In October 2020, I was elected as a UK Young Ambassador and Representative of the British Youth Council at the European Youth Forum. Not quite the news I was expecting during my first weeks at university, but I was delighted to be elected.
What is the European Youth Forum?
The European Youth Forum is the largest youth organisation in the world and represents tens of millions of European young people via delegates from both National Youth Councils, such as the British Youth Council, and international non-governmental youth organisations such as YMCA. We work to increase the participation of young people and youth organisations in society, and we are a recognised partner of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Whilst there are many elements to the work of the European Youth Forum, and as UK Young Ambassadors we always strive to work internally within the British Youth Council as well as internationally, our main events are the biannual General Assembly and Council of Members meeting. At the 2020 General Assembly, we elected members to the board of the Youth Forum and the wonderful Tom Matthews from the British Youth Council fought a successful campaign to gain a place. Whilst this is an exceptional achievement and we are all very proud of Tom, it left me as the lead delegate with the voting responsibilities for last week’s Council of Members meeting.
Council of Members meeting 2021
Although we had hoped otherwise, April 17th and 18th found us back online instead of Brussels for this year’s Council of Members meeting. By ‘us’ I mean Tom, me and our last-minute-stand-in-extra-delegate-extraordinaire Dave Morris, policy officer of the British Youth Council. Dave’s presence meant that I wasn’t bound to the screen for every single second that the meeting was active.
Even though the meeting was online, there is something special about the atmosphere of a European Youth Forum meeting that it is still felt virtually, and as we sat at our respective screens, across Europe, there was a real sense of togetherness.
The main body of the meeting was taken up with elections for the Advisory Council on Youth for the Council of Europe. They are one of our partner organisations and we send the majority of their members from within our own member organisations, following the election process. Usually, we would be able to hold hostings in person and get to know the candidates personally. However, I found myself jumping on Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, you name it- we tried it, calls in efforts to decide who was going to get the vote of the British Youth Council.
To be the person making those decisions on behalf of the British Youth Council is such a huge privilege and a role to be taken seriously. We also successfully passed a Motion on the Human Rights violation in Western Sahara and on the admission of the National Youth Council of Ukraine. I’m delighted to be able to say that we are continuing to grow and the European Youth Forum now has one more member organisation!
The way forward
As we adjust to life outside the European Union we face not only practical obstacles, such as the loss of Erasmus+ funding for non-formal educational programmes, but we must also adapt to a new international position. For this reason, the words of the Vice-President of the European Youth Forum, Frédéric Piccavet, really struck me. When speaking about the work of the Youth Forum he said, “that’s why I believe that we are stronger together” and as we go on into the post-Brexit era, we would be wise to remember this. Just because we are no longer within the European Union it does mean that the UK can or should foster strong and meaningful relationships within Europe because, fundamentally, we are at our best when we work together; something demonstrated clearly by the work of the European Youth Forum.
Last month, the European Youth Forum held its first ever virtual General Assembly. Two hundred young people representing one hundred different organisations from across Europe met to debate policy papers, admit new members, and elect a new European Youth Forum board. I had the honour of being nominated by the British Youth Council to stand in the elections and after a long, intense period of sharing my vision, I am delighted to say that I was elected!
The international team at the British Youth Council must take much credit for this success; their support and encouragement has been incredible. I will serve a two-year term to will work with the newly elected board and lead the European Youth Forum. The board is responsible for the organisation, we represent the Forum externally to organisations like the European Union and the United Nations and decide the Forum’s strategic direction in consultation with our member organisations. I stood in these elections because I believe there are significant internal changes the European Youth Forum needs to make. We need to utilise our immense capacity as the world’s largest network of youth organisations, and our ability to create the change we want to see in the world.
I also believe young people should be at all levels of decision making. The board of the European Youth Forum has typically been made up of people in their mid to late twenties, meaning Europeans of my generation have not had a representative. When my term begins on January 1st 2021, I will be the youngest board member and one of the youngest in the Forum’s history at 19 years of age. I finally believe that as the Brexit transition period ends, young people in the UK must maintain representation in Europe. I hope that having a voice on the board of one of Europe’s most influential youth organisations will help to achieve that.
As I write this, the UK is 35 days away from the end of the Brexit transition period. Nothing will fully substitute our EU membership, but my new role will enable me to represent the views and needs of young people in the UK within European circles. The European Youth Forum is extremely concerned about the consequences of Brexit for both young people in the UK and the EU, particularly in relation to Erasmus+. Since 2014, £900m of funding has been distributed from the EU to UK Erasmus+ projects, with over 930,000 young people involved in these projects. In 2017, 16,561 UK students travelled to the EU through Erasmus funding, while 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK. If Brexit negotiations conclude at midnight on December 31st without an agreement on the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus (which seems likely) then we will lose the quite incredible benefits it has provided us. At the European Youth Forum’s General Assembly last month, we voted in favour of a motion to back the extension of Erasmus+ to non-EU members. We will continue campaigning for this so that young people in the UK might again benefit from the enormous educational, social and cultural benefits that Erasmus+ has given previous generations.
