A week in Bavaria exploring digital youth work and the gender gap turned out to be an incredibly rich experience, opening my eyes to new opportunities and creating the first steps in some exciting potential collaborations with BJR, the Bavarian Youth Council.
There’s something about being off on a journey that’s really stimulating…. new places, new people, different approaches, a fresh perspective. All of that was true… and more. For me there were two big things to note….
Firstly comparing Scotland and Bavaria, our situations are overwhelmingly similar, with the cost of living, the energy crisis, the impact of the pandemic and a fresh wave of refugees all on the agenda right now for both places. More generally, the needs of young people to overcome poverty, mental health issues, additional support needs, explore sexuality and gender identity, and navigate a route to employment all felt so similar.
Secondly, for youth work in general and digital youth work in particular, there are some profound differences. Local youth councils mean that young people’s voices are represented at a community level and a Bavaria wide framework for youth work, provided by the BJR, means that youth work appears to be more recognised and integrated into young people’s lives. For many, school hours are shorter and around two thirds of 11 – 25 year olds take part in youth work. Resourcing means some exciting digital projects and lots of us to learn.
Our group had coalesced around two big contemporary youth themes… digital and gender. We had people interested in one or the other or both, with several STEM girls groups represented.
The twenty folk in the visiting group included local authority CLD youth workers and a wide range of other organisations, from across Scotland. How did the trip impact us? Participants said:
“I feel more embedded in the profession than I ever have.”
“Blown away by the intensity of the conversations.”
“Energised and reinvigorated.”
Here are a few of the key things that I noticed as we visited a wide variety of projects in Freilassing, Rosenheim and Munich.
1. Young people thrive when they are trusted
Everywhere we went we encountered telling examples of what happens when young people are listened to, supported and trusted.
We talked a lot about trust with Onur Bakis, the break-dancer turned youth worker who runs an impressive, independent media-based youth project in Freilassing, a town in rural Bavaria where there’s poverty, immigrant communities and crime..
Dance, music and media production are all available at “The Space”, a converted station with dance studio, a kitchen, tech spaces, film and sound recording studio.
Unar says, “There’s no point in buying expensive media equipment and locking it up in the cupboard. We let young people use the equipment themselves, providing open access, even when that looks and feels like a risk.”
2. Young people’s ideas are the ones to focus on
Young people in the 16 – 25 age range work together to run a cafe in the university town of Rosenheim, deciding on the decor, the food, the drink, the events that take place there. The centre is also a venue for youth-led events.
Tanya, the centre manager says: “We provide a space where different groups can meet and perform. There was a group of punks that needed a venue – no one else would engage with them; the police wanted to move them on when they met outdoors. It turned out that they were the best group at clearing up, always leaving the place tidy!
“For any group or event, we provide the framework, but the young people decide what to do, make the arrangements and decide on the rules. Usually their rules are more stringent than mine would be.
“I’ve been manager here for 20 years and in that time the cafe has been repainted about 21 times! It’s an important aspect for each group of young people to make the place feel their own.”
One interesting difference we noted was that in Germany young people can drink wine and beer from age 16, so responsible use of alcohol is part of what’s happening in this youth cafe and music venue. We were challenged by the idea of young people being able to drink in a setting where youth workers were available to support.
3. Research integrated with practice works best
On our short trip to the JFF in the centre of Munich we know we barely scratched the surface of what goes on here. But even so, we were blown away as the amazing team at the Institute for Media Education shared a few of their exciting projects.
Ulrich Tousand talked about the annual games festival that has become one of the high profile events, with young people themselves shaping and leading the 4 day event. Virtual during the pandemic, the event is now back in person with everything from robot wars to poetry slams.
For the upcoming festival in April 2023, Alex Chumak, a young Ukrainian activist who has been using VR to explore the impact of the war on young people, will be one of the festival leads.
One other piece of work that drew my attention is a game “deplatforming“, where the players take on the role of an activist group that is taking action against a fictitious hate campaign that is quickly spreading on the internet. In the game you play as an activist group trying to stop a digital hate campaign from the depths of “PatriotChan”, a fictional loosely organized racist imageboard community.
