Today we invite you to read an interview with the representative of one of our SIA4Y project partners from Association of Polish Communes Euroregion Baltic – Mr Marcin Żuchowski.
YOUTH POLICY FROM EXPERT PERSPECTIVE
INTERVIEWER: Sylwia Mrozowska
INTERVIEWEE: Marcin Żuchowski SB YCGN LP Project Manager, Association of Polish Communes Euroregion Baltic
What is your position on the European Union (EU) youth policy? What are the main challenges, according to you, facing the EU institutions of the new term in terms of political, social and economic activation of young people (18-30)?
At the very beginning the improvement in the institutional approach of the European Union main actors to the subject of youth should be noted and clearly emphasised. The integration of policies relating to youth in the form of an independent, literally and structurally separated area of EU policies is significant progress. Specialists in the field of youth have been paying attention to this solution for a long time. It is very important that finally the main decision-makers who have impact on and create EU strategies have devoted attention to the specificity, role and position of young people in the changing society.
On the other hand, it is difficult to univocally assess positively the general situation of young people in all EU countries, both from the point of view of statistical and economic data or the youth policy implemented so far and its priorities listed in the Europe 2020 Strategy of the European Union. Its shape in the new programme perspective and tendencies in the perception of youth issues as well as proposed support mechanisms and processes will be also important. We will soon find out whether the strategies proposed for youth this time will be based on local needs of small communities, which are completely different from general trends.
Currently, all actors emphasise the importance of the rising generation in the strategic documents, but apart from stressing the strategic role of the youth component and loud announcements of involving youth in participatory processes, attempts to improve the current system of civic education, or access to public information, there are still significant deficiencies in the systemic approach which must be overcome.
It is obvious that due to demographic, social and economic trends existing in our countries, the young should be in the centre of attention and become an area of special scrutiny. We should invite various categories of actors, ranging from politicians, specialists working with young people, various types of organisations and institutions working for the young as well as young people themselves, to the broad dialogue and then to co-deciding according to the principle of “nothing about us without us”.
What is the greatest challenge for us?
Certainly reconciling various positions of individual actors and finding a suitable cooperation platform that will enable broad activation of youth policy on the basis of spheres of social activity – not limited only to selected areas, but perceived comprehensively and affecting all aspects of social and political life in contemporary society.
Young people are currently declaring participation needs. Their attitudes and worldviews do not differ much from adults’ worldviews. The dream and will of the young is to decide about themselves and to adjust the environment in such a way that it is useful to them now and in the future, ensuring their security and comfort in the future, even when they lose their youth status. It is often a perspective view, not limited by age barriers or social categories. And this is a challenge for all of us. We need to change our perception of the young themselves, not to ignore their needs and to involve them in co-decision processes.
In addition, EU institutions involved in shaping European policies related to youth cannot forget that this social group is not homogeneous. By unifying primary school, secondary school, university students and older youth before the age of 30, they lead to their shallowing and loss of unique character.
Important youth priorities are often shaped on the basis of unrepresentative, incomplete studies that do not take into account local specificities. Plans and strategies are time and again implemented without extensive consultation with various age groups of young people or without taking into account location categories, which has a significant impact on the maladjustment of the strategy to the needs of target groups.
Nowadays, when we are facing the significant dynamics of the environment in which young people live, and the rapidly occurring socio-economic processes, which are often violent, one can observe the growing dissatisfaction of young people with the way the policy is being currently pursued. Young people often want to directly participate in creating their own and their peers future by being heard and engaged, involved in various ways, while wanting to receive more information about the policies and choices that affect them, and about the effects of their work. It is also a matter of considering a new specific framework of institutional support that can improve youth participation and representation.
By using the latest communication solutions, in which social media and electronic informal information channels play a significant role, we can improve current policies using a bottom-up approach. Such apparent decentralisation of communication systems, switching off intermediaries and transfer of clear and legible bottom-up messages will allow us to avoid risk and better respond to the dynamics of ongoing processes.
