IF I CAN DO THIS, I CAN DO SO MUCH MORE
“It was the best adventure of this year,” is said in an evaluation form by one participant, and I can ‘ring the bell of my bike’ in agreement. Implementing this youth exchange project “Youth For #LessWaste” was one of the biggest challenges and adventures of my life. From the outside this can look just like a 240 km cycling trip for a week on the topic of reducing waste. But in reality the project was going for a year, and the entire ‘mechanism’ of the project was and continues to be much more. And with inertia it continues to roll in memories of participants and in increased competences, and in great tangible results.
I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike (see more)
The practical implementation of the idea – to cycle from Olaine to Liepāja (Latvia) – was born during a conversation among two friends. To cycle from the place where they lived and met to a place where one of them lives now. Step by step this idea grew into an international project. We understood how cool and valuable it would be together with others, we wanted to challenge ourselves even more, we wanted to learn more about reducing waste as a topic important to us. My motivation was also “coloured” by the wish to change the stereotype – that youth exchanges are mostly partying and participants are only “consuming” the content. We wanted to ensure quality – to encourage the involvement and responsibility of participants and to ensure a challenging learning opportunity.
The idea was grown and generated in different trainings – during the international training of #Europeers in Liverpool and also in a local training for writing youth exchanges. During time the idea grew, we tried keeping the questions – why are we doing this? How could we do this even better? These questions kept guiding us all throughout the project.
As a result after countless Zoom meetings, Messenger and WhatsApp chats, research, calls, agreements, evenings full of lemonade and writing desperation the project was created and submitted on 30 April 2019, a few minutes before the deadline. In July, when we had forgotten about it a bit, we got the message that it was approved. Mixed between victory dances and huge worry, we were in the beginning of a new road – to implement this challenge!
What is ‘Youth For #LessWaste’?
The aims of the project were:
- To improve personal and organisational competences of participants (self-confidence, orientation, physical skills, organising events, communication etc.)
- To learn more about reducing waste and spread the message about it.
To achieve these aims and the personal aims of every participant, various activities were implemented throughout the project – the preparation process was very important, during which participants learned how to technically implement such a challenging project, they were preparing for different risks, they were preparing the content and the physical and moral challenge. The youth exchange itself was 8 days – during that we cycled from Olaine to Liepāja, sleeping in Olaine, Aizupe secondary school, Jaunpils, Saldus, Skrunda, Aizpute, Liepāja. During the cycling trip we learned to be responsible for ourselves and each other, to be with ourselves, we learned rules, the technical aspects of bikes, and challenged ourselves physically. Outside the cycling participants led morning exercises, organised breakfast, led previously prepared ‘Present & Discuss’ talks regarding situations in Food, Energy, Water, Packaging, Electronics, and Fashion. Participants also organised different workshops during the ‘Open Space’ and two public events – in Aizpute and Liepāja.
NO to waste
To refuse, to reduce, to recycle. To reduce waste was not only one of the topics of the project, but also a general principle of work. Before the exchange we collected cardboard packaging for writing, we tried talking with food companies about communal bowls, while preparing results we thought – will they be recyclable? When writing the project we emphasized that we want to look at reducing waste, but during the project we learned a lot about sorting as well, also through making mistakes.
A usual thought with such a cycling trip would be to have a car that would be with us all during the trip – to bring our belongings and to help with difficulties. But it wouldn’t fit the principle – to challenge yourself, to be responsible for yourself and others. Therefore it meant to arrange 8 accommodations during the trip in Latvian countryside (which turned out to be very diverse), to go through the road with Google ‘yellow person’ and with a car before the trip to understand the road, to prepare for the risks – participants prepared lists of bicycle workshops, medical institutions and municipalities during the road. It also meant bringing all the necessary stuff with us – to think about what we actually need, to help each other, to learn to pack every day, to deal with the available resources.
A very important aspect in reducing waste is food, so both to increase the involvement, and to ensure conscious choices, for every meal we offered meat, vegetarian and vegan options. We talked about the impact of the animal industry, discussed the daily choices, through mistakes of having several plates full by the end of the meal we learned how much food we actually need.
“All my life I was confident that I would not give up meat. Participation in this project showed that active lifestyle is possible without meat! The change in my diet also brought back enthusiasm to prepare meals and to try out something new,” says Edgars, who during the exchange experimented many times, choosing also vegan food.
