This Essay was developed by Esma Gumberidze for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

From civic to political, or how to make youth voices matter?

Young people are involved in all spheres of life: they intern, work, and volunteer for political parties, universities, media sources, public, private, and non-governmental entities conducting research and surveys, contributing to the society in various forms. However, somehow their ideas and voices tend to be silent, overshadowed by more senior people within the structures they are involved in. In this article, I will discuss the different challenges to youth involvement in both civic and political activism and some ways to make the young people’s voices heard.

The difference and division between civic and political is somewhat artificial. Linguistically, the two words mean the same thing in ancient Greek and Latin respectively. I also think that this division cannot be too strict and that there are grey areas that could be categorized as both.

Sometimes, the term “political action” is substituted with “civic” because political activities are more associated with parties, while parties have lost the trust and respect in many societies including in Georgia. It can also be because engaging in political activities criticizing the government and demanding something can be frightening, risky, and even dangerous in certain societies and/or for certain groups of people.

But sometimes, the reason is that certain people who are unwilling to become politicians, decision-makers, to pursue political careers, establish parties, run for office, enter government, and who are not motivated or do not wish to take so much responsibility or for whom loud political activism is not of great interest, are fooling themselves and each other into believing that by being active in the civil society, through NGO work, they are still engaging politically. However, without becoming decision-makers and elected officials, it is still very hard to scale up the issues commonly important for wider society.

Despite these challenges in drawing a line between “civic” and “political” activities, I would still say that activities that primarily aim to raise awareness, tackle stereotypes and stigma, help beneficiaries, substitute the government in delivering certain services it does not deliver, especially helping on a voluntary basis, are more of civic nature. Activities that are mainly directed at decision-makers, pushing them to make certain changes, are of more political. Thus activities that mainly target citizens, regular people, and the purpose of which is to change people’s minds, empower them etc. are of a civic nature while actions aimed at making the government change are of a political nature.

Based on what has been said above, it is still possible to be politically and civically engaged without joining a political party through petitions addressing the government; by protesting collectively or individually; by discussing political affairs via conventional and non-conventional media; by commencing court proceedings on cases that might set a precedent; by monitoring, investigating, researching, and elaborating recommendations and comments that will be shared with the authorities; by lobbying for existing recommendations to be implemented; by standing as an independent candidate in elections; and other activities that are directed at the authorities.

If we return to the question of youth participation specifically, the most engaged young people seem to be middle-class university students and young professionals, both men and women, living in larger cities; and those who do not have to support themselves entirely and who can rely on support from parents and other family members. Most of them speak foreign languages.

Very few people with disabilities are politically active, especially those under 25, where only a few individuals can be named.

Ethnic minorities are also severely underrepresented in political activism, even in youth/university movements. Those from outside Tbilisi are especially absent, also due to the language barrier. Most of them have difficulties communicating in Georgian, which contributes to their exclusion from public debate. Georgian young people living behind or nearby the occupation line have difficulty engaging politically, as many of them are in danger from separatists. When living in a larger city and given the financial guarantees mentioned above, they seem to be active.

If we talk about the most popular forms and periods of civic/political participation, for many people, political participation equals voting in elections, participating in an election campaign, or actually being in office. Therefore their activity is limited to the election period.

Many young people are not really interested in politics and work for campaigns only because of the financial incentive, sometimes even against their ideological beliefs and stance, unfortunately.

The most visible and common forms of political participation among young people are: protests; lawsuits; voting; observing elections and pre-election periods; social media campaigns; writing blogs/posts on social media; cleanups and tree planting; volunteering; organizing charity concerts, markets, and fund-raisers; organizing public lectures and round-tables through grants provided by international donors; conducting research and designing policy documents with international financial support; and working for NGOs.

Young people are mostly interested in civic engagement, or at least they say they are. That is unless they are family members of politicians or politically active older people, for whom they are doing a favor by joining a party. For some, joining a ruling party might also be a way of guaranteeing their job stability and security, professional advancement, and other aspirations.

Political parties and public institutions are highly discredited among young people. Some young people, especially well-educated ones, consider parties to be too rigid and closed to change, new ideas, or new leadership. There are fears that unlike in the West, where it’s possible to advance to be Prime Minister from just a party volunteer helping during campaigns, collecting signatures, going door-to-door or doing office work, this is impossible in Georgia and they will just be hand-clappers making up the numbers for the rich, influential, powerful, well-established, well-connected, privileged leaders.

There is no hope of advancing your own ideas or yourself within a party if you are young, have a disability, or are a woman without money or connections/social capital. Many say that they can do more good from the NGO, academic, or business sectors.

Most of those who are socially active mention that working in an NGO gives them more freedom to do and say, what they want; the structures there are more democratic; and the working process is more interesting and enjoyable. Even those, who are considering entering politics prefer not to talk about that until they actually join a party, stand for election, or receive an appointment.

When they are appointed, many people do not say that they had always dreamed of entering politics, but that they had been asked to or that they did so as a favour to someone they respected. They say it was not exactly their will, but rather they had to do so against their will. Having political ambitions is somehow considered shameful.

But if we were still to define the youth groups that might potentially be interested in scaling up their activism and work, we could consider young people working for NGOs, involved in informal movements, active in international organizations, young public officials, young people with experience in defending human rights, young academics, those studying abroad (to prevent brain-drain and give opportunities to them here in Georgia).

I have seen young educated people who were previously involved in parties leave them and go abroad for volunteering projects or to start a job in the private sector. Here, I would also have to say that civic and political activists’ communities seem to be very fragmented and separated from one another. I, for instance, do not know many young people engaged in politics/political parties’ youth wings, while, I am sure there are some for the reasons mentioned above. I also have to point out that according to one research paper, up to 75% of young Georgian have never been involved/engaged with any NGO in any way.

