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For Daniela Hälg, co-organizer of the conference and Chief Executive of the umbrella association of youth exchange organizations Intermundo, the project was a resounding success. It is gratifying to note that some of the ideas generated during the conference are still being pursued today.
Major organizational exercise
It was an idea that had been bandied around at Intermundo for a long time – organizing an international conference at which organizations involved in youth exchanges could meet each other. But the idea only really took shape when Daniela Hälg joined Intermundo in 2010. They got together with SAJV, the umbrella organization for extra-curricular youth work, and started to organize the event. "It was an awful lot of work," explains Hälg, looking back. Preparations were underway more than a year before the conference eventually took place. But Hälg is convinced that the work was worthwhile. "You come out of a conference like this and are incredibly inspired and full of ideas," she enthuses.
Two-day coffee break
The fact that a huge number of ideas came to light concerning how to boost the social recognition of skills acquired during youth exchanges and voluntary work must surely be due in part to the way in which the conference was run. In Biel/Bienne, there were no highly qualified experts presenting papers, just 120 or so people interested in youth exchanges and voluntary work. They included adults working in this field and also young people who had already been abroad on an exchange visit or who were carrying out voluntary work. The conference was organized in line with the "open space" principle. This concept was developed by Harrison Owen of the United States, and is primarily suited to very large groups of 100 or more. First of all, participants gather ideas in a plenary session, and then discuss and examine them in more depth in smaller groups. Hälg explains that there are just a few rules for "open space" events, such as "Whoever comes, they are the right people". She speaks from experience when she says that "the best ideas sometimes come from people who know absolutely nothing about a subject". The conference was also very loosely structured from a time point of view, with communal meals forming the only fixed points in the daily proceedings. "The atmosphere at an 'open space' conference should be like one huge coffee break, since that's where the most interesting things are discussed, and people enjoy attending."
Royal visit – almost
And in fact people did enjoy going to Biel/Bienne for those two days at the end of October. The whole of Europe was represented, and because there was a meeting of different cultures and viewpoints, discussions were more fruitful and the ideas that took shape were more diverse. "We even had a prince from Africa who registered for the event," laughs Hälg. Unfortunately he didn't actually attend, but even without the presence of any blue blood, people were further forward at the end of the conference than they were at the beginning, when the only thing that was known was the somewhat abstract top-level subject of "Increasing the recognition of youth exchanges and voluntary work". Intermundo and SAJV are today still supporting a project intended to help young people to reflect on issues, while other conference participants are implementing their ideas themselves. "The first step towards greater social recognition is for young people themselves to become aware of what they have already achieved and what they have learned as a result of a youth exchange or voluntary work." Intermundo and SAJV have limited financial resources, and can therefore only support one project. But Daniela Hälg stresses that the ideas that took form during the conference were really remarkable, and that hopefully youth exchanges and voluntary work will soon gain greater recognition.