first-hand, travel, explore, offer solutions to the problems they are facing themselves and make the community stronger and more democratic.

This article illustrates everything I have learned in my three years’ mandate, voluntarily leading the Youth Council in a country where young people only matter when it comes to waving flags behind politicians and looking beautiful, in a community where young people are listened to but not heard, where youth participation is at the level of tokenism and in which priorities are anything but the present and the future of youth.

 If I got a kuna for every time I heard that the youth is the future…

Decision makers in Croatia often talk about how young people are the future, but when they sit down and decide on that same future, young people are never invited to be at that table. Young people in Croatia are a problem, not a resource or a solution. The fact that they are mentioned only in the demographic context and the departure of young people from the country speaks about the position of young people, they are often portrayed as disinterested and passive. However, even when they do participate, young people are systematically ignored, in schools, local and regional units as well as at the national level. There is no structured and systematic youth policy or policy decisions that could help young people in practising democracy. Decision makers are not interested in changing young people’s patterns of behaviour. The priorities of the state are clear – since 2017 the Republic of Croatia has not yet adopted an umbrella national document – a national youth programme. The civil sector that compensates for the shortcomings of the education system is marginalised by the national authorities and is simply still not strong enough. National open calls for youth projects are regularly delayed or not announced at all. Youth studies and the profession of youth workers in Croatia are still not regulated.

Currently, the only law in Croatia that explicitly applies to youth is the 2014 Youth Council Act, which states that each local and regional self-government unit (576 in total) should have an established youth council as an advisory board to a municipal, city or county council. Its members should be young people aged 15 to 30 from that local area, who are ready to give their volunteer contribution to creating a better quality of life for young people in a three-year term. The youth council should thus advise the representative body on the position of young people in the community, the challenges that young people face, and the ways in which they believe that the municipality, city or county should respond to them. In dialogue with decision makers, they should further develop and implement activities and methods to address the challenges identified through the annual work programme and financial plan founded by the municipality’s annual budget. But they are often left to do everything on their own, without the decision makers or youth workers to guide them throughout the process, and are risking the fact their budgets are totally wasted on pointless activities.

According to the data from the Annual Report on the Implementation of the Law on Youth Councils of the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth, and Social Policy in 2018, only 15% of local, regional (regional) self-government units had an active youth council. In other words, out of 576 municipalities, cities and counties in Croatia, only 92 of them have fulfilled their legal obligation.


 How rural is rural exactly? – the case of the city of Opatija

Opatija is gravitating towards the urban agglomeration of Rijeka, the third biggest city in Croatia and is part of the 99.24% of the territory of Croatia that is defined as rural or mixed area1. In reality it means that you basically know everyone you meet along your way to the grocery store, and if you don’t wave and say hello to your neighbour across the street, she will probably tell your parents you didn’t say hi even before you come back home from the store.

On the other hand, it also means that young people often go to college in Rijeka or even Zagreb and usually stay there, find jobs and start their career and families and never come back to Opatija. The young and educated working population in such areas emigrate to urban areas (or even abroad) in search of better working and living conditions, which leads to depopulation of rural areas, demographic aging and lack of need for various social and economic services. Insufficient development and social infrastructure (like youth spaces, youth clubs or youth centres) and lack of good public transport makes towns like Opatija undesirable for young people to live in.

I remember one time I was coming home from Rijeka by bus and there were two high school students who were commenting on how beautiful Opatija is as we were driving through the town, and one boy said to another that Opatija is a place where you come to live when you are old (and ready to die soon).

But Opatija really is beautiful. It is a small town of fancy Art Nouveau architecture and rich horticulture located on the coastline. The city centre was built more than 170 years ago with the purpose and idea of being a winter resort. Huge villas were built for rich and prestigious guests to come and enjoy mild winters. The area surrounding Opatija is where residents lived, grew vegetables and supplied the centre, villas and hotels. Although not primarily a winter resort, tourism in Opatija is the dominant industry even today.


 Youth participation in Opatija is a myth more than a reality

According to the data from the official census of the Central Bureau of Statistics from 2011, there were 1 787 young people aged 15 to 30 living in Opatija, who made up 15% of the population. The decline in the number of young people in Opatija can be seen in the data from 2018 available from the Ministry of the Interior, which shows that the number of people in the age group 15 to 30 years with residence in Opatija was 1 625. In the database of associations, a total of 242 active associations are registered with headquarters in Opatija. The Association for the Development of Youth Culture “Cultural Front” is the only youth association for young people in Opatija, entirely run by young people for young people.


