Youth Activism - Between the culture of revolution and the culture of reaction

Author: Roxana Georgiana Radu


 

In learning about those who are different from ourselves is the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. The realization that others do things one way, while we do them in other ways, serves to provide us with insights into our own behaviour that are the mark of educated men and women, and gives us a more profound understanding of our institutions and values.[1]

 

Romania is among those countries in the world with the most significant “brain drain”. Every year, thousands of young specialists leave the country in search of different opportunities abroad. The trend is irreversible though; the number of those coming back home for more than holidays is, in fact, very small. The impossibility to decide on their own career inside Romanian borders makes more and more of them abandon hopes for country reform. From 1990 onwards, there has been a continuous increase in the number of young Romanians emigrating. This led to a distorted understanding of what Habermas called “common evaluative horizon”[2] or a set of expectations emerging from living together and facing the same challenges on the same territory. Nonetheless, there is a sense of learning the lesson of citizenship and transforming it into a young-led national initiative.

Our common past still holds the strain of a massive street protest mainly initiated by students in December 1989 in the cities of Timisoara and Bucharest.  It was directed against totalitarian rule, against the continuous minimalization of human rights and against the exercise of civil and political rights only at the level of formal political rhetoric. It ended with a bloody revolution, in which hundreds of people, most of them aged between 18 and 30, lost their lives and thousands were injured. It was an uprising in support of democracy, led by citizens demanding to play a real role in a democratic process of policy-making. And it was successful to the extent that Romanian citizens were never again passive subjects of authoritarian decisions constrained by the fear of repression.

 

The “brain drain” and the need for exchanging ideas

It is commonly said that youth governs itself by its own rules. And it is frequently acknowledged that democratic choices imply a degree of consciousness and responsibility without which equal opportunities and equal rights would not wield the same value. Being actively engaged in political processes, however, does not come to contradict any of these features. On the contrary, making “new rules”, specific to one generation, could be influential in adapting policymaking to expectations in a timely manner. Besides, it strengthens the ability of young people to create the environment they wish for. With the enhancement of technologically–mediated channels of communication, ideas do not need to be restricted to traditional frontiers; they become enriched by the flux of information on their different application in diverse contexts. 

The multiplicity of complementary means of information and technologies available today definitely represents the turning point. This holds valid for every country, but Romania constitutes an interesting example of redefining and “regaining” citizens by the use of the Internet. With the exodus of capable young specialists starting at the beginning of the 1990s and continuing until today, the sense of belonging appeared to vanish at the time large numbers of young experts left the country. Nevertheless, there was a subjective experience of group belonging that gave birth to a series of initiatives meant to re-establish connections with the home country; additionally, these experiences were also meant to integrate visions of civic and governmental performance observed while abroad. The main result was the diffusion of a new style of learning among youth – namely, learning from the experiences of other young people.

The initiative of creating parallel platforms that would resemble eGovernment structures at the national or regional level is nowadays complemented by thousands of attempts to reform existent networks of public engagement.  With the advent of new technologies, a series of programs meant to increase citizen awareness started to be implemented, at the beginning in a top-down manner and lately, in a bottom-up fashion.

By the use of the Internet, Romanian youth started to perform the role of a “gatekeeper” stratum, sanctioning corruption cases and deficient legislation. But the efforts of citizens appealing to blogs and forums are not enough, as they are not unified into a voice that can be heard in the political arena. In order to bring issues of regional concern to the attention of the majority of the population and officials, young people need to exert influence over the agenda-setting process, with a powerful orientation towards the future.

Before proceeding to describe initiatives that would reform the concept of civic empowerment in Romania, several drawbacks need to be taken into account. To begin with, there are areas in which connection to the Internet is thoroughly restricted due to the remoteness of the specific location in geographical terms (the Apuseni Mountains, for example) or access to the Internet is obstructed due to financial shortages, especially in the poorest regions and in the countryside. What is more, Romania also struggles with the problem of computer literacy in a large proportion of the population, as well as with passivity and disinterest on the part of low-skilled youngsters.

However, it is the young people themselves who are considering the solutions to these problems, by putting information within reach and enhancing computer literacy among school children. At least eighty such activities are taking place at the moment throughout the country and are becoming more and more successful, as participants in these programs are themselves becoming promoters of civic engagement.

But in order to be able to set regional priorities in which citizens and authorities are co-involved, new approaches are necessary. The youth can make its voice heard in promoting a new style of governance, with the constant surveillance of public officials. Such an influence in Romanian politics would ensure that conflicts do not tend to escalate and immediate resolutions for emergent crises can be considered, since a single click can get them in contact with other professionals around the world and even with a larger number of citizens.

