Young leaders are having an impact in their community after a one-week summer school hosted by Democracy Reporting International Ukraine.
By Amanda Siddharta
Chatters of excitement were heard in the well-decorated conference room at a hotel in Odesa, Ukraine. The room was full of different groups of well-dressed participants in their early twenties. They were introducing themselves to one another. It was early in the morning, but Sophia Podkolzina was excited on the first day of a fully packed week and eagerly waited for the event to start.
The 22-year-old was one of the participants in a one-week summer training programme “Youth school in politics”, held by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) Ukraine in cooperation with Vostok SOS. Sophia was one of 67 participants between the age of 18 to 35 that were selected to participate in the course from 5 to 11 July 2021.
Sophia and her peers had the opportunity to learn more about politics in Ukraine in an in-person event, albeit with a strict health protocol. The programme covered both the theoretical and practical side of a topic that most youths in the country are not very involved with. But according to Sophia, things are starting to change for her generation.
“We can see more young people are interested in politics now. They started to wonder about the election, and they want to know what’s going on in their own city or region. They want to be a part of it and they’re starting to understand that they can change something,” she said.
Increasing awareness among youths that they can be involved in politics is one of the main goals of the event. Roman Koval, a representative from DRI Ukraine, said that most people in their late teens or early twenties have a common misconception about politics.
“We always felt that there’s this constant feeling that politics is associated with the highest level of decision-making among Ukrainian youth. Through this programme, what we try to do is explain that their everyday actions, no matter how small, have political elements,” he said.
Roman added that training gave young leaders the tools to become agents of change in their community. “We try to instil the idea that they can change their society, whether it is within their region, town, or city. And that is politics,” he explained.
The programme invited 16 trainers and speakers with different backgrounds to cover a comprehensive module for the students. Roman added that there were not only political scientists and politicians, who shared their knowledge with the participants, but also legal experts and human rights activists.
One of them is Oleksandra Dvoretska, a human rights activist and board member of Vostok SOS, who asserted the importance for the next generation to be exposed to political discussions.
This helps counter the fact, according to Oleksandra, that oftentimes youths are isolated in their own regional bubble and are not exposed to different points of view.
“The fact that the school brings together young people from almost all regions of Ukraine allows the participants to expand the scope of their experience through interregional cooperation,” she said.
“So, it’s a very well-designed summer school covering a broad theme and different aspects of politics. We cover topics like strategic communication in politics as well as how to fight and filter fake news,” added Roman.
The latter topic caught the attention of Ihor Makarov, another participant. The 22-year-old political science student has been focusing his academic interest on disinformation and the post-truth era.
“This is why the module on disinformation was the most interesting for me. The trainers taught us how they uncover disinformation and which policy recommendation can be brought up to improve our state of things,” he said, adding that it is important to balance freedom of speech and preventing individual actors from abusing it.
Drawing inspiration from what he had learned during the one-week youth school, Ihor is currently working on a project to help people in his hometown in Brovary — an eastern suburb of Kyiv — battle disinformation and fake news.
“Where I come from, we have a lot of disinformation going on especially during political campaigns. And people here don’t know how to cope with so many misleading messages on social media. I want to create a small project that can prepare them and give them the tools to counter this,” he said.
Following the success of the event, DRI is planning another "Youth school in politics" programme in September this year.
As for Sophia, her experience prompted her to go back to her hometown in Berdiansk, a coastal town in the south-east of Ukraine, and start a project to monitor the public budget. “I was able to talk to the city administration and created a communication channel between them and the youths,” she said.
“I believe the school has helped me set my path on making changes in my community, and I want to do that on a larger scale in the future. Because if I’m not going to do it, who will?”, she added.