Sketching dreams together
Our group on the last day, photo credit Max Seunik

Reflections from CIVICUS’ youth co-design workshop in Montevideo.

In December, as part of my work researching the resourcing landscape for youth-led civil society, I had the chance to witness and participate in a youth co-design workshop in Montevideo. For CIVICUS, organising this workshop meant bringing together wisdom and lessons learned about working meaningfully with young people.

For a start, the group was small: it felt intimate. We were not coming together to listen to people speak about ‘participation’ and civil society – we were invited to call upon our experience and knowledge. The guidelines of our work were simple: We have a budget for a youth program, let’s design it together. It felt like a rare luxury, a treat, to be able to get together with young activists all over the world and create. With my researcher cap on, it was refreshing to see how collective creation emerged as a product of reflection, of bringing together our emotions, stories, and insights.

It took us a half a day of introducing ourselves, sharing our values and discussing our context to come up with a vision that felt true to the work we wanted to do together.  It goes like this:

Our vision is to be able to question our position relative to established structures and thoughtfully consider our contexts and ecosystem towards co-creating a safe, active and connected space that is poetic, diverse, accessible, democratic and youth-led.

Behind this vision, there is a realisation that the geometry of our society has such a strong gravitational pull that it feels hard to even question structures. We recognised how well-tamed we are, and how much work it takes to even think creatively – to give ourselves permission to dream. So we agreed that to begin with, we need to create the space to feel safe saying something ridiculous, to play, to speak from the heart, to leave behind the formality. To exhale our visions.

Out of this desire was born the idea of ‘YouthTopia’, a disruptive, poetic, democratic, accessible and youth-led experimentation lab. (I know, it sounds epic and you will hear more about this soon.) Now, besides the sexy descriptive terms, the essence of YouthTopia is a need to go back to being wild. It responds to a desire to meet each other outside of the framework of workshop spaces. It comes out of a sense of exhaustion for a formal setting and tight agendas. What permeated our small working group was an authentic desire for connection, a desire to experience the presence of the others. I cherish a collection of tiny moments that felt meaningful to me. Here is an attempt at describing one:

It is 2 am and we are sitting outside a small bar in Montevideo, Uruguay. We have been chatting for hours and then it comes, a moment that feels quiet, stretched, true. I am looking around the table and I can see a group of six people, with a million complexities, intricate stories, apparently engaged in a passionate conversation about life. There is a common ground, a flame that is bringing us together: in our own way we have responded to a strong impulse to participate, to find our place, to get lost, to explore, to have strong opinions, to create with others. We all somehow managed to be connected to CIVICUS’ work, and, as in a dream, I am now around a table, at 2 am, in Montevideo, with a group of extraordinary human beings. And suddenly time stops. It’s imperceptible and very tangible at the same time. We look around the table, and we meet. We are not ‘youth-leaders’, researchers, Marxists, politicians, activists. No. We are galaxies. At this moment we are expansive, present, connected creatures. The conversation has reached a point in which we can listen, we can let ideas slide and drop and allow the tsunamis to crash and hold space for individual pain in all of it. We are collaborating.

In my experience, these types of encounters are possible when people meet beyond the boundaries of their mind and intellect. By this point, we had swum in the river, contemplated a sunset, shared meals, and talked about past lovers.

YouthTopia wants to invite and hold space for magic encounters as the norm, not the random late serendipitous moments.

And we need this magic badly.  One of the most outstanding collective observations in Montevideo was that the spaces for social transformation are shockingly fragmented. Each group campaigns separately and, too often we look at our bellybutton, and lack the capacity to find common ground or unite around a common agenda.

We spoke of our egos. And of the egos in the social sector…

We agreed on the urgency of alliances. We crave them, we desire to transcend the tendency to speak different languages. We need to go beyond the discourse, beyond intellect, beyond anger and beyond our own priorities to see each other. It takes a whole lot of patience, time, care, resilience, and emotional intelligence to work together! We agreed it is a priority to become skilled in the art of creating and nourishing alliances.

Out of these discussions emerged our second prototype, the Alliance Prototype (we are still looking for a cool name). We designed a fellowship program to surface the local knowledge of young activists around the world, strengthening the alliance-making capacity of youth-led social movement, at the local and regional level.

After three days of hard work and little sleep, we had reached that state in which exhaustion and exhilaration blend – and we were freaking excited! It felt good to create together, we felt in tune with each other’s ideas, we felt motivated.

It was the last day of workshop, and we were asked to present our prototypes to the CIVICUS board. It happened over lunch: a few board members sat at a table eating away while we had five minutes per group to present our prototypes. It felt quick, standard and we got some thoughtful feedback. Yet, when we eventually managed to sit together to eat our lunch someone asked: ‘what just happened?’. What had happened is that we saw each other switch mode – from the excited, dreamy, confident, wholesome version of ourselves to the ‘I need to sound proper in front of the board’ mode.

When we need to ‘perform’ our visions in front of someone that has any sort of authority we become clowns – We half-joked, half-reflected. We speak and act as we think they would want us to speak and act. As we do so some part of our essence gets diluted. It vanishes, gone.

And we realize that young people face this situation all the time. There is this subtle game of wanting to find recognition in front of donors and authority figures which comes with a self-forgetting of the edge, of the vibe that feels most authentic.

This brought our reflections full circle: we need to be bold enough to experiment with different ways of performing as ourselves. We need to find new forms to express in which we don’t get lost in translation. We need to learn how to partner and collaborate without losing our differences, without ranking one type of knowledge over the other.

So there we go, in Montevideo I landed with a question that will stay with me for a while:  what does it look like to uphold our truth while working together deepening synergy, compassion, and respect for the other?

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