Friday, 17 June 2016

European Youth Event 2016

Last month I was ridiculously lucky to be invited to the European Youth Event (EYE), held at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with the Style Squad who are doing some incredible work on Youth Unemployment. The event is a pretty unique opportunity for 7,500 young people (between the ages of 16-30) to discuss 'youth-related issues, develop innovative solutions to crucial questions for the future and meet with European decision-makers and speakers'. (at least that is what the website says). I want to talk openly about my experience at the conference, although it was only 2 days long I felt like so much happened, good and bad, and I need to reflect on my weekend in Strasbourg. 

The Welcome
It was pretty exciting getting to the conference, our group leaders were incredible and organised flights, trains and even tram travel for while we were in the city. From our hotel it took around 20 minutes of riding on the tram to get to the European Parliament building. Our first step was registration. We were quite a large group, there were 15 of us, one of which was a wheelchair user - this didn't phase anyone, in fact everyone in our group really had their eyes open to ensuring that what we were doing was safe and comfortable for everyone in the group - I will touch on this a little more later. Our group leaders had been told we had priority registration but unfortunately none of the volunteers on site seemed to know what that meant or where to send us. We managed to get to a registrations desk, we all had our passports and IDs checked and were handed coloured wristbands and EYE canvas bags filled with maps and programmes of the conference. The bag and all of the literature was pretty useful, but the programme itself was rather confusing. Instead of setting out the activities by time and date they were done by theme, so it was pretty difficult to quickly find the room that your activity is in. We walked over the entrance of the parliament building and after a quick security check we found the rest of our group (there was so many people it was very easy to lose one another) and we stayed outside to watch the opening ceremony. It all felt rather strange to begin with, there was a nice opening speech from the president of the European Youth Parliament that had everyone clapping in solidarity, but then there was some kind of acrobatic mime show (which I can only describe as being very French) and a choir of young people from Sweden also performed. I was a little taken a back by all of the security and incredibly huge guns that they were carrying, but I guess it was a large event and there were thousands of people there it made sense for the security to be high. 

This was really one of the main frustrations for me about this conference: it didn't feel accessible. As a ciscgendered white woman, I had it a lot easier than others, but there were still points when my mental health couldn't deal with the conference. For instance when thousands of people were queueing all at once to get into one building, we were just surrounded by people and it took over an hour to get through the queue and past security. The wheelchair user in our group was taken in via another entrance but the rest of the group wasn't allowed to follow.  Once I was in the queue there was no way of getting out, and we were all really exposed to the blistering heat. You had to pre book your activities, which I agree is a good idea, although I had ended up not being with anyone in my group for my particular activity and so I instantly felt lost and overwhelmed. So many people, so many rooms, so many languages and just far too much panic. The first day of the conference made me not want to return on the second day.

Activities and Workshops 
In total I had ended up booking 3 activities: one on Design Thinking, one in the hemicycle on Youth Unemployment and a third (which I never got to go to because there was a Tram strike and I felt pretty ill on the Saturday morning) on the possibility of robots taking over. To go to the first session I waited with one of the volunteers who was holding a sign that had the session title. Over the next 15 minutes or so more people joined us, it was a nice way of meeting people although I still felt pretty tense from how long it had taken to get this far. The session wasn't what I was expecting at all, it might have just been that I wasn't that interested in the topic but in general what we did felt very basic and that if I was really interested then I wouldn't have taken a lot away from that session. I am very much in favour of doing physical activities or something more interactive rather than someone talking at you, in a workshop, but in this instance I felt like they could have just summed it all up in 1 sentence. I was disappointed, but I was hopeful for my next session as it was in a very different environment.

 I think everyone sat in the hemicycle felt important...I couldn't decide if I felt important or just really small (there was so many seats). This session was a discussion around solutions for Youth Unemployment, people in the room submitted ideas and a panel responded to those. The idea being that the best suggestions would be taken forward to discuss at European Parliament in the autumn. Although the session was only an hour and a half I felt so disappointed that we really didn't touch on anything remotely tangible. The same people were proposing similar things and there was so much focus on higher education and knowing where to look for a job: I mean sure, great to talk about but youth unemployment isn't going to be solved by going to University. Also you do not need to go to University to get a job. It felt really frustrating that no one really addressed the real route of youth unemployment, no one talked about schools or early education, young people coming from homes with no parents or single parents that struggled with employment, no one address inclusion and those that are disabled by society or institutional racism, or how difficult it is to identify as anything other than a cisgendered heterosexual and yet still be treated the same. I felt so emotionally charged after the workshop, I knew I was passionate on the subject but maybe I didn't realise quite so much until it was challenged.

The conversations I had 1 on 1 with people that I met around the conference ended up being much more important and useful than the sessions themselves. On the second day I went to a workshop on Norms in Gender and Sexual Identity, and although I am pretty well educated in this area it was really interesting talking to people from around Europe of their experiences and discussing different ideas around this topic that I am also really passionate about. Being in such a smaller group made a huge difference. There is a lot to be said about having conversations and being able to address points that people make, the hemicycle felt so far away from that. I felt like a  huge group of privileged people talking about something that didn't affect them. The young people that are really affected by youth unemployment aren't in that room, that weren't at the conference, they don't know about the European Youth Event.

I cannot deny that I had an interesting experience. It has been a good year since I had been to a conference and I think I had forgotten a little bit what it is like. Everything is very much inside a bubble, I kind of forgot what else was going on in my life and was so focused on what I was there for. I met some absolutely incredible people who are doing amazing work all around Europe and I am really hoping that I stay in touch with them.


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