In Opatija, there is no continuous systematic support in youth work, nor is there a centre or club for young people where they could gather, acquire new skills, make new friends and create their first initiatives. Although it has a long tradition in child participation2 and was among the first to implement the Law on Youth Councils, Opatija has lost continuity in its functioning. The reasons range from the basic misunderstanding of decision makers about the role of youth councils and the lack of interest of the civil sector in encouraging a candidacy campaign, to the fact that public open calls for youth council members were posted on the city websites and city bulletin boards during school holidays. Can you really expect young people to read the city’s boring website? A sufficient number of young people (seven plus seven deputies) did not respond to public open calls for membership of the Youth Council for the whole two years. In other words, for two years, Opatija could not find and motivate 14 young people to volunteer and dedicate their time, knowledge and skills to create quality policies for young people and improve their position in Opatija. The 5th convocation of the Youth Council was elected by the City Council at the third attempt, on 27 December 2017, in a political moment shortly after the local elections, meaning that the majority of the members were members of political parties rather than motivated youth leaders from different associations.

The very functioning of the Youth Council itself is often challenging because it gathers different profiles of young people with specific needs and life realities – young students who have just entered universities, students in the country capital Zagreb who are not even currently based in Opatija, young parents, young people living in Opatija’s sorrounding area and young profesionals just starting their first job. Since we still don’t have a space to set our own agenda, a lot of effort is also necessary to put into maintaining the motivation in participating.

The very first strategic document designed for young people that tried to map the needs, goals and attributes of young people of Opatija – the Local Youth Programme of Opatija 2018-2021 – was adopted in January 2019. Participatory action plans over the years of the Local Youth Programme have not been developed, and young people are still not active creators of local youth policy but only their consumers. Decision makers are still not aware of the potential that Erasmus+ in the field of youth participation offers, or of the Europe Goes Local project and other opportunites that could position Opatija as a youth-friendly town. Decision makers still talk about young people, not with young people.


 Seven lessons learned

There are seven days of the week, seven colours of the rainbow, seven notes on a musical scale, seven seas and seven continents. Although three years is a relatively short period of time, I offer a list of seven lessons I have learned that can help (young people, youth professionals and decision makers) in thinking about the role of youth councils or youth advisory boards in rural areas which do not have that much experience in inclusive youth participation in decision making.

 #1 Trust  – first things first. Without mutual trust, any joint action makes no sense. On several occasions, I have had the impression that decision makers treat me with a reserve because a) they struggle to understand what the role of youth councils should be or really is and b) they are afraid young people want to invade the status quo and theatrically overthrow and take authority. The former should be educated and helped to understand, and the latter will ultimately judge for themselves politically with such an attitude towards young people.

Opatija is a small area where endless emails are not needed. If they care and have confidence in the youth, decision makers will be very open to collaboration, which means they will spontaneously join you for lunch at the bowling alley without hesitation and ask you what your thoughts are on a particular topic. This does not mean that you need to be friends with the decision makers but mutual trust is a condition in a joint co-operation in solving big challenges. Beside the openness and care, you will also recognise the trust in the power relationship between young people and decision makers (and power is usually in the hands of the one who dictates the agenda) and it is built over a longer period of time.

 #2 Common goals, long-term vision and responsibility   young people have to live longest with the political decisions that are being made right now, so they deserve to participate. However, there must be a consensus on where we as a community want to go, what systemic changes we want to influence, and what our common values and priorities are. Ultimately, each side should be able to take responsibility for the society it creates. But the road to a consensus between young people and decision makers is very long and thorny, especially if the local community lacks a problem-solving approach, where reality is beautified because decision makers fear that if they admit there is a problem, they will lose their authority among voters.

I remember being so frustrated after every City Council session I attended. I have often had the impression that we do not understand each other when we talk about young people. Until one day at a City Council session, we invited all present decision makers to openly discuss what youth participation in decision making really means. Ultimately, we invited them to mark on the Mentimeter on which step of Hart’s participation ladder they think we are as a community. The results clearly represent reality. For decision makers, the participation of young people in decision making meant that it was enough to pat young people on the shoulder when they would organise an event and take pictures with them, then post them on their Facebook/Instagram/Twitter page and say “Yeah, look, we have the young people on board.” Some were of the opinion that the only thing young people need is the opportunity to have fun. And that’s fine. At least we know what we are currently on and what we need to strive for together.


