Christian Herrmann

International conference: Values are the real benefit of a youth exchange

What do participants learn during a youth exchange and how can the benefits be made more visible? Almost 80 international participants travelled to Berlin on October 23 to explore these questions. What answers did they find and what ideas did they have?

Eine Frau steht mit einem Mikrofon auf einer Bühne und spricht
Poetry Slammerin Jesse James La Fleur in Aktion BildImage: Christian Herrmann   Lizenz: INT 4.0 – Namensnennung CC BY 4.0

The Berlin office of Robert Bosch Stiftung is an unusual venue for a conference that’s all about international youth work and non-formal education. The fact that the foundation agreed to provide the space and even took an active role during the event shows that it recognises the importance of the subject. Indeed, recognition was the core subject of the conference “International mobilities as a place of learning – Recognising the potential for individuals and society“.

“How can I explain to my colleagues that I’m not on holiday when I take youngsters on an exchange?” asked a participant during the coffee break. It does seem that generally, people think of a youth exchange as something that’s all for pleasure rather than a place where young people learn; a luxury holiday, so to speak. Facilitator Helle Becker made reference to this point during her opening address. “How can we ensure that international youth work is not seen as a luxury?” she asked. And Anne Sorge-Farner, IJAB’s coordinator of the Action Alliance for Recognition, put it this way: “International youth work is not getting the recognition it deserves, given its political significance.”

Knowledge is not competence

So what can participants learn during an exchange – and how? The researcher and journalist Professor John Erpenbeck delivered some inspiring insights during his keynote address, which was entitled “Knowledge does not equal competence”. “We all know they exist: highly qualified but incompetent people,” said Professor Erpenbeck. “Being competent means knowing what best to do and when to do it, and being able to respond creatively and decisively in unusual situations.” The knowledge you need for that, he continued, needs to come from a creative place; a place of passion, curiosity and enthusiasm. According to Erpenbeck, taking effective action requires a moral compass. This is where youth exchanges come in. They teach the young participants values and confront them, since they spend time in other countries, with unfamiliar values and attitudes which they have to learn to understand. This, Erpenbeck concluded, makes them competent individuals.

Recognition – but by whom and for whom?

Two theme-specific panels dominated the agenda of the conference – one on the social recognition of international youth exchanges, the other on the recognition of skills acquired in non-formal and informal settings. During the panels, the audience was introduced to the outcomes produced by the Action Alliance’s working groups over the last 18 months. For instance, the lobbying strategies that organisations and young people applied during a visit to members of the Federal Parliament, including social media activities and a “political BBQ” that rounded off the day. But recognition by politicians and society is not the only concern. There’s also the matter of recognising the competences that each young person acquires during an exchange. Many young participants would like to be issued with a certificate confirming their achievements that could help them as they start their careers. This does not sit comfortably with the principle governing international youth work, namely that participation in these activities is entirely voluntary.

More dialogue, more networking

After the panel sessions, it fell to facilitator Helle Becker to sort through the many colourful cards on which participants had noted down their thoughts in preparation for the discussion that followed. “Many of these notes are personal reflections on the state of play in this area,” she said. For instance, some described the limitations of this field of activity, such as in school exchanges or vocational training. Manfred von Hebel from JUGEND für Europa, the German national agency for the Erasmus+ Youth in Action programme, felt that more optimism was needed. “We have come so far,” he said, “that we deserve to go into these discussions with a healthy measure of confidence.” Anne Sorge-Farner from IJAB agreed and called for “less silo thinking and more cooperation – which means we need to speak a common language,” she said. Barbara Menke from Arbeit and Leben, a political and social training provider, wanted to see more lobbying efforts. The parliamentary evening receptions and breakfasts at the federal level are a well-known instrument, she said – why not organise them at the state and local level too? During the discussion, it became clear that international youth work organisations need and want much more cooperation and networking, especially in regard to training and better PR for representatives across all organisations.

One of the highlights of the day came towards the end – a performance by Jesse James La Fleur of two of her poems. Jesse is a poetry slammer and knows what she is talking about when she says that borders are meaningless. “I left home at 16 and started exploring Europe, if only to spite people who told me that I was wholly unsuitable for international schemes and activities because I wasn’t good enough,” she recalled. During an interview after her performance, she shared a piece of advice with all those present. “You’re doing great work, but I don’t see enough immigrant faces here.” Maybe the HR development reps in the room were listening.

The international conference “International mobilities as a place of learning – Recognising the potential for individuals and society“, organised by the Action Alliance for Recognition, was implemented by IJAB in cooperation with Arbeit und Leben DGB/VHS and JUGEND für Europa. Financial support was provided by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Erasmus+ Youth in Action, and Robert Bosch Stiftung.



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