ASEF has launched a new chapter of their YLS4 on Tuesday, 23 February 2021. YLS4 is a ten month-long learning programme and gathers over 200 participants from across 51 Asia and Europe countries. During my conversation with Leonie Nagarajan, Director Education Department of ASEF, I had the chance to learn more about the project and explored topics from the initial plans to the goal of this grandiose project.
Leonie Nagarajan, Director Education Department of ASEF
Ms Leonie, during the opening session, you mentioned that the previous three ASEFYLS were different compared to this 4th edition. Could you please explain briefly why and how ASEFYLS is different this year?
Due to the pandemic, the 4th edition of ASEFYLS is taking place online and is therefore completely different from the previous three editions. The first ASEFYLS was a typical face-to-face meeting and we organised it next to the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Luxembourg in 2015. The youth conference itself lasted for three to four days with lots of debates and discussions. And by the end of the summit, we held a Call for Action.
We continued a similar edition in South Korea on the side of the Economic Ministers’ Meeting in September 2017. For the third edition in Brussels in October 2018, we wanted to engage young people not only theoretically but also in practice. In my opinion, if you are a leader, it is not only about sharing your vision, but you also need to lead, guide and demonstrate that you are pulling something through. Another big change from the past three editions is that it is not a single event but a 10-month long leadership journey. There are a number of phases, which became part of this journey, these are knowledge building, network creation, and the Leadership in Action projects.
It is supposed to be a transformative process, and transformation only takes place when you get inspired. Only then you are able to test, implement, and grow throughout the process. In this regard, it is an experiment, currently, because we are matchmaking the participants with one navigator on Leadership in Action projects.
Do you think that the pandemic became a challenge for ASEF in organising this project? Or on the contrary, is it an opportunity for ASEF to innovate?
The original plan was very different. Initially, we wanted to focus on leadership and technology, because during the previous edition in Brussels, we addressed the topic of ethical leadership and one area of it was leadership and technology.
That was the original plan. Then, after Covid kicked-in, we needed to make changes. We wanted to create a programme where we talk about issues relatively close to the pandemic, but also a programme that looks beyond the pandemic itself. That is why we focus on sustainable development. To help with the project, we collaborated with College of Europe in Natolin (CoEN), who has played an essential part of the organisation since the 3rd youth leader summit and Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to work on an ASEM Youth report and youth opportunities in Asia and Europe. We felt that their philosophy of what does leadership mean is very similar to ours–it is a process and social interaction.
The pandemic gave us the opportunity to completely transform the project. Certainly, we have considered the threats and risks of this programme, since we need young people to be committed for 10-month. We have close to 200 participants–a number of participants, which in face-to-face meetings we would not have been able to engaged. The main reason is that we are not able to fund as many participants to come together to meet in person. The challenge we are having right now, with 200 participants, is to keep them working and coming together as a group.
Furthermore, for the participants, obviously there are many ups and downs. These may be linked to personal or professional commitments outside the programme. If you are committing to a total of 3 to 4 days to an activity, you can control it. If you stay committed for 10 months to one cause that is a very different level of commitment, especially when it is virtual. We have to decipher online what is happening; we are looking for an intercultural activity but the screen does not allow for this kind of intercultural exchange the same way face-to-face meetings do.
In short, the whole methodology changed, and Covid in a way was an opportunity for us, as we developed a project in a new format.
The programme has attracted 202 participants from 51 countries. Even more interesting is the ratio of participants, which is quite balanced with around 55% female and 45% male participants, coming from diverse backgrounds. What role does inclusion play?
Statistically on the paper, it is always nice to say that you have 55% female and 45% male participants coming from 51 countries and each representing their respective country. But what is actually behind that number? Just because you have people from 51 countries does not mean that everybody has the possibility to speak up. During this edition we have two alumni and they are both youth representatives who identify themselves with disabilities and we are working and consulting both of them to evaluate how inclusive our project is.