 #3 Consistency  – the first step is always difficult but staying on the right path and persevering when it doesn’t go right is even harder. In my experience, and when they happened, short ad hoc youth initiatives in Opatija helped to start positive stories but the lack of consistency killed them. It is not true that young people are inert and uninterested in participating in decision making. Young people speak, warn, co-operate but eagerly fight battles with the sluggish state apparatus and many give up. Imagine that in 2018 you clearly articulated to decision makers that you need a space where after school, and while waiting for the bus (because the traffic connection in rural areas is a story in itself), you can write homework or play guitar with friends, and in 2020 there are no indications of solving this problem, not even in sight. In a small but bureaucratic environment, spiced up with corruption, the consequences are enormous, both for young people and local communities. Young people need to see the results of their participation first-hand and should feel that, in the long run, they still get added value for their participation. Whether it is participating in a survey on the needs of young people in which they will give their opinions, or participating in a project creating a public space for young people – young people should be constantly informed about progress on what has been achieved from the foundations of their inputs.

Fortunately, there are positive examples of the functioning of local youth councils in Croatia. For example, the Youth Council of Varaždin gathered an amazing group of young people which, in fruitful partnership with local decision makers, youth workers and volunteers, lifted the whole city up and led the whole candidature process for the European Youth Capital 20223. The city of Rijeka is also mentioned as an example of good practice because they have a person employed in the city administration (in the Department of Education) that deals only with youth and EU programmes. The deputy mayor of the city of Lepoglava is a youth worker and activist, and his work is dedicated to giving the young people of Lepoglava a voice and advocating for them more strongly. These are the results of the systematic efforts of decision makers, a strong network of youth workers who co-ordinate youth initiatives and create high social cohesion in the community. These are communities where the real impact came to life because there is an awareness that young people are key actors in finding solutions to the problems they face themselves. On the other hand, these are the decision makers who provide young people with a positive context and a safety net, as well as financial and professional support, from the first ideas to the realisation of large projects.

 #4 Focus and intrinsic motivation   members of youth councils in Croatia can be young people aged 15 to 30 years without any prior knowledge of the functioning of local (regional) self-government, youth policies and youth work. And that’s okay because I believe the youth council is a kind of playground for practising and learning about democracy, leadership skills and advocacy. I will best describe the three years of the mandate if I say that the first year we had no idea what we were doing, the second we tried to compensate for the lack of content for young people, and only by the third did we realise that what we think young people need is not always what they really need. I guess it was a proces of learning but it was painful sometimes. For some, this experience was a way to burnout. But at the end of the day, the focus, intrinsic motivation and the values you firmly believe in are something that help when systematic support is lacking. And even though you feel like you are not making any progress, one day you will look back and see how it all made sense.


 #5 Reach out!  – you are not alone. Stop agreeing to closed doors and unanswered emails. Look for a partner somewhere else. Read, explore, ask questions. There is an amazing pool of resources on youth work and youth participation you can access for free. You do not have to make something remarkable, revolutionary or never seen. There are a lot of examples of good practice. You just have to find what works for your community and make it your own. Towards the end of 2019, the Co-ordination of Local Youth Councils in Primorje-Gorski Kotar County was established with the aim of gathering members of youth councils from other rural areas of this region. We realised that we can co-operate together with Kastav, Kostrena, Viškovo, Rijeka and Crikvenica and advocate for change more strongly. We have also worked with a lot of international partners which broadened our horizons and enabled us to think about participation at local, national and even the European level.

 #6 Fail, fail and fail again   did you even live if you were not ashamed of your first public appearance, totally missed activity, meeting with the principal of Opatija’s high school where you arrived confident because you thought you’d arrived early, and finally realised that you’d made a mistake and came half an hour later than the agreed time? Whether it’s mistakes in communication or mistakes in understanding your true role, I think it’s never too late to start over. It’s just important not to give up. And even when you feel like something did not succeed, keep going.

 #7 It’s okay not to know all the answers   let’s be realistic, who knows the answers to all the questions? Neither young people nor decision makers often know everything. But we are here together and we need to be ready to take responsibility and figure it out together.

1. According to the model of allocation of rural areas of Croatia for the purposes of monitoring the impact of rural development measures.

2. You can find out about the Children’s City Council at

3. Check out more at

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