The next few years are going to challenge everyone. The triple threat of our current economic crisis, the implications of Brexit, and the looming climate crisis means that life is going to be quite different not just for the next few months, but for decades to come. This is why it is crucially important for the European Youth forum to connect, to empower and to provide a platform for other organisations and for young leaders so they can advocate, campaign and lead others in pursuit of a world. A world that is more equitable, respectful, and caring. I want to show by example that having young people in positions of leadership can be of immense value; my hope is that more and more young people will be encouraged and inspired to become leaders in their own communities and that more and more organisations will support and invest in young leaders as the British Youth Council and the European Youth Forum have supported and invested in me.
Over the next two months, I will be posting blogs to provide further context to the five points which form my manifesto for board member of the European Youth Forum. This is blog one, detailing my first manifesto point: lead the new normal.
Lead the new normal
What does it mean to “lead the new normal?” To me, it means reflecting on our experiences from the past six months, learning from our experiences, and implementing those lessons so that we can emerge from the health crisis as a more effective team of youth organisations. In doing that, we strengthen our ability to advocate and campaign for others to respond to this crisis in a way which safeguards young people’s needs and rights.
The process of reflection and lesson learning should have member organisations at its heart. At least one board member should have the responsibility of leading a process which engages member organisations in identifying how the European Youth Forum can improve its ways of working, based on the lessons we are learning from the crisis. I propose that the process replicate the format of the governance review. Below are three ways I believe we need to change in order to lead the new normal:
- We can become more adaptable and resilient by reducing our dependence on physical meetings. This does not necessarily mean reducing physical meetings, though that may be necessary in the short term, but it does mean making sure that if a member organisation or representative is unable to attend a meeting, they should be able to perform basic functions, like voting, remotely or by proxy. It also means increasing our interactions between statutory meetings, as detailed in point three. As a board member I would advocate for reducing our dependence on physical meetings and increasing our interactions between statutory meetings.
- We can become more productive by utilising the best parts of technology to cut down the agendas for the Council of Members and General Assemblies. Activities which are not improved by a physical meeting, should take place virtually ahead of in physical meetings. This would either reduce the length of the Council of Members and General Assemblies, or it would increase the amount of time that can be spent networking, campaign planning or in workshops- the most valuable parts of physical meetings. As a board member I would advocate for activities like voting on amendments to take place virtually ahead of physical meetings, which would then enable physical meetings to have far more personal interactions.
- We can become more connected and interdependent as an organisation by meeting more frequently and less formally, but virtually. New delegates should have the opportunity to join a virtual new delegates group where they can meet other new delegates, create a network of contacts and meet frequently throughout their first year. The board should run more virtual consultations and dialogues to give member organisations opportunity to input into discussions. I provide more detail on how the board can become more connected, transparent, and accountable in my third manifesto point to be released in the coming weeks. As a board member I would advocate for a step change in the amount of interactions between meetings so the European Youth Forum is not characterised by two statutory meetings per year, but by continual interaction between youth organisations and the European Youth Forum throughout the year.
Over the past six months, we have been forced into a radically new way of working. There are many negatives to this change, but there are also some positives. In order to lead the new normal, we must first show that we, as the world’s largest network of youth organisations, can rebuild for the better.
This crisis has taught us what it is possible to do, we must use this time to push forward to a new and better way of working. I am committed to advocating for a more adaptable and resilient, more productive, and more connected and interdependent European Youth Forum.
It is difficult to understate how much the world has changed over the past six months. Millions have lost loved ones; millions have been locked in their homes; those on the frontline have continued working in immensely challenging circumstances; greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted; in the UK 20 years of growth has disappeared in six months, and globally extreme poverty is rising for the first time in 40 years.
As Europe begins to move past the peak of this crisis, we must begin to look at how we want our world to change, based on what we have learnt from Coronavirus, so that the new normal is one of inclusivity and respect, where all rights, environmental and human, are protected. The crisis has brought immeasurable suffering- there is no taking away from that. But all this disruption has provided us with a once in a generation opportunity to make the sort of changes which might have taken decades in normal circumstances.
I am standing to be a Board member of the European Youth Forum because I believe we need to develop as an organisation so that we can show by our own example what it means to build back better. I believe we need to build on the work that the current Board has done to make the European Youth Forum more collaborative and transparent. And I believe we can do more to increase engagement with the forum’s work, and to support member organisations to increase engagement with the work that they do.
