Rural Youth Workers
by Maria Rodriguez Gradin and Edo Sadikovic
Since the beginning of this project's life it has been having an impact on the neighbours, the wider rural community, young people – local, regional and international – and the municipal authorities.
For many of the people in these groups, youth work was an unknown concept. Due to the impact and the work of Sende (Maria and Edo and their team) youth work has become known and to a certain extent understood. Sende the youth work organisation has become the innovator people, the creative people, the caring people, the people who bring life back to the dying rural communities, the people who support the young people and support them in their personal and social development.
This is the story of Sende…
How to do youth work and organize projects 365 days a year without funding?
I am María Rodriguez Gradin, I am a social educator and youth event organiser, I mostly work with children.
I am Edo Sadikovic, a youth work organiser and trainer of international training courses on conflict-transformation, peacebuilding and social entrepreneurship.
We wrote that question on a piece of paper before starting to build our project Sende.
Sende is a rural co-working and co-living space hidden in the Spanish mountains, on the border with Portugal. Inside this village of 20 inhabitants, we have rebuilt old houses and converted them into spaces where young creators, professionals and digital nomads come to stay and work on their projects.
We are just like a modern city based co-working space, except in this village the word coworking carries the accent on the letters "cow".
In the last 8 years more than 3000 young people from 50+ countries have visited and stayed in our village. Designers, writers, thinkers, illustrators, web developers, project writers and project evaluators, coders, entrepreneurs and makers, have all found their home for a month at a time in this tiny village.
When our guests are not working, we all cook and dine together, have long conversations, hike and enjoy the Galician rural countryside, small markets and nearby villages.
Changing the Approach
We both come from the world of youth work and non-formal education. Both of us have had experience in this youth NGO world as participants, facilitators, organisers and trainers.
We realised at one point that so much of our work was reliant on approved projects and receiving the funding. With no projects our work seemed to pause – except for the writing of new projects. So we started thinking about how we could run projects forever, without being dependent on project applications and successful funding bids.
Sara, a young youth worker from Spain and one of our participants back in 2012, while wiping off her goodbye tears said to us: "Hey when are you going to organise a training course that lasts one year or forever instead of 8 days only" - and that was the moment when the idea of Sende clicked.
We decided to see if we could build a (social) business. One where we could organise a concert, or a workshop, or a talk, or a training course... whenever we wanted and fund the project from the profit.
So we decided to build a world house, where our friends and people from all over the world could come, not only for tourism but to do creative work under the same roof, and so Sende was born in 2013.
Both of us are doers and proud imperfectionists, meaning we want to create, not perfection, just create, and let what will be will be. This approach is how we operate Sende, it is an ongoing creation and one that we are not looking to be perfect, we make mistakes, we learn and we move on to new mistakes.
Today Sende is a sustainable small business and right now (2021) we are building Sende Portugal, in a village near Setubal. We are funded by our clients who exchange their money for a work experience in our place. Sende also hosts and organises between four and eight Erasmus+ projects per year, but our goal from the start was to be able to run the space even if there are zero projects approved.
How we use youth work to run Sende
Whenever we have participated in training courses, we were always trying to understand how to transfer these skills for use in the world outside of the youth sector and to other aspects of our lives. Today we use so many of the skills we developed in our youth work learning experience to run our space during the whole year.
For example we use daily our skills from conflict transformation to handle real life situations. Dealing with people from different countries under the same roof means that intercultural learning is constantly happening. We utilise non-violent communication, active listening and understanding to create a space for a dialogue.
The Impact of Sende
The development of the recognition of youth work comes in many forms.
The Sende project is in a tiny village. With only 20 neighbours living here, all our programmes have a big impact on the villagers and indeed on the entire mountain.
Building recognition through support to local business
A large part of the development of the recognition of youth work is indirect. We are witnessing how this project is helping struggling local small businesses. There are 2 restaurants / cafes, one shop, one bakery and local construction companies. Our project is their frequent client and just by using local products, we help these businesses to work better, even to survive. For example, we buy the produce we need for ourselves and our guests in the local shop and from the neighbours. During the summer Sende triples their monthly income.
Building recognition through social interaction
Most of our neighbours are aged between 65 and 90 years of age. Most of them are retired and often lonely. We make sure to invite all the neighbours to attend events we hold, for example an expo, or a concert, or to model for the Bosquexo - a festival of illustrators. Every Sunday we co-organise a vermouth session with our neighbour Antonio. Five to ten neighbours gather for an hour to chat while sipping vermouth.
Building recognition through engaging with young people
When younger villagers attend our youth work activities, for example a training on peacebuilding where we use concepts of non-violent communication and dialogue, they get immersed for the first time in non-formal education. Rural areas lack information, opportunities and possibilities for young people, and youth work and non-formal education are very difficult to access for these young people living in such marginalised areas.
By engaging with young people from the villages we are able to show them online all the international opportunities that they can access. In total we have sent around 100 young people from the region to training courses and youth exchanges all over the world. Many of these young Spaniards have never left the country before these travels.
One young person, Lucas, travelled for the first time abroad on a trip to Croatia to attend an Erasmus+ training course on human rights. Lucas has since had further opportunities through the Erasmus+ programme and is now organising and facilitating small workshops in villages around Galicia.
Building recognition through cooperation with municipalities
In Sende we do many collaborative projects which often include a municipality as well as our neighbours.
Two years ago we joined with the people of one village to make a petition to the municipal authorities to fix the village swimming pool. The village got the pool repaired and it is crowded each summer. The pool is maintained by the villagers and by our guests.
The project of Sende is very important for the local municipality because it brings freshness, innovation and cultural exchange to the local area. The municipality supports our numerous projects as the local partner when it is needed.
In Lobeira the city council has brand new spaces and infrastructure but there is a lack of cultural programmes. We organised the first illustration gallery and exhibition there. Since that first exhibition Sende has provided numerous programmes and brings an international youth work dimension to the collaboration with the local municipality.
Building recognition through tourism
Because we attract young people to our project, these same young people are in essence tourists to this zone where tourism is not popular, it benefits the cultural enrichment of the whole area.
Building recognition through cooperating with schools
Sende collaborates with a nearby school. During a conflict transformation event, co-organised with the Youth Peace Ambassadors Network, participants from 18 countries visited the local school and made 4 workshops with the students. This was the first international and culturally diverse encounter in this school. Since that event we now have a regular collaboration with this school.