Youth Fellows Report Back From Athens

25 October

Müllheim, a inconspicuous town at the foot of the black forest in Southern Germany, is exactly 1.700 kilometers away from Athens, the birthplace of democracy. On September 23, we, Fabian and Larissa, Youth Fellows of the International Youth Think Tank, started our journey by train, bus and ferry to the Athens Democracy Forum (ADF) which took place from September 28 to 30. In our big backpacks we not only carried appropriate clothing for the different temperature zones we were traveling through, but also some ideas to innovate democracy and the essence of our Open Chair Democracy Talks from all over Europe and beyond.

Since a decade, policy and decision makers, scholars and democracy activists from all over the world annually come together for the ADF to exchange ideas and discuss current topics and challenges to democracy. This year’s conference was concerned with looking back at the past decade of democracy and its future ahead. It took place in the quite distinguished venues of the Zappeion Megaron, the Stoa of Attalos, and the Academy of Athens.

Youth Fellows Fabian and Larissa on their Interrail Trip to Athens. Photo: L. Möckel

Reuniting In Athens

Having arrived in Athens, we met up with the other Youth Fellows Michele (IYC 2020), Elena (IYC 2021) and Mathes (IYC 2021), as well as Urban and Michele´s companion Marella to prepare our first contribution to this year´s Athens Democracy Forum: The Building Blocks Youth Hack.

The ADF is organized by the Democracy and Culture Foundation, which this year also initiated the project “Building Blocks of Democracy”. In the first step, expert panels together with citizens in five countries all over the world worked on democracy-strengthening proposals in the areas of “power of the people”, “power of the executive”, “power of information”, “power of voting” and “power of influence”.

Our role was to critique the developed proposals from our “young” perspective. Given how much “institutional engineering” and how little bottom-up processes and youth participation the proposals provided for, this was not very difficult for us. And in fact, our feedback, not only from the panelists (all representatives of the organizations that had run the events to develop the proposals), but especially from the other conference participants, was received very positively.

With this we had made a good first impression of the IYTT and could thereafter concentrate on networking with the other conference attendees. Many representatives of political organizations and the business world were present, but also political personalities and some private individuals. During the coffee breaks or lunch at the Zappeion, we made some new contacts, and brought up ideas for cooperation with other organizations, like the European Youth Hub and the European UNiversity Institute, that are also committed to protecting democracy. Even a photo or two with the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon came about at these occasions.

Distinguished guest and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took some time for photos with the Youth Fellows Matthes, Elena and Fabian.

Ban Ki-Moon not only spoke in a panel about the prevention of nuclear war, but also had a controversial discussion in the role of Confucius with the American professor Jeffery Sachs, who represented Aristotle. Another prominent speaker was EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who gave the keynote speech in the venerable Agora. Other well-known guests were the Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the Mayor of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who received the City of Athens Democracy Award in the form of a video message on behalf of the Ukrainian people. In addition to various speeches and panel discussions on various aspects of democracy, there were also interactive workshops on youth participation, disinformation, as well as AI and politics.

In between the official program, we, together with the students of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, also had the opportunity to ask Lourence Balatbat, founder of the initiative “Beyond Three Billion”, as well as Liz Alderman from the New York Times and Shivi Dwivedi, leader of the youth engagement strategy for the U.N. Climate Change High-Level Champions, our questions about their jobs and projects.

The IYTT On The Agenda

On Friday, the third day of the conference, our contributions were on the agenda. In the halls of the stunning Academy of Athens, we, Michele, Elena and Larissa, finally stood next to three big chairs, all eyes on us, and performed what we had gone through so many times before and which felt better with each time: Conversations with Strangers, written by Jacob Hirdwall. This staged reading is a compilation of the notes that all of the Youth Fellows made and compiled during our Open Chair Democracy Talks (OCDT) within the last year. The staged reading begins with three passers-by sitting together waiting for the Youth Fellows they have previously recruited for an OCDT and who are now suddenly gone. The three strangers then start on their own to answer the four questions that the Youth Fellows have left behind. In the process, very different understandings of democracy, values, attitudes and experiences converge. The answers reveal a great diversity of opinions about democracy, but at the same time also agreement on very basic needs such as better representation, education and common places to come together and make politics. The presentation of the OCDT fragments is framed by the introductions of our own persons. We talk about our backgrounds and privileges, our hopes and aspirations for (democracy in) the future, and how we as Youth Fellows want to contribute to the continuation of democracy.

Bringing the voices of the people to the ADF: Youth Fellows Larissa, Michele and Elena presenting “Open Chair Democracy Talks - The Play” in the Academy of Athens. Photo: F. Wiek

For a second time we left a distinct impression on the audience. But even the three of us, some of whom had doubted whether this kind of contribution would not simply be cringe in this official setting, felt at that moment that this artistic intervention was exactly what this conference had needed. It broke up the uniformity of the classical speeches and panel discussions. Moreover, it felt good to bring the concerns, wishes and visions of ordinary citizens onto the stage and thus into this rather elite bubble of the ADF.

We didn’t only talk about the OCDTs and the opinions of other people in other cities, we also held OCDTs on Wednesday evening, once again at the central Monastiraki square, the place with the floodlit Acropolis in the background, where Michele, Fabian, Philipine, Urban and Erik had initiated this format a year prior. Although we only started the OCDTs at 9 pm, people were queuing up to tell us their perspective. Some of the passers-by, even those who had eyed us somewhat skeptical at first, expressed their delight at being asked for their opinion. For us, there could not have been a better compliment, because that is what the Open Chair Democracy Talks are all about: giving the people a voice!

Back to the ADF - The Presentation of the Handbook for Innovative Democracy

Our contribution to the ADF was not over with the stage reading. After the following lunch, we had the chance to present the Handbook for Innovative Democracy, which several Youth Fellows had been working on in the weeks before to get it ready in time for the conference. This handbook not only summarises all the proposals developed at the Youth Conferences, but also presents them in a clear and easily accessible way. Icons in six different categories (human resources, youth fame factor, time horizon, dependance on existing documents, monetary resources, scope: local, national, international) make the individual proposals easily accessible to policy and decision makers. In addition, there is the possibility to access the detailed description of each proposal on the IYTT website via a QR code and to give feedback. This makes the handbook a constantly evolving document. It was good that we could not only give the conference participants some food for thoughts on their way, but also to give them a copy of the handbook and the call to put words into action.

The Handbook for Innovative Democracy in front of the Academy of Athens where it was handed over to policy and decision makers from all over the world. Photo: L. Möckel

Until Next Year (hopefully)

Looking back, the three days of the ADF just flew by. From them, we all were left with a lot of our own food for thought, experiences, memories, new contacts and ideas, which we took with us on our return journey on the ship and the plane and thus spread them all over Europe. We will see what comes out of this within the next year, when some of us Youth Fellows will hopefully be able to represent the IYTT again at the ADF in 2023 and thus ensure youth representation once again.

This year´s IYTT delegation at the ADF (Matthes, Michele, Marella, Elena, Larissa, Fabian, Urban).

Larissa Möckel

Youth Fellow