 

Become the citizen you want to become!

Three solutions would enhance participation in democratic processes and awareness: one of them involves the introduction of civil service reform, the second concerns the mentorship framework for projects and the third is connected to spreading information through social advertising. Firstly, the completion of a programme of civic service that would be compulsory for all people aged between 15 and 18 would ensure an equal level of understanding and commitment to democratic values by active involvement. This would complement the civic education received during secondary school and would put an emphasis on the practical aspect of learning. Thus, young people would be part of a network dedicated to supporting long-term goals for youth empowerment and would create an extra incentive for limiting the “brain drain” phenomenon. The participants in the programme would take part in different social actions, ranging from solidarity formation to problem-solving approaches. All those who consider this civic service beneficial could constitute an informal “young citizens’ assembly”. Such an organization could be consulted not only in the traditional way during elections or referendums, but also via online deliberation, e-consultation and e-voting.

Secondly, the mentorship program would become a framework for developing informed groups ready to offer a model of democratic citizenship. Mentors chosen on a voluntary and merit basis from active youth leaders could become role models for people willing to contribute to societal development in a manner that allows for personal characteristics to be brought to the forefront. Regardless of the field in which it is applied, mentorship deals first with the individual self; being able to assume risks, to take decisions while remaining uninfluenced and prepared to face the consequences. The advantage of being young also consists in the power to adapt and to always search for new solutions. In a situation in which one is constrained to act against his/her own convictions, new ideas are helpful to overcome such obstacles. Following this logic, a network made up of Romanian youngsters prepared to assume responsibility for their own actions would definitely prove to offer extensive help to policy reform and the promotion of democratic values.

Thirdly, forms of social communication, media campaigns and advertising aimed at social ends have been implemented extensively, especially by the younger generation, in several European countries. Romania, however, has only witnessed the creation of several advocacy campaigns, coordinated by private actors or by governmental agencies. But social advertising as a result of youth work could successfully perform the function of public opinion education in pursuing general welfare. Comprising everything that goes against its main definition, social publicity is non-commercial (not oriented towards commercial ends), non-profit (not directed towards profit) and non-product advertising (its subject is not the promotion of a product), thus being a form of communication concentrating on an collection of values that need to be transmitted through modern means.

Simplified, repetitive and synthetic messages capturing the essence of pragmatic collective problems could lead to better social integration and cohesion. By aiming at creating knowledge on the issues of general interest, these projects address the individual always as a citizen, in an attempt to reinforce its role in transmitting and disseminating the norms of conduct in society. Following this description, a new medium of communication could initially be embraced by youth networks ready to put their talented members to work at creating the necessary sense of solidarity.  In the words of Harrison and Wessels[3], 

New forms of audience engagement exist, which should not be viewed as audience fragmentation but audience discernment constituted through an environment which is pluralistic, engaging, associative and critical: an environment that itself helps to stimulate the expression of a pluralism defined by the activities of diverse individuals and groups within their different social, cultural and political experiences and settings.

 

Conclusion

The outcome of continuous, further-reaching interaction and decision-making participation will become the basis of rendering more democratic the Romanian institutional structure, a possible solution for the “brain drain” phenomenon. At the same time, this example would be felt in raising more awareness at the level of passive citizenry. We ourselves and our children can acquire a new concept of open-mindness and define in other terms our identity and solidarity. To this purpose, citizen parallel initiatives complementing and constantly monitoring governmental activities will provide the background and the individual incentive to introduce such projects. Since our actions have the significance we are allowing them to have, they should best express our community-based identity.

Moreover, our deeds constitute the sort of "map" that allows a profound individual "quest", not only with a view to self-improvement, but also aiming at making our world a better place to live in, for sheltering democratic values through civic engagement. Perhaps the quality of calling into question and permanently criticizing the means of reaching these goals is one of the most important forces that drive us further.

 



[1] Jacobs et al., Comparative Politics: An Introduction to the Politics of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Soviet Union (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, 1983), p. X

[2] J. Habermas, “The Nation, the Rule of Law and Democracy” in The Inclusion of the Other, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 145

[3] Jackie Harrison and Bridgette Wessels, “A new public service communication environment? Public service broadcasting values in the reconfiguring media”. In New Media Society, vol. 7, 2005, pp. 834-853, p. 838,  http://nms.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/6/834

 

 


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