Of course, it is difficult to arrange quality food options and a choice for every meal, to reduce waste for stationery, to arrange accommodation for the whole road and other aspects. But it made us think how much we actually need and how our actions can influence people around us and the environment in general. It also helped us to implement one of the aims of our project – to learn how to organise projects and events, already on the next level.
To do things together and to learn from each other
Inspired by the format of the youth exchange and principles of non-formal learning, we continuously learned what it means – to work together, to learn from each other. Both among partner organisations and between participants and leaders we learned how to break down “barriers”, how to make transparent decisions together, we were continuously searching for ways to involve participants all throughout the project. It was probably the most difficult during this project. When submitting the project we didn’t have all participants and by the end of the project even the involved participants weren’t interested anymore / it wasn’t their priority. For people who were not experienced in Erasmus+ and non-formal learning it might have been something new and unexpected, while those who had experienced youth exchange before most likely had this stereotype where participants’ only task is to prepare for the cultural evening. We continuously searched for ways to share responsibility, to increase the responsibility of participants themselves, to involve participants also after the exchange and during writing the report, (we searched for ways) to keep the feeling that this is our common learning adventure.
The brightest example that is left in mind is the organisation of our final event. Before the exchange we had arranged the place of the event, had an approximate programme to be able to write it in the project and to be able to reserve this place a poster was also created. Participants had some of this information available on a Facebook group but they were not involved qualitatively. Encountering problems with the location, we had a choice – to continue what we started or to create an entirely new event, ensuring complete involvement of participants? After transparently sharing the situation and discussions on the side of the road, we got to a decision in favour of the latter – in the end the event was 100% created by participants’ ideas and their work during the exchange.
We made a lot of mistakes, very often we reached desperation and had the feeling “who needs this”. But we tried to hold on to this principle and to continue working “in conscience”. It is clear that it is impossible to ensure high-quality involvement of participants during one project, but we encourage everyone who is implementing a youth exchange (and essentially any non-formal learning project) – to search for ways of involvement!
If I can do this…
When planning the learning aims and “colour” of the project, we wrote the cheesy phrase “if I can do this, I can do much more” in the project application. The thought behind it was that the big distance and various challenges during the project could boost self-confidence of participants and the feeling that they can do a lot. I was super surprised to see in real life how much this seemingly trivial phrase was actually working. From a quiet person with different challenges being able to discuss politics on the side of the road, from people who don’t go more than 10km daily to people who can cycle all 240, tears of joy passing the Liepāja sign and to think “it wasn’t actually that crazy” – I believe that this “journey” for participants in themselves and their abilities was one of the most valuable outcomes.
Not only the big aims, the learning outcomes, the growth of participants and work on the tangible results have stayed in my mind, but also small moments that can be put like pictures in an album and taken out sometimes to remind myself “wow, we did it”. In my “photo collection” is the view of 20 people talking in different languages and trying to get out of the train in my hometown with bikes, autumn leaves and clear mind, cycling alone somewhere in the countryside with strong wind from the side, an exciting team building task full of symbols where we gave instructions through walkie talkie, other group leaders going out in the middle of the night to search for a branch to attach the project’s flag to a bike. In my collection of memories is also a panic attack on the side of the road and a feeling of ‘I can’t anymore’. But I could.
Potholes in the road…
We came across a number of ‘potholes’ (well- mistakes + things we couldn’t really control) – four participants left our exchange on the second day, we couldn’t involve participants in all phases of the projects, we didn’t entirely count how different cycling abilities can be. But we are learning from these mistakes as well and we are not only tired but also full of determination to use this project as an example in the future – to follow the experiments we did there, to doubt the conventional principles, to encourage involvement, to continue trying reducing waste,
Our Roadmap to a Youth Exchange
The things we worked on the project can be read and seen on our social networks Facebook and Instagram #YouthForLessWaste, and we have also created “a roadmap” – a compilation of our experience, experiments and suggestions “A Roadmap to a Youth Exchange” that is available to everyone interested for free downloading ej.uz/Roadmap_YFLW.
We are thankful to “Erasmus+: Youth in Action” and to the Agency for International Programs for Youth in Latvia for inspiration and support. We are also thankful to every participant, organisation and everyone (including Europeers UK) who supported and helped us during this learning experience.
We are inviting everyone to try out to implement a youth exchange, to encourage youth involvement, to experiment, to learn in process and to encourage yourself!