Of course, deep and detailed research could have indicated that certain groups of young people are looking to develop different types of skills, or rather, they are looking to improving them to a degree.

Many people with disabilities are interested in learning how to use technology, but there are certain barriers to this. PWDs are also looking to learn how to be more independent in an often inaccessible environment.

Young people from ethnic minority groups often speak of the importance of knowing the state language. But on a more general note, most young people wish to improve their communication skills, such as charismatic and inspirational public speaking, debating, writing, blogging, working with the media, on-line and visual communicational tools (video and audio editing, infographics etc); fund-raising, (both through grant applications/institutional donors and attracting large and small sum sponsors) constructive and effective negotiations with opponents, potential allies, peers and donors; how to network effectively; how to be more persuasive; many value foreign language skills as well; other interpersonal skills needed for formal and informal discussions.

These skills are needed for both civic and political activists, only their purposes are different. When teaching these skills it is important to offer examples and tasks/assignments relevant to their sphere of interests (either civic or political activism).

All of the above skills remain even more relevant for young candidates. In addition, they need to know some techniques to overcome the stereotypes working against them. The stereotypes that exist in society towards young people in general and especially if they belong to a disadvantaged group of any kind (an ethnic or religious minority, a woman, having a disability, being from a socially unprotected background or a remote area, or even having a less-respected appearance). This is a skill, I would really like to learn myself.

They also need to be empowered and psychologically ready to communicate with people with very different values, levels of awareness, interests, backgrounds; to stand potentially heavy criticism, even profanity; to have good listening skills, be very adaptable to new and unexpected situations; and to think fast, readjust, make decisions speedily in critical situations, without getting lost.

The difference from civic activism is that in civic activism, there is a comparatively smaller interest group or theme to promote. In civic activism, it’s possible to know all your potential and real beneficiaries, opponents, allies, donors and their stances, while in a political campaign, it is necessary to focus on many different issues that matter to very diverse interest groups, affecting them in very different ways. A candidate has to be sensitive to all these differences, relate to them, and balance them.

Many of the skills mentioned above can be developed with mutual help and experience sharing, using peer education means. Good team and trust-building among members would be essential for any network or coalition that wants to be influential. I also believe that emotional support and individual mentoring and counseling might be of great value in order to avoid repeating existing training modules.

A network is a loose group of diverse organizations or individuals, who while working and acting from different perspectives and angles still share core values, principles and a broader vision and are willing to coordinate their actions and support each other.

There are more networks focused on civic than on political participation. For civic participation, I can name a few: 1. The Young European Ambassadors’ Network coordinated by the EU Neighbors’ East project of the European Commission; 2. The U.S. Government’s alumni association of Georgia/EPAG program; There are networks of youth organizations/NGOs; There is a loose group called Auditorium #115, which emerged as a leftist student movement in 2016.

Self-coordinated networks such as #115 tend to fall apart and not be sustainable for very long. In other cases, the levels of enthusiasm are higher at the start after which many people tend to drop out. It appears to be challenging to define one’s role in a network.

Otherwise, these networks are good as they have a more or less horizontal nature, are a great platform for discussion, sharing experience, learning about different opportunities for personal and professional growth, as well as to prevent overlapping in activities and amplifying each other’s work.

Networks are great for consolidating people with different skills that might serve as experts in certain cases, as well as for creating a motivating and inspiring environment. They are also good for building compromises and solidarity, tolerance, and acceptance; for compiling human and financial resources; for making young people’s voices heard; for mobilizing people around specific issues; and for building long-term personal connections.

These networks provide continuous activism, even if certain individuals or organizations can no longer participate or be active, for instance for personal reasons. They nurture a replacement culture — when an individual stops being active, another or several others step in.

Georgian society is, indeed, a very individualistic one; working as a team is a challenge for many Georgians. Many political and even civil society leaders develop such a strong sense of ownership towards organizations and movements they fund/start that they cannot transfer their leadership to others. This is one of the reasons many NGOs become passive once their founders move on with their careers, go away for studies, or find other jobs, instead of being replaced by other members of their organizations.

This is something a network can compensate for, by providing rotation and sustainability. When an organization or individual stops being active, they don’t need to be excluded or punished, but rather additional members can be recruited with more enthusiasm. Those that become less active do not harm the network by not being active and can do a lot of good by suddenly reengaging after some time.

In the end, what can young people and movements do to make our voices heard in decision-making? We must start with ourselves first and foremost. We must engage young people from both civil society and the political community — from both the opposition and governing parties —  and try to bring together people from different ideological stances and diverse backgrounds (e.g. people from the regions, young women, people with disabilities, IDPs, and young people from ethnic and religious minorities). It might also be beneficial to have young people from the arts, sports, academia/sciences, and the business and innovation communities. It would be important for them to have a civic/political stance and a genuine interest in political engagement.

Helping young people build and demand democratic, inclusive decision-making within their party, organization, or movement could be unifying and beneficial for young people from all kinds of spheres, including those working in public services. Empowering them, building their capacity, and mentoring them to be advocates for internal organizational democracy, equality, and horizontality would be truly great.

Activities to foster cooperation, constructive dialogue, and a culture of listening among NGOs and political parties (including representatives of the opposition and the ruling party) would be crucial for real change to happen.

Right now, we have a situation in which NGOs are putting their time, efforts, and resources into designing research and policy papers that are not endorsed by public officials and are not considered in actual policy planning. Thus, their time seems to be wasted. Their potential beneficiaries are losing trust in them, as in institutions, of being capable of bringing actual change.

On the other hand, civil activists are very careful in cooperating and engaging in direct dialogue with decision-makers, as they do not want to be seen as “pro-government” or otherwise subjective, not impartial, one-sided, or conformist.