25 June 2007

Big Change, Little Country

Home to both the Battle of Waterloo and the Battle of the Bulge, Belgium – despite it’s small size – has played host to the front lines of two World Wars as well as the collapse of Napoleon’s Empire (though that is ironically fitting, as Napoleon was small and so is Belgium). Despite all this “bad,” there’s still quite a bit of “good” coming out the Belgians, especially in the department of social change. With Ashoka launching soon and Youth Venture to follow, I had the opportunity to visit with two teams whose big ideas seem to be busting out of their small country.

The first was Transmission ASBL and their annual conference, flash2006. Olivier Gaillard has developed a program for youth to come together once a year where they can learn about the private sector, the public sector and the citizen sector in an environment that allows for instant clarification and understanding of how the three elements work together. The initiative also aims to define what their role is as young people within the system. While Olivier offers the overall vision, the event is entirely youth-led, youth-planned and youth-run. Flash2006’s reach is impressive, touching thousands of youth from dozens of schools. The conference lasts several days, with participants traversing through different “zones” that deal with everything from how to identify social problems and find solutions, to understanding what it means to be an active citizen in a political context. The whole thing closes with a huge blowout concert by one of Belgium’s top rock bands. Definitely a “big” idea!

I also met with Marc & Severine from Amasis, a youth organization that hosts an annual competition for young people to come up with social projects aimed at solving systemic social problems (sound familiar?). The idea is to spur innovation within young people by encouraging them to think critically about their communities and the unique problems they face. Marc and Severine offer up to $10,000 in funding for the top team, with amounts decreasing for the runners-up. New this year, the winning team leaders will also receive two tickets to the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, all expenses paid. Now this is a big deal, and definitely a motivator. Tickets to this event or both exclusive and next to impossible to get. “I must admit, I had a long-time connection,” Marc told me. Hey, whatever it takes!

Christelle (the Director of Youth Venture France) and I talked with them about possibly working to fill the gap in funding within the organization. That is, not every team is guaranteed money to pursue their project (it’s just not in Abasis’ budget), which could discourage these young people from continuing on with their work. By offering some start-up funds to every team that participates we can encourage them to “keep on truckin’” when it comes to social change. That’s definitely the theme here in Belgium – constantly pushing forward no matter what the odds of success may be. It’s in their history. It defines their country. Well, that and the most delicious waffles and chocolate in the World.

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