It must be remembered that young people have easier access to decision makers shaping local youth policies, which clearly shows the possibility of shortening the distance between power centres and final beneficiaries. Unfortunately, so far it has not translated into real practical solutions and neither party has taken up this opportunity. We should take advantage of these elements to directly react to ongoing changes and tendencies, leading to shortening of the communication path, which in turn can translate into avoiding message distortions, new methods of cooperation and solutions for eliminating emerging difficulties in the most inflammatory areas.
How would you describe youth policy pursued in Poland? What would you classify as successes of this policy and what issues have not yet been covered?
Being a leader of an international project carried out in such a varied environment as Baltic countries, e.g. Lithuania and two regions here – Klaipeda and Telsiai, Scandinavian countries like Denmark or Sweden or even looking at the scale of national entities (various municipalities with different resource, social and economic potential) it should be perceived differently. Of course we have a lot of successes, which we should be proud of, which determine our strength as a country, but there are also a lot of areas where we still have a lot to catch up on.
A considerable success of Polish youth policy is building a dialogue between self-government and youth and the provisions of the Act on commune self-government saying that “a commune should take actions to support and disseminate the idea of self-government among its residents, especially among young people, promote intergenerational solidarity and create conditions for stimulating active citizenship of older people in the local community”. The functioning of the commune youth council (art. 5b) and the commune council of seniors (art. 5c) serves the purpose of achieving these goals. The legal solution contained in the above provision has opened a wide path to involving young people in participation processes and their activation. Youth councils (YCs), acting as consultative bodies, can play an important role in shaping the worldview of young people, and through work in YCs young people have an opportunity to get to know the principles of operation of local government and take action for their local environment. They can also affect their commune, city or county by acting as an advisory body to the Commune Council. The Commune, City or County Youth Council (YC), in other words, a group of young people appointed by the local government, chosen by their peers in democratic elections, has a chance to learn democratic values and forms of representation of their social group in front of local authorities, as well as disseminate this knowledge among their peers.
This tradition of forming youth councils in towns, communes and counties, youth assemblies, student councils is our strength in relation to the solutions used in other countries of old and new Europe.
The unique character of youth is often overlooked. The fact that it is a particularly sensitive group still looking for the appropriate educational, social or professional path is disregarded. It makes the role of the state in shaping appropriate youth policy more difficult. The efforts and competencies of almost all ministries, starting from education, science, finances, economy, social affairs, health, to culture and physical activity should be combined in the development of this policy. It can also be said that youth policy is the policy of the future – the way the state is taking care of young citizens today will certainly affect its future in time to come when they start to make decisions as politicians, consumers, employees, also as fathers and mothers who shape not only the economy, but also will be carriers of values, attitudes and social behaviour.
Our goal should be to develop civic attitudes enabling individuals to actively participate in public life.
The areas we should pay special attention to are as follows:
First, better civic education at school. The contemporary school should be a space conducive to the development of civic attitudes. Apart from education, its tasks should encompass inspiring and encouraging students to participate in making and implementing decisions important for the school community, and thus the local community. The school’s activities may foster the development of civic competences and the education of children and young people in accordance with the principles of: the rule of law (if the rules of conduct are known to students and followed by teachers), subsidiarity (if students’ initiatives are welcome and supported), subjectivity (if students’ opinions are taken into account while making decisions at school).
The governing authorities should more widely support schools in the process of shaping young citizens. They could achieve it through carrying out innovative projects, running specialist training courses on the student council, organising classes with students and teachers and preparing educational materials. As a result of such activities schools should become a place that can be created by all members of its community.
The second area should be a greater impact of youth on the public sphere. Central authorities should pay attention to the forms of supporting young people in the conscious and active participation in the life of the local community. It can be attained by means of social consultations based on the scheme of youth student councils which will enable consultation, wider debate and promotion of modern solutions to local or national problems. This approach may prove that teenage citizens can be valuable partners for local administration. We cannot forget that this social group has extensive knowledge and experience related to problems specific to them, which is why we should support it in building relationships with local authorities – consulting decisions on matters important to young people. Youth Commune (District) Councils are a platform for exchange of opinions and joint work of adult and young representatives of urban and rural residents.
