Sharing Skills and Reconsidering our Movements: Young activists at the European Summer University for Social Movements

‘Let’s Debate, Resist, Act - The Time Is Now!’ was the rallying slogan of the European Summer University for Social Movements that took place from 23 to 27 August in Toulouse, France. The conference, organised by the Attac Network, brought together thousands of alter-globalist, ecofeminist, anti-capitalist and pro-migrant activists from all over Europe and beyond. Facing financial barriers as young activists, our participation was made possible by the Global Justice Now youth subsidies.

Movement building and sharing knowledge across borders were at the heart of the conference. Translators accommodated French, English, Spanish and German speaking participants, a true testament to the will of including different people. We enjoyed switching between the languages, listening to people express their ideas in their native tongue. Every affiliated organisation had the chance to contribute to the extensive workshop programme that we could choose from. While some focused on content-based seminars, others took part in active skill shares.

Sharing Knowledge and Skills

The seminar on European militarisation and international arms trade, for instance, was fascinating. Activist-scholars shared their insights into the current remilitarisation of the EU which sarcastically claims to be the guarantor of peace in Europe. They made the link between foreign policy, media perception and people's power. Another workshop on Systemic Alternatives presented preferable visions of what our political system could be if it worked in favour of people and the environment instead of profit. This day-long seminar was especially useful for those of us who have been thinking about developing a similar series of talks and discussions. We can’t forever counteract the injustices thrown our way if we don’t know what to fight for. These workshops enabled us to network with impressive speakers like the Director of Focus on the Global South, Shalmali Guttal, or Bolivian ecofeminist Elizabeth Peredo who both agreed to support our activist events.

The more creative campaigning skill shares brought people together to plan and role play different campaign tactics. One particularly interesting workshop run by Action Aid France, introduced a group of around 30 to ‘Beautiful Trouble’, a book and way of organising actions for campaigners, new and old, to start brainstorming different innovative ideas for peaceful protest. After getting into smaller groups and discussing our different experiences of activism, each group used the ‘cue cards’ to come up with and role play a different campaign ‘stunt’, aimed at campaigning for the rights of deportees. These sessions, and others like it, were a wonderful insight into the possibilities for implementing change. As a group we came away feeling empowered by these new ideas and ready to use more creative means in our own campaigns.

Growing as a Group

What was possibly most exciting about the week was how we grew as a group. Young people, all united by the aims and values of Global Justice Now, discussing and debating new ideas for the youth network. During breaks and after workshops, we would have French cheese or dinner at La Kasbah, a delicious Moroccan restaurant, talk about our impressions and sometimes even try to sing revolutionary songs. One evening, we joined local French people in an old town square to perform and remember their traditional dances. Another cultural highlight was the final concert of the Summer University: French rap, Spanish resistance songs and Senegalese tunes gave us the chance to let loose and feel the intercultural community and friendships we had developed over the past few days one more time.

Time to Reconsider

In addition to these enriching experiences, the Summer University provoked us to reconsider accessibility in our own movements. What can we do better in our own movements and how we can make our activist circles more accessible? At the conference, there was a distinct lack of discussion about identity politics and its place in social and political activism. One of the main reasons for this may have been the demographic of the majority of people attending the Summer University. Most of the talks we went to mainly consisted of older White people, which reflected the wider attendance demographic. “During some of the talks I couldn’t help but feel that people in minority groups were spoken about as an other but not really included in the conversation,” one of the attendees remarked.

It would have been much more effective to hear stories from people who are actually affected by certain policies or who benefit from social initiatives. For example, it could be beneficial to listen to someone who is a refugee talk about migrant issues rather than someone who has studied it for years but has no first-hand experience. As identity politics might have become more prevalent in political discussions quite recently, Global Justice Now’s youth subsidies enabled young people like us to take part in this conference and make our concerns heard. The Summer University added to our understanding of how important diversity in social movements is. It made us consider and discuss ways in which our activism can be more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

How To Move Forward

Despite our criticism of the lack of diversity and accessibility at the Attac Summer University, the conference did give us a chance to make connections with people and discuss social and political issues we would not really be able to address anywhere else. We gained knowledge about pressing political issues, resistance techniques and met like-minded people. Spending time with a motivated group of young activists gave us new strength. We thought of new protest ideas and creative campaigns for the future - locally, nationally or possibly with international allies. The European Summer University showed us a space of activists that we can be critical of and still benefit from for future actions.

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