Young People United Against Poverty

Throughout Europe, ATD Fourth World works with young people living in conditions of poverty. The question often comes up: What projects and activities do we want to build together? At a recent seminar in France, young participants, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, got involved in designing and planning the future of ATD’s youth movement.

Forty ATD members from many European countries met for a five-day workshop at ATD’s International Centre in France last January. One issue that comes up more often these days is how to include and integrate young people who have just immigrated to Europe from very different backgrounds. Life is already difficult for these young immigrants. They face a multitude of conflict-laden paths that they can take in the world. The challenge for ATD is to choose goals and projects that meet these people where they are and respond to what they are going through. The objective is to develop relationships and build groups in such a way that nobody is excluded.

It isn’t easy to meet and get to know young people who try to avoid drawing any attention to themselves. Seminar participants talked about how to get them involved in ATD youth movement activities. You couldn’t just go out randomly trying to meet new young people, they said. Some had tried going to a specific place on a regular basis, hoping to meet those who are isolated. Others had tried to get to know people out on the street, through drop-in centres or even by going door to door. It’s important to go to the same place regularly and often, and to have a concrete activity or project to suggest, people at the seminar agreed.

Designing the right projects and activities is critical too. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect is essential, as is providing activities that allow for freedom, joy, and reciprocal learning. Young people living in difficult conditions want to feel part of a community and to have adventures that take them outside the scope of their “problems”. These sorts of projects provide an experience of a life different from the one they are forced to live on a day-to-day basis.

One of the roles of those engaged with these young people is to support and acknowledge the efforts they constantly make in order to survive and sustain hope. Seminar participants also described some of their regular interactions with young people. These involved providing support to people who were registering for training, or trying to find a job and a place to live. Other participants had helped those seeking to leave home. Creating a network of diverse relationships, people agreed, helps young people to access resources, to make friends, or to be responsible and flourishing parents if they have children.

Seminar participants discussed the challenges of mentoring young people and supporting their activism in the struggle against poverty. It is important to encourage someone’s freedom and autonomy, but also to support their desire to work with peers towards a world without poverty and exclusion, even if they don’t always see the results right away. In mentoring young people, it is important to be supportive of what they want for themselves, but not to interfere too much. One has to be careful not to project feelings or past experiences on to them, some participants also pointed out.

One tool discussed at the seminar was “Forum Theatre” and other forms of acting. Almost all ATD youth groups in Europe have used or are using this approach. Theatre as a form of expression leads to new and fundamental levels of awareness that help young people develop in a range of areas. The Forum Theatre experience helps young people think about specific difficult situations they have been in, and to look for solutions together with the audience.

Attendees also talked about international meetings for young people from Europe and elsewhere that provide experiences of community. These are opportunities for isolated young people to learn about other cultures, think about issues together, and engage in creative group projects. (See an example of ATD Forum Theatre in the Netherlands at a recent young people’s gathering.)

Members of ATD’s Volunteer Corps were on hand to talk about their work starting the organization’s youth movement that has been bringing together young people experiencing extreme poverty since 1969. One member talked about ATD’s Djynamo network that creates connections between young people in several European countries. Some former members of ATD’s youth programs were also at the seminar to talk with young people involved today. They looked together at the history of ATD’s youth movement, and discussed strategies and training relevant for today’s world.

The goal of working towards a more just society is challenging. Including people experiencing extreme poverty in all aspects of designing and carrying out projects is an essential part of ATD’s approach. Young people who live in poverty have been demonstrating for decades that activism is not just for students from more advantaged backgrounds.

For more information on ATD’s youth movement.