So there I was: slightly disoriented, a little sweaty, and surrounded by thousands of other young people. All of us were listening to a performance of Lukas Graham’s 7 Years. I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. I wasn’t at a concert or in a stuffy nightclub somewhere in London. Instead, I was in Strasbourg, France, enjoying the opening ceremony of the European Youth Event (EYE) 2016.
Just to explain, the EYE is a two-day event held every two years at the European Parliament. Here, young people from all over Europe between the ages of 16 and 30 can voice their opinions and influence policy on issues affecting Europe, ranging from animal welfare to youth unemployment. Boingboing, the social enterprise I work for, was there on the invitation of the Style Project headed by the immensely talented Professor Jackie O’Reilly and Dr Margherita Bussi. Before I say anything else, thank you so much to both of you for organising such a marvellous trip. You really made sure the travel was smooth and were brilliant travel companions throughout our time on foreign soil. We shall have to do it again soon; if you’ll let us Boingboingers gate-crash your trips again!
In coming to this event, all of the Boingboingers were excited to see whether we could bring some of our Resilience Magic to Europe. This was especially important after we re-enacted the plot of Planes, Trains and Automobiles to get to Strasbourg in the first place. May I say on behalf of the whole team that I think everyone showed amazing resilience through the travelling process. A special mention goes to Anne Rathbone, Boingboinger and PhD Student, who had returned from holiday only the day before! Whoops, I’ve digressed.
Over 7,500 young people attended the EYE. It was inspiring and challenging in equal measure. On the one hand, it was really heartening to see so many young people, like myself, who wanted to make a positive difference to Europe by discussing and finding solutions to issues that affect them. In this way, the EYE organisers really sought to embody their slogan of ‘together we can make a change’. On the other hand, trying to get through the crowds and queues to the workshop sessions was quite stressful. This was particularly important for those of us who suffer anxiety stemming from enclosed spaces. It was a bit tricky for me as well, but given that I’m a wheelchair user I was able to use the fast track and avoid the queues. I just wish that security staff had been far more understanding with those of us who have hidden needs, like learning disabilities or mental health challenges. Anyway, nobody ever said that getting into European politics was easy. I just didn’t expect it to be this tricky. Luckily for me and fellow Boingboinger Lisa Buttery, our very own Professor Angie Hart and Margherita Bussi were our saviours. They convinced security to let us through with humour and a few quick French words. They truly were multilingual superheroes. It reminded me that ‘Having a Laugh’ is a key part of being resilient.
The next challenge began when we entered the main workshop building; the LOW building. It’s a labyrinth of different rooms that don’t necessarily go in numerical order. Again, I like to think that the building was built to be a representation of European politics – full of unexpected twists and turns, but a great opportunity for cross-cultural bonding. I struggled to find my workshop room and ran into a girl from Estonia in a similar situation to me. As we searched in vain for our respective workshops, we spoke about all manner of things. So, I guess the EYE really did achieve its aim of bringing people from different communities together!
Having succeeded in making it to a workshop on young entrepreneurs and business ideas, Lisa and I were quick to pitch the ‘Boingboing way’ of promoting tools, services and equality-based practices to help the most disadvantaged children and young people to be more resilient. We made the point that this ethos and practice should be embedded in all European organisations. Personally, I think this idea went over quite well with the rest of the workshop participants. We also talked about making it easier for office staff to work from home to allow for more family time.
One place I didn’t expect to go was to a question and answer session on Animal Rights and Welfare in Europe. Lisa is a huge supporter of animal welfare, so I was along for the ride. I’m sure everyone could tell I wasn’t supposed to be there as I tried to stealthily hide my leather wheelchair gloves in my bag and lean forward to block the view of my leather shoes. I don’t think I have a future in covert operations, but it was worth a try to avoid a diplomatic incident. Still, it was interesting to learn something new.
I had a few personal highlights during the EYE. The first was attending a session about getting Employment with a Chronic Condition. During the session, I was able to tell everyone about the difficulties I faced trying to get into full-time employment after university, before joining Boingboing. This was incredibly rejuvenating for me. In talking about my own experiences, I was able to heal some of the emotional pain that remained from that year of constant job rejection. So a resilient move for me then! Also, talking about my experience helped to start discussion around potential ways that people with chronic conditions or disabilities can find employment successfully. It was equally empowering to be with people who truly understand the adversity you’ve experienced. Knowing you’re not alone is an extremely effective motivator.
My second highlight was sitting in the Hemicycle, which is the place where the European Parliament debate and make rulings. While there, Lisa and I sat listening to Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut, speak about space travel and future fuel sources. It was thrilling to know that even though I wasn’t debating policy, I was directly in the seat of power.
My third highlight is not my own, it belongs to Katie Scott-Wilds. She’s another Boingboinger who is part of Anne Rathbone’s Arts Connect Group. This is a collective of young people/adults on the autistic spectrum and/or with learning disabilities who designed the Sun and Clouds game of ’Designing Resilience’ fame, to enable others to learn about resilience and the adversity that learning-disabled people face. Through the magic of a smartphone I saw her confidently ask a question in front of an audience of over 500 people. Seeing the video brought an immediate smile to my face. Well done Katie for living the Arts Connect slogan: ‘See ability, not disability!’ Regardless of the challenges we face, we should all have the confidence to speak about the issues that affect us, so that we can directly effect change in the world around us.
All in all, I had a wonderful time in Strasbourg at the EYE 2016. I feel privileged to have gotten the opportunity to attend and would like to thank our collaborators from the Style Project once again. I’m sure I’ve made some friends for life.
It was with a heavy heart that I left sunny Strasbourg for rainy old England. I do hope we all get invited to the next EYE! This is not au revoir, Strasbourg, merely à bientôt.
Signing off, with my spirit in Strasbourg,