Jennifer Mösenfechtel

There Are Still Blocks Inside My Own Head...

Within the context of the "Innovationsforum Jugend global" (Innovations Forum Global Youth), several of the participating organisations broached the subject of being confronted with issues concerning right-wing extremism and racism during the course of their work and how, when dealing with these issues, they feel that they come up against their own limits. With this in mind, IJAB hosted the "Rechtsextremismus und Rassismus als Themen in der Internationalen Jugendarbeit" (Right-Wing Extremism and Racism as Issues within International Youth Work) seminar in Frankfurt on September 24 and 25.

BildImage: Jennifer Mösenfechtel, IJAB

30 youth work professionals took the opportunity to reflect on their own attitudes and that of their organisations, to gain background knowledge, acquire new methods of preventive work and key competences, and – last not least – to share their individual experiences.   

Right-wing extremism is no fringe phenomenon

Ansgar Drücker, director of the Centre for Information and Documentation of Work Against Racism (IDA e.V.) introduced the subject. He pointed out that even the term "right-wing extremism" was misleading, creating the impression that this was a fringe phenomenon whereas, in fact, it was something taking place within society as a whole, and no one should assume that he or she was without prejudice. It should also not be taken for granted that, just because a person has been dealing intensively with the issue of racism, he or she would automatically be immune to racism.

Ansgar Drücker made clear that discussions about this issue would remain imperfect, open-ended, and an ongoing quest, since the terminology, too, was imperfect. This was why a sensible use of language was extremely important. It might be helpful to talk more explicitly about specific subjects and concepts rather than resorting to slogans. The situation in other countries was also addressed where, for example, there might be a different correlation between the need for protection and freedom of speech. This was followed by a lively discussion that included quite some criticism. As Juliane Niklas of "Bayerischer Jugendring e.V." (Bavarian Youth Organisation) pointed out: "It's not enough to just use politically correct language."   

Are we all racists?

Social Justice Trainer Eike Totter followed on with a little experiment involving a brief video that impressively showed the participants just how much we all have internalized certain prejudices and stereotypes, and to what extent this has shaped our expectations. With deliberate provocation, he proceeded to tell the participants: "I am a racist", which again took up the warning by Ansgar Drücker against considering oneself a person free from prejudice. "We are part of a society that is deeply characterized by racism," he impressed on the participants, and stated his hope that, as a result of this conference, they would try harder to recognize their own prejudices and get rid of them: to make a greater effort to reduce racism a little more within their own immediate surroundings. With that  intention he directed participants to work in small groups focusing on discussions about their own attitudes and that of their association or organisation.

Carina Weber, who runs projects such as "Demokratietraining für Konfliktmanagement im Sport" (Democracy Training for Conflict Management in Sports) for the German Sports Youth (DSJ ), presented, as an example of good practice, the Code of Honour of the German Sports Youth, which is mandatory for all members. This encouraged the participants to acknowledge the difficulties of trying to find appropriate descriptions for all unwanted discriminatory actions without becoming entangled in contradictions. They also discussed how best to proceed when such a codex was breached, and what exactly can be achieved by imposing sanctions. One of the participants remarked that sanctions alone would certainly not be enough to change discriminatory attitudes. Ansgar Drücker appropriately replied by stating that the highest priority and overall aim was the protection of individuals but that it was also about setting clear boundaries by taking a stand. 

Something completely different: the "Night of Individuals"

After dinner, participants were welcomed to the "Night of Individuals", presented as an alternative to the "Country Nights" customarily held at international youth meetings. Country Nights are great as a lively, informal setting but they always run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes. People tend to present things they assume are expected such as, for example, sauerkraut and bratwurst, even though they themselves might not identify with these items. This is why, for the "Night of Individuals", people were asked to bring along an item that symbolized a personal characteristic or a particular interest. The items were presented with real passion and the varied and ingenious presentations were received with great enthusiasm. Since the information provided was personal, it offered ample starting points for intense and personal conversations, giving participants the opportunity to really get to know one another instead of simply rehashing national and regional stereotypes.

The author of this article fondly remembers an especially beautiful and poignant item symbolic of the conference's subject matter, a matryoshka doll brought in by one of the participants. She explained that this doll, with all the other smaller dolls nestling inside it, symbolized all the many different (national) identities she carried within herself. No one belongs to just one single (national) group but always to many different groups and therefore should never be reduced to just one group identity. 

Courses of action and competences for dealing with extreme right-wing behaviour

On the second day of the seminar, the participants again divided into small groups, using case studies to try out various courses of action. One of the groups concerned itself with the actions group leaders can take when their international youth group is confronted with a group of right-wing extremists in a potentially threatening situation.

In the afternoon, the participants were shown specific skills and competences. Jens Schmidt (Arbeit und Leben Hamburg – Working and Living Hamburg), for example, introduced various educational approaches against right-wing extremism and gave information about the professional standards to be employed in youth work against extreme right-wing attitudes and structures. He also showed the workshop participants methods for use in preventive work. The participants were able to try these methods out on the spot and afterwards discuss which particular method would be best suited to specific situations and target groups.

Participants' summary

At the end of the seminar, everyone assembled to sum up what they would take home from this seminar, what aspects would need to be followed up, and what resources could be made available by each and every participant.

One of the participants was satisfied that she now knew about the terminology used in connection with right-wing extremism, and that she was able to better recognize extreme right-wing symbols; another participant was pleased about the problem-solving approaches and many new methods for her work back home. For others, the primary gain was in the mutual exchange of experiences, and they now see the possibility of cooperation with other professionals they met at the seminar. One of the participants aptly summed up her realization that "there are still some blocks inside my own head that will have to be dismantled bit by bit."

All in all, this was a successful event with much informative and illuminating input and inspired discussion. As a follow-up, it is intended to further analyse some of the aspects and to compile a more detailed report.

In addition to IJAB, the following were involved in developing and implementing this event: Arbeit und Leben Hamburg (Working and Living Hamburg), Association of German Educational Organizations (AdB) / JBS Kurt Löwenstein, Bavarian Youth Organisation, Federal Association of the German Catholic Scout Organization, German Sports Youth, Protestant Voluntary Services gGmbH, Centre for Information and Documentation of Work Against Racism (IDA), Gollwitz Youth Residential Training Centre, Regional Youth Council of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Berlin Mobile Counsel Against Right-Wing Extremism (MBR).

The seminar was funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

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