We could probably have spent a whole week, just at JFF, hearing more about their research, the material they are developing to explore gender identity, the film and media equipment they have available for loan, the studio resources they have inhouse and the expertise that is on hand to support the youth work and education sector in general.
The strong connection between creative industries and youth work is really impressive, and something for us to work on here in Scotland.
Many of the projects we heard about were much more focused around media content – film, social media, web, gaming – more than necessarily the more science based technology, coding or other “hard” skills.
There’s also a strong interest here in addressing gender balance in relation to digital gaming activities, and indeed developing resources to explore gender identity.
4. Responding to refugee needs
In the centre of Munich we visited Bellevue to Monaco, a block of flats which belongs to the city and has been refurbished by a charity set up to provide a residential and cultural centre for refugees. More than just a city centre home, the project offers support language lessons, support around employability and events in a shared space on the ground floor of the buildings. There’s an outdoor courtyard, a public facing cafe (with fabulous coffee and cake!) and a roof top football/basketball court with amazing city view.
This inspiring project got us all talking about the thousands of Ukranian refugees in Scotland and how the youth work sector can collaborate with others to provide support.
While we were at Bellevue de Monaco, our colleagues from SHE Scotland delivered a workshop to German youth workers, sharing the successful approach they have developed to health education for young women in scotland.
5. Pandemic response: Wow!
At the BJR offices, Duc shared about what happened during the pandemic. The German government offered a fund of 1mollion euros to fund youth work projects to insire young people, part of their covid recovery. The result was a competition, with 21 ideas receiving significant funding – a massive boost to the youth work sector.
When Duc said “1 Million Euros” we responded with a collective “Wow!”
Like us, the challenge now is to continue to adapt, sustain achievements made possible by emergency funding during the pandemic, and taking the right next steps.
We share the view that digital youth work developed rapidly during the pandemic. Now there is some backlash: “I did youth work online during the pandemic, but that is finished!” as well as many youth workers and young people who have acquired new skills and interested and are enthusiastic to find ways to use them.
Thinking about how we promote digital youth work, we discussed the relevance of thinking from a girls perspective about the words, phrases and images we use. Melda Wertsein, our host from BJR, talked about the research that helps them to attract girls and the difference that can make. I was inspired to return to my marketing roots and apply some of the thinking I know well around wor, image and storytelling in order to promote digital to girls in Scotland.
Reflecting on an amazing week
We enjoyed an amazing, well organised and incredibly varied programme, with so much support from the amazing team at the Bavarian Youth Council. On the final afternoon a cancelled train meant that rather than spending the afternoon in a venue in the centre of Munich, we found ourselves sitting in the sunshine at a cafe beside the Banhof (station) in the Bavarian countryside. Such a hardship to be drinking coffee, eating icecream and reflecting on an amazing few days.
We used the time to gather feedback, thinking about the amazing youthwork practice we’d seen and the benefits of twenty youth workers from across Scotland spending a week together.
It was a very powerful experience and the consensus was that we learned an enormous amount – from each other within the group and from our German colleagues.
Whether in Germany or in Scotland, it is the people that bring youth work alive – youth workers bring passion and commitment, creating places where young people can thrive. We saw the value of places where young people can feel at home, where they can develop the skills that will help them find employment and most importantly where they can develop as individuals.
We’ve all come home with new ideas about how to do that in ways that will bring positive benefits for young people in Scotland, and help us develop recognition of the importance of the youth work sector in general, the development of digital and the need to focus on developing digital in a way that works for girls..
About the Bavarian Youth Council
The Bavarian Youth Council (BJR) is an association of youth councils, youth organisations and youth initiatives in Bavaria. With 103 district and regional youth councils as members, the BJR is represented across Bavaria. More than two-thirds of all Bavarian children and adolescents utilise and create the offerings and facilities of youth work organisations. These dedicated young people come to learn what it’s like to be independent, to be accepted and to be valued. And in doing so, they shape their own futures.
All of the members of the BJR share a common understanding of the core principles of youth work: voluntary, non-profit, self-governing and democratic: With this as their foundation, the youth organisations actively participate in the decision-making process of the BJR.
Since its foundation in 1947, the BJR has implemented a form of participation that is unique in Germany: committees elected by youth organizations deal with tasks that are carried out by state authorities in other federal states.