Interview with Mariia Panchenko

Mariia Panchenko is one of the MEET UP! Young Experts who played an important role in conceptualizing the MEET UP! Youth Conference "Power of Youth" that took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, in September 2022. Today, she studies law in Ukraine.

What inspired you to take part in civil society?

When I was around 12 years old, I became a member of a Junior Academy of Science in Ukraine. Back then, I was a young teenager who felt trapped in a small town. This was an opportunity to break free and to overcome barriers I experienced at my school and in my hometown. There I soon realized that other people face the same problems I did. It took years before I realized that the bullying I experienced at school was not about me. I met so many interesting people, and I learned that I wasn’t the only one going through hard times. They showed me that it's not my fault if others bring me down, and that I have the power to alter my environment if I don't like who I'm with. So, I started organizing small projects. For example, we gathered money for children who live in orphanages in the south of Ukraine. I slowly began to learn about project management and about values that are worth fighting for.

What project are you most proud of?

In 2018, I met other young people who faced similar forms of discrimination like me, for example sexism. We started a podcast called RecordUp. I was one of the co-founders and coordinated the interviews we did. It was a series, so we talked about one topic each week like ageism, sexism, racism, or ableism. Some episodes were about the discrimination you face depending on where you live – in a village or in a big city. We talked to old and young people to tell us about their experiences on the job market. We also talked to boys and girls to find out how they coped with gender stereotypes. We shared many personal stories and information on the specific topics. We also recommended resources like movies or books. And we always explained what we can do to change the situation. Sometimes conducting the interviews and doing all this research took a lot of time, but in the end, it was kind of therapeutic for me. We gathered so much information and made it accessible and at the same time I learned how to manage a team, how to communicate different opinions and how to build a strong community. I gained trust in people again and realized that you have to work for the community you want to live in.

How did Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine change the way you are doing youth projects?

When the full-scale war broke out, we were just in plain shock and had to adjust a lot. We all moved in different directions: some worked as humanitarian aid volunteers, and some fled abroad. I, for example, started to help people evacuate from war-affected zones.

My world was turned upside down: my college was closed, I had no work to go to, I had no social life whatsoever. So, I decided to channel my energy into something productive. I was angry and had the knowledge and the skills to start all over again. I applied as a board member at the European coordination network "Youth and Community Empowerment". I was responsible for coordinating various delegations and working groups abroad. We organized an international forum called HarmLess with more than 100 delegates from all around the world. It was a success, so I organized a special forum for young people from Ukraine to make space for exchange and discussion. We called this forum DoubtLess – to be fearless – and people started getting back on track and return to their normal routines.

Before the war broke out, I worked on projects in schools all around Ukraine. I monitored how students could approach pressing topics such as climate change and sustainability at their schools. They learned how to segregate waste, how to grow plants and how to work on water supplies. I worked with schools in the Western and Eastern part of Ukraine, and even in Odessa. One of the schools in the Eastern part of Ukraine was very promising and I really enjoyed working with the teachers and the students there. I met one of the best headmasters there and we worked really well together. They developed an amazing sustainable school, and it was very fulfilling to see their progress. But now, the school is totally ruined, it just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s heartbreaking to see how all the hard work you have done - is all gone in smoke. We just tried to raise awareness about the environment, but the war destroyed our vision. I find it important to build something sustainable, something that stays for a long time. But in times of war, your projects can vanish the next day. On the one hand, it makes me work even harder, on the other hand, I experienced burnouts and felt helpless.

What role does mental health play in volunteering work?

That is an issue that especially young people often forget about. You can volunteer, do all those amazing projects, and help other people – but at the same time you need money to pay rent and buy food, which basically means that you need a balance between being a proactive citizen and trying to survive. As much as motivation and dedication are important factors for doing volunteering work, rest and mindfulness are also essential. You need to rest, go outside, enjoy nature, travel, and spend time with your loved ones. Those kinds of activities give me energy and inspiration to go back to my projects. It also builds a stronger sense of community and a safe space. You can be kind to yourself and to those around you.

How did your cooperation with the EVZ Foundation start?

I came across a project from EVZ to come to Berlin and learn more about forced labor and World War II. I just applied and got accepted! I just turned 16 and it was my first trip abroad without my parents. I met so many interesting people whom I’m still friends with today. In May 2022, I was invited as a Young Expert by the MEET UP! Team to take part in the preparation process for the Youth Conference in Tbilisi. I was so happy that the conference was such a success because we put a lot of work into it. It made me really proud that people with so many different cultural backgrounds were able to meet and exchange ideas. In April 2023, I was a member of the youth jury to review the Micro Project applications. It really made me happy to realize that we all start at some point and need help from others along the way. The EVZ has a great impact on remembering the past in order to create a better future.

What is your idea of youth work?

I’m studying law in Ukraine and I’m going to complete my bachelor’s degree next year. I also studied in Germany and France and focus on international relations and political science now. Right now, I am the President of the European Youth Parliament in Ukraine and dedicate my time to conduct trainings for young people. I have realized that so many young people have great ideas and are eager to start a project, but in most cases they lack skills. They don’t have the patterns of how to make an idea come to life. The most important thing for me is that the people who take part in those projects and training courses learn about project management, and how to improve their organizational skills without needing my help for their next steps. I want them to be independent and to train other people, so the circle of community and youth work continues.

Thank you for pointing out mental health and resilience in the youth field!


The interview was conducted by Antonia Skiba