By Anne Sophie Winkelmann
International youth meetings bring together young people who grew up in different countries. They are excited to meet other young people, to enjoy their time together, and to reflect about things relating to themselves and the world.
An international youth meeting is a special opportunity to experience that some of the things which the young people experience as normal in their daily lives (e.g. how people treat each other in their families, or how relationships work) can be very different for other people.
It's often assumed that at international youth meetings, young people should primarily be learning about different ways of life in different countries, so they can get along better with each other and in the world. The emphasis is then placed — often unintentionally and without realizing it — on "establishing" cultural and national difference. From a diversity-conscious perspective, that is an oversimplification and is indeed problematic.
Diversity-conscious means acknowledging multidimensional identities
From a diversity-conscious perspective, what young people at international meetings should really be learning is that people in one country are not all the same. People are not only influenced by what is considered "normal" in their societies, but also, for example, by what is expected of them as men or women, or by what it means for a person to come from a poor family or to live in a very small village. At this level, diversity means multidimensionality: each person is diverse and unique.
Diversity-conscious education aims to empower young people to navigate difference and complexity. This also means being able to sense and cope with feelings of uncertainty; to identify the mechanisms behind that; to be able to discuss different expectations and ways of understanding and then to find compromises.
Diversity conscious means anti-discrimination
Diversity-conscious educational work empowers young people to understand that it is problematic to put people in pigeonholes (e.g. all people from one country, or all women, or all rich people) and then judge and treat them in a certain way. It questions "normal" and "different" and creates space to reflect on the issue of discrimination in relation to the young people’s own experiences and issues.
Diversity-conscious education invites us to go on a research expedition, to examine how prejudices and discrimination function, and to recognize our own involvement. It encourages us to reflect on whether we might be benefiting from stereotyped thinking that is limiting and hurting other people. It allows us to realize how easily it is to position oneself as being on the "right side," the "good side," by devaluing the "other," and how simply justifications are made for injustice, thus rendering it invisible. It also brings into focus the power structures and the privileges connected with identities and their positions in society. It also encourages us to look through a "structural lens" and to critically examine laws and discourse (media or otherwise) in the context of discrimination. However, diversity-conscious education doesn’t stop at reflection. It creates space for collaboratively discussing what each of us can do in our daily lives, as well as in the big picture, against discrimination and for more equal opportunity and "freedom." Diversity-conscious means, in this case, critical self-reflection and taking action against all forms of discrimination.
Anti-discrimination as an integral purpose
Over the last two decades, the fundamental concept of diversity-conscious education described here has significantly changed the theory and practice of international youth work. Ongoing critical reflection on the aspects of "classic" intercultural learning has increased awareness of the opportunities, but also the potential pitfalls, in international youth work. Anti-discrimination has increasingly become an integral purpose of this field of work.
Diversity-conscious education is based on a broadly-defined, multidimensional understanding of discrimination, which involves myriad lines of difference (for example body size, sex, clothing, social or national background, or age...) and always considers their intersections with each other and their concurrent degrees of impact. In academic theory, this concept is discussed using the term intersectionality (see Leiprecht 2008), which assumes that while different forms of discrimination may have differ in their degree of impact and their social and historical dimensions, similarities may be found in their mechanisms and the ways they function. Accordingly, at youth meetings, each specific example can be a "doorway" to considering how discrimination functions in general, and then working together in solidarity to explore and oppose it. In the process, participants examine not only interpersonal dimensions but also institutional and structural discrimination.
A diversity-conscious attitude
One particular challenge for facilitators of diversity-conscious learning processes is to continually draw connections between the specific experiences and reflections of the group; social and structural situations and injustices; and the daily life and actions of the young people. This requires an empathetic, empowering attitude, which allows reflection beyond "right" and "wrong," and dispenses with one-dimensional ideas of "victim" and "perpetrator."
In fact, effective facilitation of diversity-conscious learning processes depends primarily on the educational facilitator’s attitude towards the process of critically questioning stereotypes, power structures, and discrimination, as well as appropriate self-reflection, which must continually evolve.
It helps to reflect on our own practice and role on a regular basis — ideally, while looking forward to a journey of discovery, with the assurance of knowing that children, young people and adults who, in their questions and actions, are also striving for change, will be our travelling companions.
Can I recognize and reflect on my own "pigeonholes" and perceptions of norms/normality?
Am I able to open up about myself and my own learning processes and uncertainties?
Are there situations in which my well-intended explanations or lack of reaction may be contributing to reinforcement of one-dimensional or discriminatory perspectives?
Can I sense when a follow-up question could lead to a deeper and more interesting discussion? Do I have a feeling for when issues that are personally significant for the group are being touched upon?
In terms of the concepts and how to implement them in practice, some possible questions include:
Are we able to avoid generalizations, labels and stereotypes?
Do we explicitly address the problematic nature of "culturalizing" and producing/reproducing cultural differences?
Are we paying attention to racism and other forms of discrimination?
Are we creating space for participants to share their experiences with stereotyping and discrimination?
Are individuals, each with a different multidimensional, subjective identity, visible?
Are examples of social and structural inequality identified and questioned?
Are we strengthening constructive reactions to uncertainty and complexity?
Additional questions and more extensive explanations of the theory behind them and the myriad aspects of the diversity-conscious approach, as well as a series of educational methods, can be found in the practical guide "more than culture. Diversity-conscious education in international youth work," published in German and thereafter in English.