Revitalising democracy within and through the youth sector
Interview with Anja Olin Pape, Chair of the Advisory Council on Youth,
and Luis Alvarado-Martinez, President of the European Youth Forum
by Larissa Nenning
Young people and youth organisations who are involved in the European youth sector are often accused of being elitist. This interview with two powerful European youth activists reveals honest self-reflection, highlighting the democratic strengths but also the (dis)comforts with the institutionalisation of the youth sector and youth organisations’ roles in it. They make a strong call for more democratic and ambitious youth organisations and institutions and for more inter-institutional and cross-sectoral co-operation to ensure an active civil society.
How did you become involved in the youth sector?
Luis: A very long time ago I was facing violence around young people back at home. Some friends were involved in different tragic cases back home in the Canary Islands. At the time I was not very aware of how the systems worked and how any of this was possible. It was a bit of a wake-up call. I then started working in different projects with young people on inclusion issues and later became active at AEGEE at university which led me to the European level.
Anja: For me, it all started in my local youth centre. I was a young person who was upset about many things in the world. I started learning photography and teaching photography with other young people. We used culture as a tool to get our messages across to politicians. From there it was both a straight and curvy way from there to the European level.
What responsibilities come with your positions?
Anja: I am the chair of the Advisory Council (AC) on Youth of the Council of Europe, which means that I lead this amazing committee of representatives of young people from different youth organisations, influencing and actually taking decisions over the Council of Europe youth sector programmes but also working towards mainstreaming youth within the Council of Europe. I also chair the Joint Council on Youth together with the chair of the CDEJ, which is the committee of governmental representatives, where 30 youth organisation representatives and the 50 signature countries of the European Cultural Convention take all the decisions regarding the Council of Europe youth sector. In practice, it’s a lot of meetings and doing lots of representative work in the Council of Europe.
Luis: It’s really important to note that it’s a privilege that Anja and I have this platform to speak on behalf of an entire generation. Sometimes it is tricky because they want to put our generation in boxes and our generation is not one group. But it gives a lot of power to the AC and the European Youth Forum (YFJ).
The YFJ is the biggest youth organisation-led movement not only on the continent but in the world. We should be proud of that. Our role is mostly focused around the EU because it is one of the main structures where we can influence policy, as well as the UN and the Council of Europe and others. Our role is, on the one hand, to act as the voice of the young generation in policy making regarding issues that affect them. We try to be the kind of organisation that shakes the institutions to the core and opens spaces for young people to take part or take over, and to have a seat at the table. Sometimes we also change our role and become researchers, trying to gather evidence across the continent. At other times governments ask us to help with policy development. Then our role changes a little bit: we stop being activists and become consultants. Having multiple roles and identities is one of the advantages but also one of the big challenges of the YFJ. It sometimes helps us to make a bigger impact and sometimes waters down the impact that we have.
What is your personal understanding of democratic policy making? And how would you assess the European youth sector’s performance in this regard?
Luis: I am a very critical person when it comes to our sector. I think that our democracies are in crisis: people do not trust in governments, political parties as vehicles anymore to advance their rights. Yet as the youth sector we are actually very few times self-critical. We stop seeing that the amount of people that we reach is a very small percentage of young people. It is true that our resources are limited, but I also think that our sector hasn’t pushed itself enough to be creative and innovate. Our structures in youth organisations are still very old structures which still need to be innovated and adapted to the new age. Young people need to be the ones reinventing the concept of democracy in the 21st century. There is so much that is going to change in our lives in the next 10-15 years due to technology, digitalisation, population changes, migration, and so on. Young people need to be much more radical in shaping that agenda. Our sector has in the last years, because of a lack of resources, lack of support from political institutions and so on, has locked itself up in a comfortable place.
How does this comfort express itself in youth organisations’ work?