The British Youth Council is one of the most established and effective National Youth Councils in Europe. As a member of British Youth Council, I want to bring a knowledge and experience of working in an organisation which has lead the effort in the UK to make sure that young people have a seat at the table and which engages and empowers millions of young people every year. Young people are being disproportionately affected by the measures taken to control the spread of Coronavirus and we need youth organisations to be a fighting force for the rights and needs of young people.
Our two pioneering youth forums, The NHS Youth Forum and The Bank of England Youth Forum, have taken youth voice into the heart of the National Health Service and the Bank of England. It has been incredible to watch these youth forums develop, particularly as health and economics have been the central focus of government over the last six months. We have a hugely active Youth Parliament that engage and empower youth at a grassroots level. These are some of our most impactful programmes and I would bring knowledge of these and other programmes to the Board so we can maximise youth engagement across Europe.
The United Kingdom has the additional challenge of leaving the European Union at a time of deep economic, social, and environmental instability. It is important, especially at this time, for the voice of young people in the UK to maintain a connection to Europe and for young people in Europe to continue having access to what the UK can offer. Therefore, it would be useful for the Board of the European Youth Forum to have a UK representative who would use the forum to keep the opportunities and value that the UK’s partnership with the European Union brings to Europe.
Our generation will be remembered for what we do when faced with some of the greatest challenges the world has faced: climate change, cyberwarfare and civil wars, extreme poverty, automation and artificial intelligence, populism, social and economic instability, and pandemics – to name but a few. It is these challenges and our responses to them that will characterise the foreseeable future. To succeed, we need to unify our efforts by collaborating with others, and sharing our knowledge and experiences. We must empower young leaders, hold elected representatives to account, and campaign for the changes we want them to make. But politics is imperfect and our leaders can be fallible. This is where we need to build the sort of world world we would be proud to pass on to the next generation – today, we all need to be leaders.
I am standing to be a Board member of The European Youth Forum because I believe I can bring skills, knowledge, and ideas to better connect and empower youth organisations across Europe in pursuit of a better world. Over the next two months I will be releasing my manifesto alongside some blogs which will explain in more detail what I think the European Youth Forum can do to become a more resilient and successful organisation.
If you represent a Member Organisation to the European Youth Forum, I will be getting touch with you over the next few months. If you are a member of one of the European Youth Forum’s member organisations, I would love to hear your thoughts on how the European Youth Forum can lead the new normal. Please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In November Lucia and I travelled to Amiens in France to represent the British Youth Council at the Council of Members Extraordinary Meeting (COMEM). It was an opportunity to come together with all the members of the European Youth Forum to discuss policy and campaigns.
On Thursday evening, Lucia went to the announcement of the European Youth Capital for 2022 which President Macron gave a speech. The ceremony takes place every year in the previous European Youth Capital, and the event is always a spectacle. After some moving performance pieces including poetry, acrobatics and dance, each Youth Capital finalist was invited to show their application video and give a short speech about their city. The winner was announced as Tirana, Albania – congratulations!
We then spent most of Friday and Saturday debating the European Youth Forum’s Strategic Plan and the policy documents which outline the European Youth Forum’s position on areas from “The Future of Work” to “Gender Equality”. The documents aim to strengthen and enhance the work done in specific areas of youth policy and spots areas that need to be focused on. By working on amendments for each document, we were able to have a say on issues important to the British Youth Council and the values we stand for. We also got to speak with the European Youth Forum’s board members about their campaigns and some of the areas they are focused on. We were really pleased to be able to vote on the admission of organisations to the European Youth Forum either in full or observer member status. The successful organisations were: The National Youth Council of Turkey (GoFor), Youth Express Network (Y-E-N) and the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions Youth (CESI-Youth).
As this was my first trip abroad as a UK Young Ambassador, I spent a lot of time getting to know all the other representatives from around Europe and trying to gain a better understanding of how the European Youth Forum works as an organisation and as a group of young campaigners.
One of the highlights was Friday evening- we managed to get some free tickets to watch Amiens play an ice hockey match which they won 4-2!
This April I visited Brussels for my fifth and final assembly meeting as the UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, which I attended alongside Lucia Jones. At this meeting, which brings together around 150 young representatives from across Europe, we usually discuss and pass resolutions on continent-wide issues as well as elect people to represent us on other platforms and advocate for youth rights. At this particular meeting, we discussed a couple of policy papers which essentially did as they say on the tin – one on demanding urgent climate action and the other on better youth representation – though perhaps surprisingly the second one did not pass through this time round for more technical reasons. We also admitted a new organisation, the Junior Chamber of International Europe, to become an Observer member, and were treated to a speech from the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium on why young people were important and the future (Shock! Gasp!).
