British Council Scotland's Year of Young People Intern, Saoirse Docherty, reflects on a powerful cultural exchange at the heart of Europe
I recently accompanied a group from Young Scot at the European Youth Event 2018 (EYE18) in Strasbourg. The event is a biennial celebration, inviting 8,000 young people from across the continent to the seat of the European Parliament to meet, voice their concerns and develop ideas.
As part of our work to bring an international dimension to Scotland's Year of Young People, British Council Scotland supported four Communic18 members to run a workshop to share their experience of developing the Year with their contemporaries from across Europe.
I set off from Edinburgh airport on Thursday lunchtime. 10 hours, two diverted flights, two missed connections, a flooded train and an impressive lightning storm later, I arrived, soaked, at the hotel in central Strasbourg.
The next morning showed no signs of the previous night’s chaos. A short walk and a quick pastry-detour later we arrived at the European Parliament building. The atmosphere was festival-like, with street performers, food stalls, games and long queues. Evidence of the storm did show itself through a cancelled opening ceremony, so we used our free hour to explore the nearby Parc de l’Organerie.
Over the weekend we attended several workshops and panel discussions. Subjects ranged from youth unemployment and access to rights, to election participation and voluntary work. Speakers included European Parliament Commissioners, presidents of youth organisations and members of grassroots movements.
During the panel sessions the audience was able to comment and ask questions. Panellists emphasised the importance of active citizenship, lifelong learning and soft skills, while participants asked about employment conditions, education, youth rights and what the European Parliament was doing to help.
Sharing Scotland's Year of Young People
Our final workshop, run by the Young Scot Communc18 members, introduced Scotland’s Year of Young People then encouraged participants to think about how they might implement a similar initiative in their home country.
This workshop was the most interactive of the weekend and, according to feedback, it was first time that many of the attendees had meaningfully engaged with individuals from other countries. The full session was live streamed and can still be found on the Young Scot Twitter account.
What I learned…
Young people across Europe all have similar concerns
The event highlighted the similarity of young peoples' concerns Europe-wide. While these may vary in urgency and scale, and it is important to note that not all EU member states were present for every discussion, certain issues were raised repeatedly, including youth rights, employment opportunities, working conditions and international mobility.
Ironically, for an event designed to give young people a voice, concerns around not being heard or taken seriously dominated. Of course, an event of this scale does not allow for in-depth development of ideas or solutions; however I did witness connections being made and felt my own ideas forming.
Social media is a tool
There was specific focus on social media and digital learning. The role of online communications as a tool for young people to express themselves, be heard, and connect with each other, was emphasised by panellists and participants alike.
This crossed many issues, including sustainability, employment, health, education, and political participation. Social media was mentioned particularly frequently in responses to comments concerning young people not being heard or not having a voice.
Don’t wait for a large-scale biennial international event, act now
I believe that the event was a positive and meaningful experience, but what it perhaps unintentionally highlighted to me was the importance of working on a small-scale, at community level and at home.
If there is an issue concerning you as a young person in your school, community or home country, act on it. Speak to your friends or teachers, do your research, contact your local MSP, MP or Councillor, start an online campaign or social media account.
Don’t wait for the next European Youth Event so that experts can tell you that you what to do. Take things into your own hands now, then in 2020 attend the event and take your work to the experts.
The young people of Scotland are fortunate
My final take-away is that young people in Scotland are in an incredibly fortunate position. Many other European countries do not have a centralised youth organisation, which means that large-scale projects are held back due to lack a collaboration between partners.
Others delegates told me that their governments were not as open to listening to young people, or chose to follow other priorities. During the Young Scot workshop, a few people told me that young people themselves would be a barrier to increasing participation in politics, as they were so accustomed to not being listened to or not being taken seriously.
Young people in Scotland enjoy a relatively strong position by having an active national youth organisation in Young Scot and a supportive government in promoting the Year of Young People. In addition, we have numerous supporting stakeholders across the arts, education, policy and the third sectors. This does not mean young people here do not face barriers; but what they have is a position of strength to work from as they seek to break them down.
Attending EYE was an important cultural exploration of the combined brain power of young people, and the value that can be gained by sharing approaches and best practices with colleagues from other countries. Watching four young women from Scotland lead discussions made me feel proud to be part of a generation working towards a better future now and for the many years to come.