Luis: We often do projects where we know that we will get funding from the Council of Europe or the European Commission because that will ensure our survival. That has created a different dynamic where we have somehow become a bit the service provider of the institutions. I am not saying that is entirely wrong because the institutions aren’t able to reach the young people at the grassroots as well as we can, but that has changed the power dynamics. I think it is something that we don’t reflect on enough. As there is a trend towards shrinking the space for civil society, the future is not looking very pretty. We as youth organisations really need to snap a bit out of our current box that we have and start being a little braver in how we start approaching institutions and how we start taking control of what is going to be our world.
Anja, you are a youth activist working within the Council of Europe. Do you agree with this criticism?
Anja: I think Luis made a lot of very good points. Of course, youth organisations, institutions and networks need to critically reflect on how we represent the target group that we are here to represent. How can we develop and ensure that our voices speak for more than the ones who are in the room? That is what it comes down to in the end for me. We still have a long way to go on that. But I think having to hunt project funds by adapting our ideas to what is currently in the loop is also an effect of how society is structured. That is the box that has been given to us and the member states and European institutions need to rethink how we provide support for youth organisations. It cannot be only through unsustainable one to two-year-long project funds, but we need to find better ways of ensuring that young people can organise themselves at small or big scales with sustainable resources that are long-term and not just project-based in order to really fulfil the personal and societal purpose that we are here to fulfil.
I agree that we need to revitalise democracy and recognise that everything is changing fast. Youth organisations can be a huge asset. Not only when it comes to youth policy but policies for developing democracy in general. We are also limiting ourselves very often to talk only about youth policy when we should speak about state policy in general and how young people and youth organisations can be revitalising the policies of all sectors.
How can we revitalise democracy within the youth sector?
Luis: We really need to be out there testing new models and proposing new things. We somehow have stayed very similar for a long time. In the Youth Forum we just came to the reflection that we needed to change our concepts of the European Youth Capitals, as it is just another tool and vehicle for young people to participate in their conversations on how they want their cities to develop. They should be able not just to talk about youth specifically, but also about climate change, gender, mobility and all other topics.
There are so many spectacular projects created by and for young people, which are changing the rules of the game on a grassroots level which somehow our movements are not able to grasp because we remain stuck. We often discuss this: that how is it possible that after 30 years we are still the same organisation? Society has changed yet our structures and our ways of engaging haven’t changed at all.
Anja: I agree with you up to a certain point. But I must point out that in society a lot of decision making hasn’t progressed either. In many places in Europe people feel further away from power, they have less control over their lives and have less impact in general, whereas in youth organisations we still use the same old models that were built to make sure that young people, or people in general, could have a say on decisions that affect them. I am not sure if our models are worse because we haven’t changed much. I absolutely agree that we have to critically reflect and renew but it is also important to see that our tools for engaging are still useful and make sure that democratic principles are sustained as well. Especially in a world where these principles don’t seem to matter that much anymore for the politicians.
How can we ensure that good practices of democratic engagement get mainstreamed to other sectors at all levels?
Anja: I think it is one of the key challenges of the sector that we have tremendously experienced people, good practices and knowledge but are struggling how to reach out, especially to municipalities, and even more at local level. This involves policy makers and youth organisations. That is something where I would like to see that the two institutions can come together in a better way than we are doing at the moment, to ensure that both our goals are aligned when it comes to supporting municipalities and local, regional and national youth organisations. Another key issue is to ensure that measures are there for the distribution of European funds to a local and regional level.
Luis: I think we have been waiting for cross-sectoral youth policies to happen for decades. And some governments have just admitted that they just don’t know how to do it. And we haven’t been able to propose realistic alternative models saying “this is what cross-sectoral youth policy means”. Many really do not understand anything when we start talking in our youth sector lingua, using terms such as youth council, youth rights or co-management. They then just switch off. We need to become better at telling the same message to different audiences. We need to be able to explain what co-management or youth rights are without calling it that. We also need to propose actual models. I think in the youth sector we have become too comfortable to comment and to always give feedback, but when it comes to actually proposing realistic models and tools that governments can actually use to check whether they are doing it right, it gets really complicated. We need to be able to be more strategic.