However, it now being late May, I have since suffered the excruciating pain of another round of exams, and am struggling now to write beyond the clichés of an essay. Luckily though, the subject which I would love to talk briefly to you about now are clichés – specifically those which are dredged up time and time again within the world of youth advocacy, apparently present across the whole of the continent, and in my opinion deeply dangerous to the future of improving our lives. I have already mentioned one of these clichés – that youth is the future – and at the heart of the statement it is not at all wrong and incredibly true. But claims like this, which also include statements like better rights are the answer to our problems, and that more funding is the solution, though they hold a lot of truth, are unoriginal and a sign of uninspired thinking within our networks. Unfortunately, I’ve seen (and written) ‘social media’ or ‘networking’ or ‘funding’ on a group Flipchart as the solution to our current problems more often than I’ve had hot dinners. It is true that social media is an issue, for example, the European Youth Forum has 144,000 followers on Facebook and rarely musters more than a dozen likes on a post – simply wanting more of what we already have shown to be ineffective is ineffective. Within discussions, these lazy solutions to problems shut down debates at the same place they have for decades. They stop with a cliché, not a point – giving us long-standing soundbites which politicians can regurgitate to us with very little consequences compared to supporting a solid policy position. Therefore, we must really all push to challenge ourselves everyday on not reusing the same jargon for the issues we face as, eventually, it will lose all of its meaning.
In all honesty, I must now tell you, though you may have already gleaned this from the descriptions above, this meeting at times did get a little tedious… albeit with two very significant exceptions. The first was the election of our very own Pegah Moulana, one of the most skilful, committed and engaging young people that currently represents the British Youth Council, who was re-elected to the Advisory Council of Europe to help oversee certain aspects of that organisation including the European Court of Human Rights. In particular, Pegah has these past two years already been working on improving the condition of young refugees and fostering Middle Eastern-European dialogue. Her election this year coincided too with a proposed 100% cut to the youth programme of the council, so now more than ever we need to be sure to support her to hold up the infrastructure of protecting our rights. This is especially important in the context of this being one of the only European institutions which isn’t tied to the European Union. If we can do so, I am certain her work will continue to show that international youth advocacy does generate real-world positive change and can bring people together who otherwise would have been separate.
The other exception was the address made to us by the 23 year-old Yasmine Ouirhrane who was 2019’s Young European of the Year. She told us of the racism she received growing up in rural Italy to an Italian mother and a father who had immigrated to Italy, and also facing discrimination throughout her life as a woman. However, she harnessed the negative energy people had dealt out to her and reshaped it into a passion for creating a fairer and more equal society at a European level. Now living in France, she was instrumental in organising the huge Yo!Fest last year in Strasbourg as well as working with disadvantaged groups in the city year round. Her example is one which we should all seek to emulate as it shows that if you want to improve society at a European level we must change lives at a local level with community projects – not the other way round. It is without a doubt the culmination of all the local projects across Europe which drives forward the positive change in our society – and that the European Youth Forum must always stand to protect the vital funding, and political support, on which many of them depend.
Entering the world of work is hard. You might just be grateful for a position and dismiss the way you are treated in order to gain that golden ticket of a reference and work experience to progress to a graduate or entry level job. The reality is that graduates and school leavers are being offered internships in the UK and abroad that are not only unpaid but devoid in value for the future of that individual. At the British Youth Council, we believe that unpaid internships are ways for employers to reap the benefits of the young creative minds of today, without any cost.
We believe that internships should be required by law to pay the Real Living Wage. This will ensure that interns are able to take advantage of the opportunity to explore their career options without financial stress and the burden of taking on part time or extra work to fund their experiences.
Recently the European Youth Portal published a blog by a young woman who had experienced an internship that degraded her experiences as an educated, competent and enthusiastic employee. She was ‘relegated’ to making coffee for her employers and described her experience as ‘depressing’.
I am saddened that this was the case, as I too have experienced a traumatising internship experience abroad, that not only cost me thousands of pounds but led to a huge loss of confidence and trust in dedicating myself to another program. After landing in the USA (a country I had never been to before) I was informed that the job I had worked so hard to secure my visa for was no longer viable – this was working for a congressman, in one of the oldest and most respected establishments of the American state. To this day I have not received an apology or acknowledgement of the stress that this caused to me, never mind the financial strain this put me under.
Luckily, I have managed to move back with my parents and save up that money that has allowed me to pursue a meaningful and fulfilling opportunity as a paid International Programmes Intern at the British Youth Council. Here, I am able to utilise my experiences as a volunteer in this role as well as my academic knowledge of international relations. I feel valued in my role and have been given responsibilities that will allow me to make a proud impact on the organisation and its support of young people both nationally and internationally.
I hope that this next Parliament recognises the vulnerability of our young workforce in gaining those opportunities, that will set their attitude and outlook on work for life. Our young people need to be educated and protected in order to gain meaningful experiences that will contribute to them realising their potential, and paid a real living wage.