When you talk about inclusion there are certain areas, thanks to the current discourse, immediately coming to your mind, for instance gender equity and inclusion of people with disabilities. But we also need to think about the inclusion of social economic backgrounds, different levels of education, and location. Since we also have participants coming from rural areas with difficulties to access the internet, we always ask ourselves, how do we engage these participants? In the upcoming months we would like to make a survey and find out the participants accessibility and what we need to improve over the next month, not only during the Knowledge Building phase but also during the Leadership in Action project, to ensure that everybody has the same opportunity.
I would like to take this opportunity to share my perspective on connectivity since you just touched on the issue. I have also witnessed that some participants have connectivity issues, which may decrease their motivation to participate in the online meetings. However, as you said, it is essential to ask these participants how one can assist them to follow the discussions. I have met with some participants with special needs that require assistance so that they can follow the remaining programme. How does ASEF try to facilitate participants with special needs?
We need to realise that there is no one size fits all approach. Everybody has their different needs, competencies, skills, and backgrounds, which we have to acknowledge and understand. There are also different forms of and ways to assist participants. For example, if you have somebody who is more introvert and who needs more encouragement to speak up, it does not necessarily come from the ASEF team, but from the person’s group and the moderator or facilitator of the session. It is all about finding out how the group is supporting each other and that is the part of the journey as well.
This is why we need to support each other, some things can be done by ASEF, but some also depend on the overall group and how we create an atmosphere in which we feel comfortable to speak and ask for support. And then there is the empathy of the others to understand and to step in and help.
Right after the summit we will have what ASEF calls the Leadership in Action project. During this phase, participants which have been divided into 15 groups would showcase their leadership skills and SDG project implementation in the society. What do you expect from the participants during this phase?
We have 15 different Leadership in Action activities ranging from fully virtual activities, in a real sense of creating a podcast, to activities that take place in local communities. For instance, we have some activities which tackle female health hygiene and sexual education.
From our participants we firstly expect that they support the navigators to sail the ship. The participants are basically like the crew members of the ship to ensure that the project sets sail successfully. Each of them has different tasks. There might be people who have strong communication skills, but on the other side, there might be people who are strong in content building. Others may help setting the path for the ‘ship’.
Each of the participants has to identify their respective competencies and skills in the particular leadership in action activity and then contribute with this particular skill for the success of the project. It is the role of the navigators to discuss and identify what these skills are and then it is a matter of time commitment and enthusiasm of the team to make the project happen. Over six months participants will be working with people outside their own country who they have never met in person. We hope that one point of the project they become friends.
As you have stated earlier, the online meetings allow ASEF to invite more participants to the project. Could you see this project format repeating itself in the future?
We cannot foresee the future. Perhaps in the future there will be a more hybrid event. However, we definitely want to go back to having physical and face-to-face meetings, where we can interact and feel the excitement of young people across the ASEM region. The online event opened our eyes that we can reach more people, and in the future, we need to try to find opportunities to make the project more accessible, even though we know that we cannot gather the same number of participants as today for on-site meeting. I think this would be our next task in future, to incorporate measurements to enhance accessibility, rather than only going back to face-to-face meeting.
Do you have a last message that you would like to share to the ASEFYLS4 participants?
Firstly, I would like to say a thank you, because this project is obviously only possible when you have people who give you their trust and believe in the project. Secondly, we need you to implement the activities, because this project is empty without such implementation. We are providing the materials for “the house” and we give it a structure but the participants need to decorate and furnish the “house”. They basically make it cosy. There is the saying ‘you can bring the horse to the water but you cannot convince the horse to drink’. By the end we have 200 people here on board and we can offer opportunities but whether or not the you take it is up to you. Similarly, how much you use the opportunities is in your hands. You can use it differently, as an organiser that is something we have to understand, but obviously it is difficult as well. We want everybody to participate in every session and do their activities and tasks, but there are reasons why people are less or more committed. This is a journey, and in a journey, there are moments where you are running faster and slower depending on your energy. So, the message from us is just to keep on going in this worthwhile journey and understand that there are different learning opportunities and all of you will learn in very different ways. Take out what you need for yourself for the next path. We are here, giving you the raw materials. You are the one who ought to shape it.