Day 1 and Day 2
So our first couple of days learning about West-East cooperation has gone very fast! On Friday a lot of time was spent on analysis and semantics; creating definitions and broadening our understanding of words like ‘intercultural dialogue’ and diversity.
‘Building the Kremlin’: How can a group of people collectively follow complex rules whilst acting individually? Everyone wanted to contribute, with their own building-block, and own instructions – it wasn’t possible to build the correct structure in the end, and the group had a discussion about whether sometimes rules can be changed if everyone agrees. Is the final outcome important, or the process itself?
We joked about stereotypes a lot when we had to make up a fictional country, and present its characteristics to everyone in a piece of theatre. Stereotypes can be funny – but afterwards we discussed the effect these jokes can have in a society – some people felt it could be just a joke, while others argued there is always a problem with this. If you repeat a stereotype over and over again, some argued, it can become self-fulfilling. People feel the need to conform to it. Also stereotypes about women, some people felt, are not acceptable because it is connected to sexism, discrimination, gender norms that are harmful.
On Saturday we continued to explore attitudes and stereotypes, but in a more concrete way. When developing a project, personal and cultural differences can be really noticeable – to explore this we had a roleplay, which people found difficult. To be discussing a potential project is exciting and the natural impulse is to be yourself and discuss the ideas – but we were trying also to play a role; some roles were perhaps the opposite of a person’s real personality (focused on detail, or very free and easy, for example).
People spoke about the problems they faced in their own projects when working with people from other countries – what seems normal in one country can seem like a crazy way to work in another. Dealing with and understanding these reactions and differences is a big learning curve. So to help in this learning curve, it’s useful to have a ‘map’ of cultural differences, and we looked at Geert Hofstede’s model. It rates different countries in terms of the various factors that can make it difficult or challenging to work together. So one culture might have a more collectivist attitude, another more individualistic; in one place it may be normal to avoid risk as far as possible and have that as a high priority, but in another people are more accepting of the unexpected, and adaptable to change.
The ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ factor is about how competitive people are. Russia scores highly, UK quite high too, but Sweden, for example, scores 5/100, and is therefore described as a ‘feminine’ society (meaning simply that co-operation and compromise are valued more highly than competition and aggression).
In putting together a ‘pyramid’ of violence, we considered all the kinds of discrimination, prejudice and violence that can happen in society. We found some of the definitions hard – some terms could come under more than one heading, it felt like there wasn’t that much logic in it, and that perhaps violence is not just physical. We talked about structural violence, economic violence, and how perhaps instead of a pyramid the analogy could be an iceberg – at the top is something that can seem quite unimportant – a joke, a belittling comment, scapegoating – but underneath is a whole structure of power and discrimination (like racism, patriarchy) which means the small action has much larger consequences.
Day 3 and Day 4
Obstacles! What challenges do project organisers and youth workers face? We discussed these in groups and the trainers helped us to consider the kind of challenges faced by youth workers in Russia (bureaucracy, restrictions on ‘foreign-funded’ NGOs and so on). This is important for those based in the west to understand if they want to pursue east-west projects, and we spoke about it for quite a while. It was good to hear first-hand the realities of working in Russia – things can be heavily exaggerated in the media, but on the other hand, some NGOs have faced closure in recent years.
Describing obstacles we had all faced in the past, some scenarios were drawn up and passed on to a different team, which had to find a solution and present it through a small piece of theatre (or sketch). One group had to deal with the issue of an EVS volunteer being bored in their role (or to put it officially, the volunteer’s expectations not being met by the role they’re given on placement). Communication at every step is the answer, the group felt, with regular check-ups between hosting organisation, sending organisation, and volunteer. Steffi also pointed out that an EVS placement is, to an extent, “what you make of it”. Find opportunities to expand what you’re doing, take the initiative, and also recognise that you’re not just there for your own advancement, but to contribute to society.
