"You sound like a broken record", that's usually the response we get met with when we try and advocate for more young people to get politically active. We now realize that there is a greater benefit in offering advice on how to overcome the problem rather than just pontificating about it. Someone who is also intrinsically motivated when it comes to waking young millennials up to politics and also helping youths share their political stories, is Christina Wunder.
Christina is a Press Officer at the European Commission and also the founder of Chapter One Mag - a site that covers topics about millenials and political engagement all the way through to grassroots activism. We were delighted to get Christina to share her thoughts on some interesting topics with us this week.
1. First off, thanks for taking the time to talk to us Christina. Let's just jump right in!How did you become interested in working in politics?
To be very honest, I don’t remember. I think a lot of it has to do with my family history, who taught me that politics was going to have a big effect on my life – whether I wanted it to or not.
Politics has left huge marks on my family members lives. In the 18th century, my ancestors moved from the south of Germany to the Russian countryside. Why? Because the Russian Tsar at the time – Catherine the Great – had invited lots of people to emigrate from Europe to Russia, in order to populate some the “empty” Russian plain lands. My great-great-great grandparents went, and they stayed there for generations, something like 200 years. They didn't really get involved in politics at all, and why would they? They were mostly farmers, living in secluded German villages, preserving their language, traditions and religion.
However, after the German invasion of Russia during the Second World War, they suddenly became political enemies – and it really didn’t matter whether they were politically active or not. So my grandparents were deported to Kazakhstan, where they ended up having to stay for the next 50 years. In the meantime, my parents were born. I was born. And political developments started to rattle all of Europe in the late 1980s. Just a month after the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, my parents decided to move “back” to Germany. For them, this move was not only a change of location and language, but also one of political and ideological systems. Born and raised in the Soviet Union, they suddenly found themselves in a Western democratic system, where they were allowed to speak their minds freely, live their lives the way they wanted to, and without having to fear open repression for being different.
I grew up with this freedom, and I somewhat take it for granted, just like for the rest of my generation. But my grandmothers stories about “back in the day” are an important reminder for me: whether I care about it or not, politics will inevitably have an impact on my life.
2. Being based in Brussels you really are at the epicentre of European politics, what is that like?
I really like it, both for professional and personal reasons. As press officer for the European Commission, I help to communicate with the press and public. I explain to journalists what the EU is doing, and why. I answer their questions about EU policies, respond to criticism and present the results that coordinated action at European level has brought. One of the nice parts is that I can see the effects of my work almost immediately: when it ends up in the newspaper, TV or radio. At the same time, I am worried about current populist trends in many European countries. I feel like, as political communicators, we have to do better, and we have to do it rather quickly. As long as populist and isolationist movements are louder and more successful in their communication than us, we have a problem.
As a city, Brussels is a very cool place to live in; it’s incredibly international and diverse, and it is even said to be the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. You can feel that at every step: from the friends you meet, the restaurants and bars you go to, to the cultural offers the city has.
3. We have spoken before about the big misconception surrounding young people not being interested in politics, where do you think this comes from?
Well, there are a few things feeding this misconception: First of all, we don't really see a huge amount of politicians that are younger than 40, let alone under 30. Politics is not associated with young people – rather with old men in grey suits.
As a demographic group, young people are chronically underrepresented in politics. You can’t argue with the numbers: People under 30 make up 17% of the population (that excludes children); yet, they provide less than 2% of all members of parliament, and rarely hold high political office (even though lately we have seen a slight trend to the opposite, with some positive, as well as some questionable cases). Voter turnout is low among young people, as is their share of political party membership.
And I feel like at this point, it's a catch-22: because membership among young people is so low, it discourages others from joining: The average age of a party member is around 60 years. If, as a twenty-something, you decide to join, you better be prepared to be a total minority. Furthermore, I think many people consider party politics and their underlying power structures to be rather non-transparent. Being a party member should not only be about subscribing what "they" are saying, but rather to shape and contribute to it. When you don’t feel like your thoughts and efforts are having any impact, you are not prepared to invest a huge amount of time, resources and energy. So rather than calling it disinterest in politics at large, I think this can be better described as a disconnect between young people and party politics.
However, what we do see is that more and more young people are interested in politics and political action at large, as a youth study has shown. And they are not only interested, but actively engaged. In Ireland, young people have campaigned for equal marriage rights and the right to safe abortions. In Turkey, young people have trained to volunteer as democratic observers in the recent elections. In the US, young people are joining forces to advance on gun controls. But what we need to do, is find new ways to translate that general interest and cause-centered engagement into formalized political action. In the end, that is what forms our parliaments and governments, these people take decisions on our behalf and not the marches in the park.
4. Being politically active can mean so much more than running for local office and trying to get elected. What other avenues can young people who are interested in politics take to become more politically immersed?