Finally, we should pay more attention to activities addressed to:
· local authorities, helping them to develop a tailored model of action of the Youth Council and its implementation. Or in shaping local youth strategies (preceded by comprehensive research among all actors) and their implementation, including by launching appropriate financial incentives or technical and substantive support (e.g. through training for civil servants). Processes and methods of support addressed to local decision makers of local governments, local government employees should be bolstered through proper educational activities. Which in turn can change the perception of young people and lead to a better understanding of their motives. In our country it is still a problematic area because the young are not only not perceived as partners but often as a decoration or a political threat.
- non-governmental organisations associating young people or working for young people. Here, assistance should focus on establishing cooperation with local authorities and other organisations. Institutional strengthening and greater specialisation in the field.
- young people themselves. The introduction of initiatives conducive to the creation and implementation of a number of new projects stimulating young people to creative action would be a good idea. One of the simplest forms of this type of support may be the organisation of a greater number of debates during which experts, adults and young people discuss topics that are important to them. Then transforming these ideas into new projects for the implementation of which young people could obtain small grants, which will teach them not only to implement specific ventures and projects, but will show them how long is the process of their preparation, implementation and financial settlement.
You have experience in the preparation and implementation of many “youth” projects, many of which are so-called bottom-up, local projects involving cooperation between young people and local government. What are, according to you, the biggest challenges for the young and local government in this cooperation? Give examples of projects which are successful in your opinion and those that still need reinforcement and repetition.
Despite the fact that for many years I have been dealing with projects targeted at young people and we have successfully carried out a number of both local and international ones, I know from my experience that I still have a lot to learn and that many situations connected with their realisation can be surprising for even the most experienced managers. But nothing is more rewarding than well-functioning cooperation between local government and the young local community, which jointly contribute to improving the social conditions of small homelands. It means for me constant learning, progress and raising my competences and an opportunity to preserve the element of “youth” and a different perception of reality surrounding us.
Cross-border cooperation projects or those run in cooperation with local governments and other institutions are not easy. They bring a number of challenges and risks that often determine the success or failure of the entire enterprise. They must be well planned, and the implementation cannot be associated with high resource consumption (both financial, material and employee).
When planning this type of activities, the local specificity of the partners should be taken into account and a number of specific factors should be considered, such as the mentality and the willingness of the authorities and civil servants to cooperate, the level of readiness to introduce often unconventional or innovative solutions, or even the possibility of continuing ventures undertaken in a long time perspective. The success of a given project can be also affected by the level of education and knowledge, or experience represented by all actors participating in the project focused on youth which is such a specific group.
Without developing patterns of cooperation between the main actors: authorities, NGOs, universities, the young, appropriate mechanisms and processes, or raising the skills of the actors, even the best prepared documents and plans will not be able to be implemented and introduced in the local or regional dimension, remaining a facade of real pro-youth and participatory measures.
I am a supporter of grassroots activities that are more effective and enjoy greater popularity among potential recipients through a built-up emotional relationship that plays a significant role in mobilising and maintaining “enthusiasm and dedication to the matter”, that is the local needs of a given community.
One of the examples proving this thesis are projects focused on shaping strategies, directions of youth policies, whether national, regional or local ones, which despite their significance and role they are supposed to play, disappoint hopes pinned on them. Due to limited resources of local governments, or the term of office of local government authorities, they do not work in practice, because foundations for their implementation and the will on one side or the other are insufficient. That is why we should focus on and devote more attention to activities aimed at building the potential and possibilities of realising civic participation.
A greater number of practical and fundamental actions are needed at the local level as evidenced by the realisation of participatory projects focused on the inclusion of various groups, which facilitate the exchange of both local and international experiences, mutual learning from each other, as well as building a pro-civil society, which nowadays plays a permanent role in surviving and adapting to the changing environment and challenges of the 21st century.