Other roleplay scenarios involved a topic which came up frequently throughout the week-long seminar: homophobia. What would you do if, as leader of a workcamp in rural Russia, you realised that one of your participants was bullying two others for being gay, and was even telling local residents and stirring up anger towards the gay couple? It was proposed that meetings would be held immediately, common rules of the camp established (no discrimination, no hate speech, no homophobia), and a discussion involving local residents held – but also we recognised that this might not be a solution at all. People disagreed over whether a camp participant who is bullying another can be removed from the camp. At what point is one person’s safety and wellbeing more important than another person’s inclusion?
One of the participants said that it should never be forced upon the person being bullied to have to deal with this. If they don’t want to meet with the people who hate them, they should not have to. You need mediators to stand in between. This a really good point – because challenging homophobia and changing attitudes is not just the job of LGBT people. Straight allies have to take action, step up and stand with their LGBT friends. Not just when there is some crisis, but before anything happens. It’s a wider issue – the need to speak out against underlying discrimination (in all its forms) in society and consider our own roles and privileges in these power structures.
Another big challenge which organisers can face is conflict. When there has been a recent conflict, or just a long situation of tension and anger between region, states or peoples, you have a responsibility to plan any workshops on this very very carefully. We listened to our Armenian and Ukrainian participants on this topic in particular. Natalie spoke about a conflict reconciliation workshop she attended in Georgia a couple of years ago, where the tasks included telling stories from each country’s history. For two of the participants, their histories contradicted each other, and they quickly became very emotional and angry. The workshop had to stop and many thought it couldn’t continue at all, as people were so upset. But the trainers had considered this conflict and were prepared for it; they managed to get the group to consider other contested narratives, and other countries which previously had a lot of hatred between them (i.e. France and Germany). The two participants, in the end, worked together on a collective narrative, having talked about how there was possibly truths and untruths in what they had been taught in their respective countries.
Some recommendations to come out of this session: That projects and camps should always have ground rules about behaviour and discrimination; rules that everyone has to agree to uphold. Also that it’s absolutely vital to be very knowledgeable about the context of the project’s topics, the participants’ backgrounds and experiences, and any potential conflict or issues that might arise. It highlighted the need for very very detailed planning when creating a project – what why who and when, down to the last detail, giving participants clear objectives.
After the inspiring, motivating meeting and exchange with Russian volunteers in the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, we embarked on our second last seminar day. It was the time of truth for our training course, as we would finally form into groups and develop our project plans.
However, we had to pave the way in order to take this final step. So we discussed the principles of the Council of Europe which organizes the Erasmus+ program. Those include smart, inclusive and sustainable growth, ruled out in general political guidelines which concern resource efficiency, the protection of biodiversity, sustainable management of resources as well as the responsible increase of global and inner-European competitiveness. While discussing those issues, most of us found the criteria of the Council of Europe quite arbitrary and little helpful for our project ideas. Especially, the repeated stress on competition and growth without a contextual explanation raised some irritation among us. Nonetheless, the criteria were still seen as useful in the way that we should reflect on and refer to the named goals in our justifications for the project proposals, and should hence know them well.
Subsequently, we mapped our interests for projects and formed into project groups. Each person could propose up to three project ideas which were ordered thematically in a free space within the circle of our seminar seating. Then, we went to the clusters of projects which attracted us the most, individually. The resulting groups then quickly engaged in a first dialogue for the concrete topics of their projects.
In a next step, we looked more closely at the specific requirements for Erasmus+ projects. In order to process the concerning documents on project budgets, impact and dissemination and on the award criteria for rating the importance of projects by national agencies, we separated into small groups. Each group worked through one of the documents and discussed questions. Later, each individual reported back to their project group. In the reflection of this method, many underlined and appreciated the notion of horizontal learning in this method, without a teaching authority apart from ourselves. By that, we acquired a maximum understanding of the document. We also received analytical skills which will ideally allow us to transfer the know-how on our actual projects.
By making use of the competences from the autodidactic workshop, each group spent the rest of the afternoon writing their project drafts. The project deadline, greatly announced by the National Agency of Estonia, was at 7 pm. Four groups managed to hand in their project drafts in time in the face of simulated technical errors during the application process. Yet, one group missed the deadline and was asked to apply again for the next date – this said, of course, with a twinkle in the eye.