Indeed, there are many other forms of political action. That could be campaigning ahead of a referendum. It could also mean supporting an environmental cause, volunteering in your community or taking part in charity activities. It can be speaking up and calling others out when injustice is done. Let me give you an example: My sister has a disability, and as such, according to German law, is entitled to school transport that takes into account her special needs. However, my mother regularly struggled with the bus company that was hired by the city authorities to help out with the lifts to school. In short: they didn’t do it (even though their contract obliged them to!). After a year of complaints to them as well as to the city authorities, I kicked up a big fuss. I got in touch with our local and national representatives for people with disabilities, and convinced them to come out in our support. I contacted the local newspaper and published articles about them on my blog. I got in touch with a lawyer specialized on the rights of people with disabilities – and eventually I got the bus company to come around and start fulfilling their legal obligations. It was all very annoying, but the result was highly rewarding – not only for my sister and mother, but also for a number of other families in our neighborhood that had the same problem with this bus company. For me, this was a personal, but also very political issue.
Sometimes even talking about something can become powerful political action. Lauren Singer for example, started to document her transition towards a zero-waste lifestyle back in 2012. Through her blog and YouTube channel, she reaches millions of people and encourages them to produce less waste. She does so by suggesting simple and easy-to-follow steps – from avoiding disposable coffee cups to creating your own package-free products. She lobbies for more sustainable waste management, and does advocacy work for example with the United Nations or UNICEF. I find it inspiring to see how something that seems small at the beginning, can grow into powerful action. That's why we always have to remember, everything starts with taking a small first step – and the stamina to keep at it.
Therefore, my advice to everyone who wants to get politically active would be to start with small, easy and doable steps. Try to read and learn more about the issue you care about. What’s the story behind it? What are the problems, and what could be potential solutions? Are there people or organizations that are already trying to do something about it? Who are they? Who are the people and institutions in charge? Could you reach out to them? In this book “Lobbying for change”, the activist Alberto Alemanno suggests a step-by-step guide on how to get active and have an impact on something.
5. It’s no secret that people, mainly young people, are disillusioned with party politics. Is there an obvious solution to this problem?
Indeed, trust in political parties keeps falling, and young people seem to be less keen to join them. But there’s a few things we could do. Young people feel politically powerless at large, but we are seeing some opposing trends. From the examples I mentioned, from Ireland, Turkey to the US, there seems to be a wave of politically engaged young people. But political parties are not profiting from this – their engagement does not translate into party membership.
I think there is much to gain from finding those young people, who are politically active on one issue or another, and understand what it is that discourages them from joining (whether it’s an established or a new one). Is it a lack of knowledge about the various parties and what they have to offer? Maybe they just don't offer enough? When parties are non-transparent about the way decisions are taken, if the power centralizes at the top and there is no room "at the bottom" to have an impact, an obvious question to ask oneself before joining is: is this worth the effort?
Maybe political parties need to open up a bit, become less hierarchical and more participatory. Maybe we should consider actively supporting young people, who would like to run for office for the first time. Coming out, raising funds and managing a campaign is scary, as well as costly in terms of time and resources – especially when you are a "political nobody", with no established party infrastructure to support you and no constituency to have your back. How does one run a campaign? Where do I get started? How do I convince people to listen to me? Nobody just naturally knows how to do these things. That’s why offering concrete support to young candidates, mentoring programs and coaching offers or access to networks could make a big difference. I am convinced that, if there's more young people running for office, more people will feel encouraged to go out and vote and join the cause.
6. Currently, what people operating in the political landscape inspire you and why?
I am inspired by all those people out there who get out of their way to stand up for their beliefs. Those who go out to raise awareness about issues and fix problems they feel passionate about – whether it’s in politics, for the environment or to support others. What I admire in particular, is when people manage to make their issue accessible for others too. Those who are not simply doing stuff quietly by themselves, but who talk about it, raise awareness and empower others to do it as well. This is how little actions can add up to big change. Part of my mission with Chapter One Mag is to find people like that, help them share their story, and hopefully inspire others to get active as well.
7. With the European elections coming up in 2019, what do you see us learning from these, any particular trends we should keep a look out for?
The upcoming European elections will be a rather decisive moment. It will be up to us to choose whether we want to support representatives that are open, pro-European and have an interest in the public good – or closed, nationalist and isolationist ones, who profit from inciting and feeding people's fears. There are lots of great things happening – young people are joining forces and driving positive change. There are new political parties being created, new candidates emerging, and new ways of participating. But there have also been worrying developments over the last couple of years that showed us that we don’t really have the luxury of complacency anymore. If we don't show up at the ballot box, others will decide for us. It is time for us to defend our interests and values.
I'm not saying I have it all figured out in terms of how to do it concretely – but it's up to us to find out. At the very least, we have to all make an effort. Get informed. Think about what is important to you. Get to know who your candidates. Make an effort to find those that represent your ideas and values, even if you don't necessarily agree with them 100%. Find out how you can make that difference. And keep pushing for it. I would hope that getting up, speaking up, and doing something becomes the most important trend for the coming year.
Huge thanks to Christina for providing some incredible insights on European politics and youth participation. If you want to follow Christina more, you can find her Twitter handle below and don't forget to check Chapter One Mag.