Daniel Grest said that while the voices of rural youth are often not heard by European decision-makers, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) should be an opportunity for them to have a say in their future if we learn something from Brexit. From the NGO Rural Youth in Europe.
Interview with Daniel Gerst, Communications Officer at Rural Youth Europe.
Can you briefly introduce your organization, Rural Youth in Europe (RYEurope)?
Rural Youth Europe is an umbrella organization that oversees 22 different organizations in 20 countries across Europe, bringing half a million young people together.
Our members include 4-H Clubs, Young Farmers Associations, and Rural Youth. There are three main events during the year: a study session, a rally, and the fall symposium. We deal with issues that affect and affect young people in rural areas across Europe.
You are working with the European Youth Forum on the “25 Percent Project”, which aims to strengthen youth voices in CoFoE. Can you tell us more about it?
We are excited to be part of the “25 Percent Project” because we can give rural youth a voice in CoFoE. As part of the project, we are asking our grassroots members across Europe to gather ideas for the future of Europe. These ideas are then passed on to EU leaders.
We regularly provide a link on our social media so that young people can write down their thoughts for a better Europe. These could be topics such as climate change, housing, education or youth welfare.
After we’ve combined all of these ideas with other partner organizations representing different groups of young people, a group of researchers will read each individual proposal and their findings will form the basis of a number of new applications that will be submitted directly to CoFoE. Through this project we are trying to get young people excited about youth participation. It’s a very nice way for her to easily share their thoughts and know that someone will hear them.
We are also working on a similar project with the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), where young farmers can share their dreams about the future of the European Union in short audio clips. These questions are based on the questions we ask about topics such as climate change and the environment, the European Union in the world, European democracy, health, values and rights, migration, the economy, digital transformation, education, culture, youth and sports. These clips are a great way to talk about the conference and increase youth participation in the process.
Are there any recurring themes among these demands on youth in rural communities, particularly with regard to CoFoE?
There are a number of different ideas that rural youth have put forward, but we can see some common trends. One is to ensure that rural people have the same opportunities and access as everyone else. We see many proposals for affordable housing in rural areas. Access to broadband connections is also very important in today’s world when everything happens online.
We also expect equal representation and access to the LGBT community in rural areas. We find that these people are less represented and visible in rural areas, which means that they may not feel integrated into society. Initiatives such as introducing pride in small towns can help change that.
In the midst of a pandemic, we rely heavily on online tools to participate, and CoFoE reflects this through its digital platform. Is the Internet environment an enabler or a limiting factor for rural youth participation?
On the other hand, the digital aspect is a great opportunity for all young people in rural areas, because it enables everyone to participate and have their voice heard – but this is only in theory. The reality is that many people in remote rural areas do not have access to broadband connections and find it really difficult to participate.
When a young man in the countryside is really ready to take part in these processes but does not have the proper infrastructure, he feels neglected and frustrated with the process. If you weigh it, I’d say the ability to do things online outweighs the downsides, but unless everyone has equal access to broadband, we’re not going to be happy with the situation we find ourselves in.
In all of our activities within rural youth organizations, we think it’s great to provide content online because everyone can access it. But making sure everyone achieves is even more difficult. We worry that there are a lot of really active people online, but there are also people who don’t want to do things online and then become more and more excluded, which is an increasing challenge.
Do you have any advice for European CSOs on how to extend their reach beyond the “usual suspects” (eg highly educated people from big cities), particularly in the context of CoFoE?
The most important thing is to communicate and reach everyone. Partnerships with organizations such as Rural Youth Europe with its reach are really important. We’ve taken part in the Together Thursdaydays project, which is about telling people what the European Union is doing for them and conveying it in simple terms to make it accessible to them.
This is important in order to reach not only small groups, but also people who live on farms and who are just as affected by what is happening in the EU as everyone else. In general, agriculture is an important part of the EU economy. Farmers were instrumental in the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the debate about this has been enormous. Many young people in the countryside will be frustrated if agriculture is not given enough attention in CoFoE.
Do you have a final note or wish for the future of Europe?
As RYEurope, we work with organizations across Europe that deal directly with young people in rural areas who do not feel represented by anyone else. These organizations are often the only way for rural youth to try new things and make their voices heard.
It is essential that rural youth organizations continue to receive funding for their activities. This is important because the pandemic has hit them hard and many of them are struggling to conduct their activities online. Many of our affiliates are trying to rebuild themselves in the midst of the pandemic and they need support. These organizations are vital to the mental and physical health of rural youth because they provide opportunities.
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