In total, this demanding system of writing project drafts proved very efficient and rewarding, as we were exposed to a realistic stress situation and could feel our efforts materialize into a more concrete plan. Beforehand, we had been warned of the careless enthusiasm in volunteering project ideas which often resulted in cool, sexy and attractive projects made by cool, sexy and attractive people. Unfortunately, those criteria aren’t included in Erasmus+ award categories, so it was a useful lesson to do some serious planning.
At the end of the day we were exhausted, yet excited to share our results with the other groups and insisted on a free space to present each of our project drafts on the last day.
However, the night wasn’t over with this conclusion – we still celebrated our intercultural evening. Each one of us had brought wonderful delicacies and cultural testimonials from our homelands, including Ukrainian vodka, German Jägermeister-liquor, Armenian poetry, Scottish dance and Russian melancholic songs. The performances were spectacular. Especially the Russian and Ukrainian choreographies, their catchy tunes and dance moves accompanied us for the whole evening. The organization and preparation of the intercultural evening showed, what an ambitious and sociable group we were, with a lot of thought and work put into our country presentations even before the time we had known us. It was a worthy party night for our seminar, and it left us quite out of shape for the last day.
On the last day before departure, most of us clearly started to think about the upcoming farewell, and of the memories of the intercultural evening. Still, we tried to keep the tension and motivation high as we wanted to present each group’s projects to the others and connect our ideas. Fortunately, the National Agency had allowed all projects to be presented and provided further recommendations, too. But before we discussed some general recommendations for project management. In one of our activities, we received a smart grid that evaluates the prospect of a project plan regarding the motivation of organizers, priorities of Erasmus+ and the needs of the affected local community where the project may take place. Every project idea can be measured according to these criteria, Alla said. Hereby, the need and goal analysis should always be in the first place during planning, in order to assess feasibility and the wished-for impact exactly.
Then we finally listened to the five project drafts. They can also be seen on the project category of this website. We were proud to present the outcome of our joint work and many commented that they really felt the different parts of the seminar assembling and materializing in our final projects. Thus, almost two hours passed in the discussion of our projects.
Later, we settled for the last part of the program: the evaluation. As our seminar had been on a tight schedule, we felt ourselves calming and slowing down all the more during the reflection. Firstly, we positioned ourselves in a corner of the seminar room according to individual satisfaction with the training course – in four corners representing 0-100%. Most of us settled between 75 and 100%, explaining our hopes and expectations we had had for the seminar. Yet, some volunteers said that the best fulfilled expectations were the ones that they couldn’t even have thought about before.
During the next round of reflection, giving each person the opportunity to explore their inner attitude and feelings in the plenary circle, we were in unison about the amazing group stronghold and motivation. Also, many thanked Alla and Inna personally for their incredible work during the training course.
In the following exercise, all of us should summarize their experience in one word – and surprise, inspiration and tiredness summed up the spectrum of replies.
Afterwards, we got down to write memory bags for each other – small comments on each of our most appreciated seminar acquaintances. Of course we didn’t have the time to write to everyone, so that many spent the rest of the evening trying to get hold on formerly forgotten memory bag papers to write their last comments.
It became quite clear that nobody wanted the seminar to end, and so most of us went to the bon fire at the shore of the Volga by night together. We sang songs, talked and waited for the first ones to bid farewell during the night. At half past twelve and at five am some of us departed, and our internal WE facebook group was flooded with goodbye-posts and emotional pre-departure pictures. And again, a group of restless visited the bon fire and witnessed the sun coming up above the Volga at half past three.
In the morning, the last of us boarded the seminar bus, and frove away from the lovely spot on the river Volga. We saluted to the hotel, each single tree and mosquito as we went. The training course was over. But WE stay united.
The page was developed by the participants Jen Stout (Xchange Scotland)
and Leonardo Pape (SCI Germany)