Students in Action: Together for Civic Participation and Tolerance – Training in Lozen Brings Together Active Youth

The Amalipe Center organized a youth training at the National Training and Logistics Center of the Bulgarian Red Cross in the village of Lozen from October 1 to October 4, 2023. The training was part of the project “Intercultural Participation for Civic Engagement and Tolerance,” implemented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation – Sofia, the Civil Participation Forum, and over ten schools across the country, with the support of the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria.

The participants in the training, nearly 80 students from secondary schools, had the opportunity to learn more about their civic rights, tolerance, how to actively engage in public life, and develop their leadership skills. Over the course of four days, the young participants took part in various activities aimed at improving their self-confidence, increasing their involvement in school life, and learning how to work as a team with their fellow students.

The participants were divided into three groups according to their classes, and each group was assigned a civic theme to work on throughout the day. All of them also attended a lecture by Deyan Kolev, which covered topics such as “Stereotypes and Prejudices,” “Identity,” and “Tolerance.” During the sessions, students engaged in discussions that allowed them to understand and share their views on these ideas. Additionally, young leaders participated in role-playing games to overcome negative stereotypes and prejudices. An important part of the training was also focusing on hate speech and how it manifests in various aspects of life. Students shared their opinions and personal experiences, highlighting the importance of combating hate speech and promoting tolerance.

The group of 8th and 9th graders discussed how student parliaments/councils are elected and how they operate in their schools. Since the participants came from different educational institutions across the country, notable differences emerged. The session continued with the formulation of ideal rules for conducting student elections and conducting a simulation of such elections. They discussed the roles within a youth election campaign, how to conduct pre-election campaigns, and what they plan to do to improve the school environment for everyone. These were the questions that the young people, divided into two groups, answered during a joint session at the end of the day.

The group of tenth graders included both girls and boys who impressed with their thoughtful reasoning. Most of them came from different schools, but that did not prevent them from uniting when choosing the group’s name. They called themselves the “People’s Group.” In the first session, with the help of lecturers, the young people expanded their knowledge about the organization and conduct of local elections. They clarified concepts such as the ballot, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), candidate lists, ballot boxes, and voters, among others. In the second session, the young people simulated an election process. Through a draw, two of the groups became political parties participating in local elections, while the third group represented the voters. The candidate mayors and their teams, as well as the voters, participated in a pre-election debate where they presented their platforms and promises, and the voters asked questions. One of the parties attempted to buy votes, and after the elections, it turned out that they won precisely because of this.

All of this prompted the young people in the third session to start a campaign to prevent the buying and selling of votes. The girls and boys carefully devised a strategy for their message, distribution channels, the target audience, and the right timing. The campaign did not remain on paper but immediately began with the distribution of posters created by the young people. “One corrupt promise equals 4 years of suffering. I don’t sell my vote!” started as a poster on social media and was actively shared.

Students from 11th and 12th grades embarked on an educational adventure aimed at expanding their knowledge and understanding of European institutions and the processes of European elections. Divided into groups, they built their knowledge of the values of the European Union, the characteristics of each European institution, and how citizens can engage and influence their functioning.

The end of the training was not the end of their commitment. With passion and detailed preparation, they developed various educational materials, including short videos, with one main goal – to inspire and motivate their peers. Their video messages were directed towards the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024, emphasizing the importance of exercising civic rights and voting. The students demonstrated that young people can and should actively participate in shaping the future of Bulgaria, the European Union, and the world.

On October 3, the training “Intercultural Academy for Civic Participation and Tolerance” was interrupted to allow everyone to participate in a youth conference with the same name, held at the House of Europe in Sofia at 1:00 PM. Participants included Andria Brulette-Rodriguez, Deputy Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria, Neli Koleva and Rosen Bogomilov, advisors in the political office of Minister of Education Prof. Galin Tsokov, Jacqueline Thomas and Evgeni Todorov from the U.S. Embassy, and Ognyan Isaev from the Trust for Social Achievement. The youth conference, in a non-traditional manner, encouraged participants to share their experiences from the past year when they organized training for their peers, campaigns, and activities on how to be civically active, tolerant, and agents of change within the school environment, in small communities, and in the country as a whole. More about the event can be found here.

The four days in Lozen were exceptionally inspiring and energizing for all those present. The lecturers were impressed by the maturity and activity of the young people, by their enthusiasm and ideas. Everyone worked as a team, regardless of having met each other just the previous day. Students started planning exchange visits and summarizing campaigns. Friendships were formed, but so were teams. Teams of young active citizens who reminded us once again that there is hope, that change is possible when we dream and act together. As Chono Ivanov, a student from Pazardzhik, said during the conference:

“Very often, we ask whether things will change, but in fact, we are the ones who need to change them. When we unite, nothing is impossible!”

We hope that this initiative will continue to inspire and educate young people to actively engage in public life and promote a more tolerant, compassionate, and fulfilling society!”

The “Intercultural Academy for Civic Participation and Tolerance” project is implemented by the Amalipe Center, the Open Society Foundation – Sofia, the Forum “Citizen Participation” and eleven schools in at least 50 municipalities in disadvantaged regions and communities outside Sofia. The project covers a wide range of high school students, especially those who receive insufficient access to services, from vulnerable Roma communities, from underdeveloped regions, etc., in order to significantly increase their knowledge, interest and motivation to be active in various forms of civic participation. They are involved in a range of interactive peer-to-peer training (including the Leadership Academy), formal education activities and campaigns/simulations. A range of online and other tools are being developed and used within the project. The project is implemented with the support of the U.S. State Department through the US Embassy in Bulgaria.

The project “Intercultural Academy for Civic Participation and Tolerance” is implemented with the support of the U.S. State Department through the US Embassy in Bulgaria.