AFS advocates are born in spring

The seminar “External Relations and AFS Profiling”, first activity of the Erasmus+ project ‘Quality youth work: from local to European level’, was concluded in Brussels on 15 May. Held in the city headquarters of European Institutions, the seminar was in the prefect setting for 4 days of discussions about advocacy, campaigning, PR and the importance of spreading the AFS message in a strategic way at, not only local and national, but also at European level.

We started out with a “Get to know” of the 17 participants and their diversity and of Brussels and its incredible and somehow unexpected diversity; we got to experience its expectedly unpredictable weather and one of its culinary traditions: frittes (or fries). In the morning we dived into the topic and explored what advocacy is and how we feel about it, especially when it is associated with unpopular words such as “lobbying”. We also had a presentation by Wolfgang Pape (AFS alumni currently working for the European Commission) about the EU institutions and where and how AFS can have an impact in the decision making process to set our larger advocacy context within which we would need to fit the network’s agenda, each national organisation’s objectives and our individual goals. With this in mind we discussed in groups how we think we can have an impact individually as volunteers, as members of national boards, as EPORies (members of the European Pool of Representatives) or as trainers. We kept going back to this question as we transformed our ideas into concrete strategies and action plans.

We dedicate the afternoon to explore in depth what external factors affect AFS and its programmes, from visa regulations to the EU’s attitude toward Intercultural Learning and volunteering. Working in a world-café setting we looked at how policies designed at European level impact the national and local level, how this impact differs from country to country, how we can use this in our advantage and what to be weary of. Thanks to this reflection – and the sharing of experiences from different realities – we understood how underestimating the relevance of advocacy for AFS can be damaging. Furthermore, we understood, how context matters and affects what actions and results are possible and what are not in different countries.

AFS international was also represented at the seminar and we got to see how their office is structured, compared to the EFIL office and how it operates with regards to advocacy, including what tools are available to volunteers and what lies behind AFS branding and PR messages. Although the seminar was meant to focus on Europe, it was a nice addition to be able to see how this relates to the global context and that on some issue EFIL and AFS International have opportunities to work in partnership.

In the evening a worker at Foyer, an organisation that works with the locals of Molenbeek came to give us a presentation about the work of the organisation. Molenbeek, were the seminar took place, is one of Brussels most diverse neighbourhoods struggling with various issues of integration and having had to overcome a negative public image linking it to terrorism. This was a useful glimpse into a different way to employ Intercultural Learning, one that politicians tend to support in times of extremisms, xenophobia and in general fear of difference; something we need to keep in mind when promoting Intercultural Learning outside of AFS and especially in political contexts.

The second day we started working on our own individual advocacy strategies. Each participant had been asked to choose one policy topic they were interested in among the 6 more relevant ones for AFS. During the remainder of the seminar we looked at what elements are needed for a good advocacy strategy, like forming strategic alliances, the skills and knowledge needed to be a good AFS advocate and how EFIL can contribute.  We also heard representatives from ESM, WOSM, CEV, ECYC and ENGSO youth, 5 organisations more or less active in advocacy at national and European levels, who told us what their advocacy structures and strategies are, how they develop campaigns and actions and what their successes and challenges have been. We discovered that it’s always important to push forward our own message and agenda but there are many lessons to be learned from how others do it and we were encouraged to incorporate ideas from each presentation into our own strategies. With this inspiration we worked, grouped by topic of interest, in order to help each other develop our ideas and later, grouped by role, in order to see what collective actions could be taken by national boards, by EPOR, by EPOT  and TICLAB to push forward common agendas.  Drawing from all the learning and ideas that came from the seminar we collected recommendations for the national and European level that were presented at the EFIL General Assembly (25th-28th May) and for the local level that were used at the Chapter Development Seminar (12 – 17 June). To verify the viability of some of our proposals we had a check in via Skype with the Chair of the EFIL Board, Ekaterina Bagdasarova, who was very enthusiastic about our work and encouraged us to be ambitious in our goals.

During the last evening we put our learning to the test. For one night our workshop room was turned into a reception hall, for the “This is AFS” event. We had external guests joining us so we could practice our networking skills and we got to present our AFS “elevator pitch”. On the last day of the seminar we wrapped up with a gallery of each participant’s individual strategy and action plan, and a commitment to put effort in advocacy, each in our own capacity.  As with all successful AFS training we left the venue tired but happy, with a new found appreciation for advocacy and the fundamental role it has toward achieving our mission.

See more pictures from the seminar here.