Youth in Spain find their sustainable development voice

01 August 2018

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© Generalitat de Catalunya

An international conference bringing youth from Spain in contact with their global peers has its roots firmly in local community and school action.

The International Youth Conference (CONFINT) is a global participation process which connects up youth from countries all over the world to talk, share and decide on how best to take action to improve the planet.

The event, the first of which was held in Brazil in 2010, aims not only to promote the international exchange of experiences but to allow the greatest number possible of youth, teachers and communities to become locally involved in a real commitment to the planet.

Joint Coordinator Paula Perez said: “For the first-ever conference Spain had participants from Galicia, the Basque Country and Canaries among other autonomous regions and it was a huge success. Everyone knew that it was something that had to be repeated.”

CONFINT is built on four pillars: the concept of responsibility for young change-makers in society, youth electing youth as delegates, youth educating youth on the issues, with the help of young facilitators, and one generation learning from another to close any information gaps. It aims not only to bring about cross-cultural dialogue but also to give young people an understanding of how public institutions work and can be used to bring about change.

The event is the culmination of several levels of engagement and action and is part of the work of the Sustainable Schools Network (“Escuelas Sostenible en Red”, ESenRED).

The network, under the motto ‘Let’s care for the planet’ aims to bring together environmental and educational departments of public administrations which manage, encourage and coordinate environmental programmes in order to integrate Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in primary and secondary schools.

It is now present in 13 of the 17 Spanish autonomous regions, which is in 2,600 schools, reaching 55,000 teachers and almost one million students and its activities include organizing Youth Meetings, National Youth Conferences, European Youth Conferences, a Symposium for Teachers and a European project and community for teachers on eTwinning.

The process leading to CONFINT begins at secondary school level where children are helped to undertake an assessment of local sustainability problems in their village or town.

“They then decide what they will focus on, which can be as varied as a way to improve mobility access for disabled people or the best way to improve a piece of wasteland,” said Paula. “From there they set about how to change that by dealing with the local administration. All along the way we encourage as much communication with their families and local officials so everyone feels truly involved.”

Once a year a conference is held at autonomous community level. In 2017, the event was held in Catalonia.

“Even in Catalonia this has led to many interesting exchanges,” said Paula. “The South, for example, may not have been aware that in the North there was problems with a particular invasive plant and in the other direction, they learned about a particular type of snail destroying fruit. Together they worked to come up with shared solutions. The level of motivation was very high because the youth were truly protagonists.”

This was followed by a state level conference where children were chosen to represent their community.

“For 3 days youth from all over Spain and their teachers met to display their work. The role of the teacher here is crucial not only for original motivation but then to step back and let the children lead,” she said. “They came up with new vibrant ways of communicating about sustainability including flash mobs and a rap video.”

Looking ahead Paula says the main goal is to further consolidate and incrementally increase the number of centres in Spain and the number of countries in Europe taking part in the conference.

“This presents its own challenges as some countries have very few centres and levels of funding vary dramatically. We are supported by the state in Spain but for others funding is precarious,” she said.

Now participants are gearing up for the next international conference which will be held in May in Lisbon but ultimately Paula would like to see a global conference.

“We are not there yet but that would be a natural progression and long-term aid,” she said. “We want the best of both worlds; ideally to achieve worldwide participation without ever losing sight of the local implications of such work. One of the most satisfying aspects is that once youth are hooked they really stay with the ideas into adulthood and beyond. This is very inspiring for younger people just becoming aware of these ideas.”

The International Youth Conference (CONFINT) was nominated for the UNESCO-Japan Prize on ESD in 2017.