Discrimination and marginalization as topics of international project work – or: What do youth exchange projects accomplish?

The authors head the funding program EUROPEANS FOR PEACE of the German "Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (EVZ).

By Judith Blum and Corinna Jentzsch

"Don’t give discrimination a chance!" is printed in bright colors on a poster at a comprehensive school. Paul asks what discrimination means. "Marginalized and disadvantaged?! We don’t have that here," the seventeen-year-old answers with confidence. Maria, two years his junior, is bored: "Why should I care?" The scenario is not unrealistic for a German schoolyard.

But, in fact, discrimination and exclusion are part of everyday life! A Muslim is not invited to a birthday party, or a woman is not invited to a job interview because her name sounds foreign. And it can happen to anyone. Everybody can be subjected to discrimination and treated unfairly, even if it’s illegal. You don’t have to belong to a religious or ethnic minority to know what it's like! Kids are still teased about being overweight, for example, and are shut out because of it.

Examples such as these reveal two important aspects of discrimination: First of all, it doesn’t matter whether a neighbor really is a Muslim or the woman applying for a job is really a foreigner. Labeling is already a form of discrimination, especially if it leads to unfair treatment, consciously or unconsciously.

Secondly, discrimination is always a social phenomenon. It requires a group – even an entire society – that at least tolerates discrimination. A society, for example, that does not intervene when women are not promoted despite being exceptionally well-qualified. But the gender debate is not the only one where it’s difficult to determine which discriminatory actions constitute an unlawful disadvantage. The difficult question to answer, put generally, is: Is every disadvantage to which we are subjected discrimination?

It is, however, obvious that discrimination is not only a thing of the present but has a long history. Under National Socialism, the systematic discrimination against minority groups and deprivation of rights led to genocide: Marginalization was the first step, leading to abolishing of human rights, exploitation, forcing people to migrate or displacing them and ultimately leading to the barbaric extermination of human life. 

Discrimination is illegal – human rights can be enforced 

Acceptance of discrimination is also an expression of the spirit of the times. Thus discrimination sometimes seems normal: The fact that pupils in wheelchairs have no access to the assembly hall does not worry school communities, because this has always been the case. But it may well be discrimination! And it is not only morally untenable – it is against the law! Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948, states: "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs..."

European and German laws make this requirement an enforceable right. Many measures are designed to help prevent discrimination. But we will only succeed in this goal when equal treatment becomes ingrained as a basic value; when we step out personally for human rights as a matter of course and when everybody has the opportunity to participate in society. When incorporation of this lesson is considered essential to becoming an adult. That is why the topic of marginalization should interest the youth of today. That is why adults should sensitize teenagers about discrimination.

Discrimination as a topic in international youth work

When done successfully, youth exchange and teenagers participating in mutual project work on the subject of discrimination achieve exceptional results. They increase awareness of social and individual integration rights and foster intercultural competence. They reduce the likelihood that youth will question the basic rights of individual groups. They help prevent prejudices and conflicts from becoming established within social structures and help imbue the spirit of the times with views that affirm the worth of freedom and diversity. At best, teenagers learn to question prejudices and stereotypes, to investigate the leeway for action and to develop an awareness of legal tools, organizations and people who can help them defend human rights and human dignity.

Through this project work, participants ask questions that concern them personally, are relevant within their circles and pertain to society: Whom do I know who suffers from discrimination? And why does this happen? With the answers to their questions, these teenagers can develop countermeasures, gain practice in adapting their own reactions and teach others.

No open society would wish such current issues on itself: racism, anti-Semitism, antiziganism and homophobia are only a few examples. International exchange projects encourage today’s youth to recognize discrimination is in their immediate environment and to examine the excuses used for vilifying persons as "alien," be it their origins, the color of their skin, their ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, physical or mental abilities, gender or sexual orientation. 

The points of departure and reference for the work in transnational projects may also be historical events. By scrutinizing the history of National Socialism and World War II in Europe, teenagers look into the causes, mechanisms and consequences of marginalization that led to systematic mass murder. Through projects involving youth exchange, they adopt the perspectives of the participating countries. They can also investigate the possibility of helping people who are marginalized or persecuted, basing their projects on biographical material and real events. They can "learn from history" and choose their own best line of action.

The benefit of youth exchange for project work lies in the special learning space: Participants learn outside of a normal school environment. Adopting the role of a guest or a host, working with people who are initially strangers and dealing with language barriers shakes them out of the complacency of their normal lives. Often these teenagers question their own prejudices for the first time; they ask why privileges and disadvantages or handicaps should be simply accepted; and they reflect on how they see themselves and others. In this way, the journey becomes a social and an emotional experience.

After participating in such a youth-exchange program, Paul has grown more conscious of the fact that discrimination also impacts his world. His classmate Maria has become aware of the counter-strategies at her disposal and knows that everyone can shoulder a responsibility. And both of them know how to answer classmates who dismissively ask: "Discrimination – why should I care?"

The funding program EUROPEANS FOR PEACE

For the above reasons, the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibiliy and Future" (EVZ) wishes to encourage thematically focused international youth exchange with the funding program EUROPEANS FOR PEACE. Since 2005, it has funded such projects for teenagers from Germany and the countries of Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe as well as Israel. In an international partnership, schools or non-school educational organizations can annually apply for funding for a mutual project proposal. In our call for proposals – "Discrimination: Watch out! Projects on exclusion now – and then" – we are open to applications for international projects that address the problem either from a historical perspective or concentrate on current issues. Proposals should link education about history with learning about the current state of human rights. 

The next call for proposals will be released in June 2015.  

We wish to thank all the authors for their inspiring contributions to the latest issue of the journal Lernen aus der Geschichte (Learning from history). 


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