By Kacper Wroblewski

Last Friday (April 27th) the UNIVER.CITY-team organised an interactive webinar for Peacejam on the topic of youth-driven social innovation. Peacejam is an international foundation whose goal is creating young leaders invested in making positive changes around them. They do so through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates and their spirit, experience and knowledge. The aim of the webinar was to engage in a dialogue about how to prepare youth-friendly post pandemic futures.

It must be recognized that this pandemic has hit young people quite hard. Although they can be considered the most connected and digitally literate generation, this does not mean that youngsters are immune for the mental health effects of social isolation. Quite on the contrary. Studies  show that youngsters are most vulnerable to the mental health implications of lockdowns, experiencing the highest levels of distress and despair relative to other groups. Studies also show that this pandemic has affected youngsters’ life goals, ambitions, and opportunities. Youth unemployment, for example, started rising again during the pandemic, and it is expected that young women and men will be particularly affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-crisis, as young people are over-represented in some of the heaviest hit industries and non-standard forms of employment, such as part-time, temporary or ‘gig’ work. 

At the same time it must be acknowledged that young people manifested to be particularly creative, resourceful, resilient and compassionate during this pandemic. They managed to continuously adapt to changing conditions, embracing online learning modes and platforms at an unprecedented and non-anticipated pace, adopting creative ways for staying connected with one another, fostering online trends such as sharing meals online, virtual board games, online performances and concerts. Regardless of the many odds they were facing, youngsters continued to take initiatives to help the most vulnerable amongst us. They organized scouting activities and youth camps with a great sense of responsibility as to respect the sanitary measures and policies, initiated food collections and distributions, solidarity concerts and letter writing actions. Worldwide youth also continued mobilizing for a more just and sustainable future through solidarity marches and actions. Showing empathy, awareness and leadership for causes that necessitate us to think and act beyond this pandemic.

The first part of the webinar was focused on how youth movements from all around the world provoke change. From the Civil Rights and the Global Peace Movements in the sixties and seventies, to more recent events such as the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, youth movements have proven to be a helpful actor in helping to reshape our society. We don’t even need to look further than Belgium to see examples of youth-driven causes. Overall, it perfectly illustrated what this seminar was about: giving youth the opportunity to rethink the world after COVID.

The second part of the seminar was designed to be an interactive, collaborative session. The participants’ task was to collectively reflect on both their past and ongoing experiences during the pandemic. Based on these reflections, participants proceeded to envisioning our post-pandemic future. This exercise was done using a virtual whiteboard and the rich picture method which helps to graphically illustrate a given situation.

Generally speaking, the participants found more positive than negative facets of our current situation. Besides the feelings of loneliness and stagnation, more constructive outcomes were spotted. The importance of collaboration and mutual aid as a result of isolation during lockdown(s) was strongly highlighted. Since everything went virtual, digitalisation was also seen as a factor bringing people together.

These reflections led to ideas for a post pandemic future. The importance of mental health problems and awareness was heavily stressed, as well as the need for an increased sense of empathy. Other ingredients for shaping the future included diversity and tolerance, kindness and understanding, and connection and globalisation. This led to the last part of the seminar that was devoted to sharing and discussing insights from the interactive exercise.

All in all, this seminar allowed to voice youth’s pandemic experiences, as well as concerns about and ideas for the future. It also brought participants from different horizons together and enabled them to engage with one another, socialise and exchange their points of view. The energy throughout the entire meeting was utterly positive, showing youth’s determination to take action and shape the way we will live after Covid. Let’s hope this will serve as inspiration for more causes driven by young people who are not afraid to take their future into their own hands.