Participation gives young people a voice, a possibility to engage and to develop, and thus gives them a chance to shape their own future. Participation can have various forms and levels. The EVZ Foundation implements its youth participation strategy by getting young people involved in its activities and decision-making processes through the MEET UP! Youth for Partnership program. But what stands behind youth participation? How can it be implemented, especially in an international environment and what makes it a successful one?
Youth participation in various youth projects and programs has been an important part of EVZ Foundation’s activities for many years now. With the launch of MEET UP! Youth for Partnership project in 2021, the Foundation took the next step by including youth participation in all areas and aspects of the MEET UP! Program.
Youth participation in MEET UP!, however, poses certain challenges. As an international project that involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Germany as well as young people from different cultural backgrounds. The MEET UP! has a participatory approach that needs to be cross-border and transnational and has to include various languages and cultural backgrounds. From the organizational point of view, this also means working across different time zones, holidays, and work schedules. Working in and with the countries of the Eastern Partnership, our approach also includes activities with young people from war-affected areas who struggle to participate in international youth education activities. It also means to bring young people from conflict-affected countries together and build a working environment in which they feel comfortable and safe to participate, discuss and share their opinions. We also look forward to getting young people from authoritarian countries involved in the MEET UP! project:
Given all these obstacles, it is absolutely remarkable to see the high level of motivation, energy and passion of young people and how they claim their right to participate – not just in MEET UP! Youth for Partnership but also in their local communities, universities and in their workplaces.
Getting young people involved in decision-making processes of international youth education activities is instrumental for successful, sustainable and user-oriented projects. We keep on evaluating and developing the cornerstones for the MEET UP! participatory activities:
We have put all this into practice over the past few years. Moreover, here at MEET UP!, we follow the strategy of getting young people occasionally involved in the planning, consulting, and execution of our funding and operational activities. We help young people become change makers in their own communities by using this strategy.
What are the concrete steps we take to accomplish this? The MEET UP! Youth Conference "Power of Youth" is an inspiring success story. It took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, in September 2022 and we developed both the content and format of the conference together with a group of highly motivated young experts who proposed topics, the title and the key speakers for the conference. They also gained experience by implementing sessions and by being the contact persons for the participants.
Another example is the Micro Projects that we offer for young people to carry out their own small projects. By doing so, they gain experience in project management, fundraising, or in social media. Our Young Experts, who are the co-authors of our activities, also developed the call for micro-projects and are jury members to select the best project proposals.
We also create spaces for participation on the structural level by involving a group of young experts from all our program countries in the development of the MEET UP! program for the next funding period. They give us valuable feedback on the structure of the program, they design the program on a more user-oriented level that works according to the needs of young people and they are involved in the development of new ideas for MEET UP!
What have we learned from the first three years of youth participation in MEET UP! that we can apply to improving the program and other similar initiatives?
In the future, we would like to get young people involved in the decision-making processes of our funding. To do this, we need a plan implementation strategy that is in line with the EVZ Foundation being a German Federal foundation and MEET UP! being a program funded by the Federal Foreign Office. Our plan is to enhance youth participation within MEET UP! and make it a key element for the projects we are funding. To do this, we need a plan to combine the flexibility and openness that ensure successful youth participation with the set framework and regulations we are working with as a funding organization. To ensure successful youth participation, we also need to level up our training and qualification offerings for young people and our project partners. All these measures go hand in hand with a continuous evaluation and improvement of our activities.
Future research should focus on how to expand opportunities for youth participation beyond MEET UP!, so that it becomes an integral component of all processes, both in terms of civic engagement and social integration. We are making room for people to take part in the EVZ Foundation for the simple reason that we can't expect young people to take part unless we ourselves do so.
Written by Merle Schmidt, Specialist Advisor