A key area is social investment: Everyday there are millions of euros being invested in different programmes through the European Investment Bank on youth and different policy investments, or also by the Council of Europe Development Bank. But who is influencing these agendas? We are not able to reach those higher levels. Because we have such a fast turnover in the youth sector we have a lack of an institutional memory, which is a challenge. Knowing where the political momentums are, what the main processes are and where the big talk is are challenges. I think there is hope of doing things differently and increasing our impact by telling stories differently.
You imply that a big part of the solution is that youth organisations have to act differently in order to effect wider change in the youth sector and beyond. How much change should we demand from others?
Anja: We also discuss often at the AC how we can. We have this amazing system at Council of Europe level where young people are making decisions together with government representatives, but on a local level there is not even an attempt at talking to young people or engaging with the local youth council. Local politicians need to actively engage with young people and react to their suggestions. We should be very critical and figure out how we can move forward on a greater scale with regards to reaching out to other areas and sectors. But I also really think that the lack of youth engagement in other sectors is also a result of the prejudice against young people in society, which we somehow have stopped talking about in the youth sector. Because in the youth sector we have gotten really far in ensuring that young people’s voices are heard, and now that we have come far, we start talking about other topics instead of ensuring that prejudice against young people is addressed in other parts of society.
Luis: It is true that we have the most solutions for critical issues in our sector. For example, we have good practices of how to avoid young people joining radical movements. We have done this for decades. We know how to revitalise economies for young people. We know how to improve the quality of life in cities through young people. We have done it all.
Anja: There is also a lot of research that shows how it can be done. The fault is not only ours but that our models are not taken seriously. It is also something that we have to realise.
Luis: Yes, there is obviously a lot wrong with our political systems and our leaders. But I always think that the most important question we should ask is what our role is.
Anja: I agree with you, Luis. But sometimes we get stuck in the bubble of criticising ourselves, whilst we should also be demanding changes from others.
Which areas would you like the European youth sector and its institutions to focus on in the next years?
Luis: (laughs) Oh my god, we have a long wish list.
Anja: We need to align the agendas and to make sure that the institutions are striving for the same goals. In the Council of Europe we are currently developing the Youth Strategy 2030 and the EU is developing a new Youth Strategy. It is really important that the communication, development and also the implementation of the strategies are aligned so that we can really combine the resources in terms of knowledge and history of the Council of Europe and financial resources of the European Union to make sure that all the finances and the experiences of the two institutions work in the same direction. Co-operation is the most foundational part of development.
Luis: One thing that I would love is for the youth sector to really understand how much power they have. We have only started seeing the tip of the iceberg of how much we can do. When you understand how much power you actually have as a movement and as a sector, how stakeholders view you, and that you are able to influence – if you want, and put energy into all sectors and levels, in order to sit with investment banks and global institutions – and be able to direct and inform how global investment in youth is made. To be able to crack that ceiling of the outside of the youth sector and be able to become a global thought leader. We need to reach higher levels where we are that player connecting corporate, private sectors, public institutions and investors, and have a holistic global conversation about what investing in youth means. We should not be fighting for one or two million, we should be fighting on a billion scale.
Anja: I think many of the questions of this interview are also pinpointing the challenges and the needs of the youth sector in Europe. Revitalising democracy and especially fighting against the shrinking space in civil society is something I would really like both institutions to work harder on by aligning strategies in this point as much as possible. We have different tools and measures between the two institutions but standing up for a rich civil society in Europe is really crucial for the development of Europe. The other discussions on how the youth sector can be more inclusive, be more global and work more cross-sectoral take place within our own institutional and organisational chambers a lot. But when are we going to have a broader European discussion where we can discuss solutions for all these issues? They concern us all.