Taking place near the emblematic site of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a symbol of both Europe’s unity and division, the conference “Volunteering for Social Change” celebrated the culmination of the two-year project EVS4ALL – a comprehensive two-year plan striving to conceive, put in practice and assess a set of practical approaches, extending the benefits of the European Voluntary Service to young people facing obstacles to the mobility and skill-building opportunities, provided by EVS. Managed by the Bonn-based Institute for Applied Communication Research in Non-formal Education (IKAB) and supported in its policy efforts by UK’s Volunteering Matters EVS4ALL put together 14 partner organisations (the aforementioned organizations plus La Ligue de l’enseignement, Fondation Hippocrène, European Alternatives, Yes-Forum, E&M, Volonteurope, EDUQ Association, Foundation for Social Diversity, Chance for Life, Roma Education Fund, Alianza por la Solidaridad and Fundación Tomillo) from multiple European countries (France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK) who worked together to make young Europeans, regardless of their background, ‘feel’ and ‘do’ Europe. In line with the project’s aspirations to pilot the participation of a wider pool of youngsters in mainstream EVS programming, 20 young Europeans with fewer opportunities took part in short-term EVS placements and gained unique experiences. The volunteers traveled from Spain to Poland, Romania to Germany, France to the UK and much more, leaving their homes behind, crossing borders, to take the plunge into a European adventure.
Photo courtesy: Bernhard Ludewig
The conference opened on 20th of March with a session, dedicated to the EVS4ALL conceptual framework. A keynote address was delivered by none other than Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “We Are Europe!”’s initiator, who emphasised the need for an ever-closer Europe in the face of growing Euroscepticism and advancing social injustice, stressing that: “it does not work without Europe”. And it does not work without young people of all backgrounds being able to physically travel, meet and experience other European cultures, which, according to Cohn-Bendit is an essential precondition to “make Europe possible for young Europeans”. In this sense, EVS4ALL, as an initiative explicitly targeting the access of young people with fewer opportunities to cross-country mobility, is of crucial importance for pushing European solidarity and understanding. Thus, Cohn-Bendit argued, inclusive mobility is the best investment Europe can make to create the coveted safe and secure Union where citizens are able to experience Europe in a positive way and, ultimately, set Europe on a course of gradual regeneration and prosperity. Additionally, “this is where beautiful friendships are formed”, concluded Cohn-Bendit.
A vivid discussion featuring Brando Benifei (MEP), Andrea Casamenti (European Youth Forum), Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Helena Häußler (EuroPeers), and Vincent-Immanuel Herr (Herr & Speer) followed the opening speech. The audience and the panelists debated over the opportunity to provide free InterRail tickets for every 18-year-old European, an initiative proposed by Herr, currently gaining ground at the EU level. Another key topic discussed was how to best reach young Europeans that seek participation in the voluntary service, putting an emphasis on dissemination opportunities and other resources provided by the formal education institutions. The connection between informal training and formal education was also mentioned in the context of recognizing the skills obtained during volunteering placement. Finally, significant attention was paid to the need to increase and reorganize the EVS and ERASMUS+ budgets, as well as the on-going efforts to create a viable legal framework of volunteering at the EU level, leading to an envisaged European Charter of Volunteering.
Photo courtesy: Bernhard Ludewig
Roxana Cojocarescu, Ana-Maria Neagu, and Iulia Paraschivescu (Chance for Life)
Day Two of the conference, 21st of March, focused on achieving an inclusive voluntary service. Following a short introduction of the EVS4ALL project, the floor was given to some of the volunteers that took part in EVS4ALL, who were encouraged to share their experiences. Roxana Cojocarescu, who went from Romania to Germany for her voluntary service, explained why she participated in the programme: “I was sick of my routine and that is why I got engaged.” Ana-Maria Neagu, an EVS4ALL volunteer from Romania, talked about her learning process while volunteering in Stuttgart, Germany, at Kinderspielstadt Stutengarten. Ana-Maria wanted to see Germany, the country where her father used to work, leading her to take the chance provided by EVS4ALL. Once she arrived in Germany, she saw that the Germans were not how she imagined them.
The afternoon of the second conference day was reserved for the policy recommendations that were created as part of the pilot project. Political representatives, among them Johannes Luchner and Artur Payer from the European Commission as well as Thomas Thomer from the German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth, joined a panel discussing the EVS4ALL policy aspects and potential next steps in developing a more inclusive and accessible voluntary service for young Europeans. Among the recommendations were a simplification of the accreditations for EVS organisations, creating an online “one-stop shop” for EVS partners and mentors, facilitating peer-to-peer communication and coordination, a flexible and targeted composition of the programme guidelines, and coherent standards and processes of national agencies across Europe. More on the EVS4ALL policy outcomes will be available shortly on E&M’s website.
Finally, there are only Johannes Luchner’s words left to reiterate: “Peace happens in the minds.”