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Civic Engagement Goes Remote

Youth Bank members met the COVID-19 challenge with remote volunteering. They were surprised that a lack of physical contact is no longer a barrier.

“Our main goal is to mobilize our peers and to jointly carry out the initiatives that are useful for the community. It was at first difficult to imagine managing this process remotely. We could hardly picture Lanchkuti’s Youth Bank achieving a greater mobilization of young people amid the pandemic than earlier when there was neither virus nor social distancing,” Davit Sivsivadze, a member of Lanchkuti’s Youth Bank, said.

Youth Bank is Europe Foundation’s project that brings together hundreds of young people across Georgia’s 33 municipalities. For over ten years, Europe Foundation has trained Youth Bank members, teaching them various skills and allocating funds to help them implement locally-needed projects.

Ana Papuashvili, Europe Foundation’s Youth Integration Program Assistant, put it this way: “The knowledge and understanding we had given to young people through various trainings and workshops, they shared with their peers in a very interesting way; they began to focus on and respond to local needs, which, in the end, turned out to be very productive.” From the onset of the pandemic, Europe Foundation entrusted young people with new tasks, assuring them that civic engagement and volunteering can be done remotely. Svaneti’s Youth Bank is one of the project’s most active committees. It created the webpage, http://ybsvaneti.ge/, in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak and even used it as an awareness-raising offensive against the pandemic. These young people used their own resources to develop webpage content, including posters, infographics, and blogs that enhanced citizens’ understanding of COVID-19, thereby helping them protect against the virus. They also conducted several necessary pandemic trainings. One training focused on media literacy. Ana Chkhetiani, a member of Svaneti’s Youth Bank, explains why: “In the face of coronavirus fake news spreading via the media, we chose media literacy as the first topic to talk with our peers about. We engaged in remotely sharing the media literacy knowledge we had gained from Europe Foundation, teaching the skills to recognize differences between real and fake news, to trace the information to its original source, and so forth.”

Levan Pilpani is one of the webpage’s main contributors. He says that the idea of creating Svaneti Youth Bank’s webpage was always in his mind. However, he previously did not have the time to put the idea into practice. “The webpage brought together in one space all key information on our committee, projects, and initiatives. One such project is the Svanetian Language Room designed to popularize the Svanetian language,” Levan added.        .

He related how the committee explored local needs during the COVID-19 outbreak. Surveying students and their teachers from upper Svanetian villages, the committee identified many problems in the distance learning process. “The problems were largely due to a lack of computer skills. Oftentimes, teachers were struggling to adapt to technologies. We helped many students and teachers get the most from their online classes,” Levan continued.

Svaneti is not the only place where these types of problems cropped up. According to Mariam Tischenko, a member of Chokhatauri Youth Bank, this process is even more challenging for university applicants. “My internet connection failed at least ten times today. As a result, I missed out on 15-20 minutes of a one-hour class.  Cock-crowing, children’s noises, internet failure, and many other problems have become part of the painful reality. For me, personally, six-hour, in-person training was far more productive than a two-hour online class.  It is regrettable that as university applicants we have to put up with all these difficulties,”  Mariam declared.  

COVID-19 laid bare many problems other than the weaknesses of online learning.  Chokhatauri Youth Bank committee organized a public discussion on gender issues, one of those identified problems. Erekle Mamaladze, a member of the committee, talked about the event’s aftermath: “Quite a few people watched our video on gender-related topics. In general, I believe that with more gender-informed people around us, our future will be surely better. Alongside general discussions, we outlined concrete steps that the family or the society may take to counter gender-based discrimination or violence,” His committee also plans to record an awareness-raising video focusing on media literacy and ecology.

Tsalka’s Youth Bank offered an online presentation on sanitation and hygiene. “This issue has become even more topical with the spread of the coronavirus. Being already trained on sanitation and hygiene under the guidance of Europe Foundation, we decided to expand specifically on this subject. It came as a surprise to us that by shifting to virtual communication, we reached an audience much larger than earlier, at our face-to-face meetings,” explained Nino Vibliani, a member of Tsalka’s Youth Bank.

Youth Banks in several other municipalities did a good job of advocating as well. Lanchkhuti committee members say that the advocating principles they learned from Europe Foundation inspired several project ideas. Davit Khukhumaishvili summed up their future plans: “If the pandemic is through soon, we’ll conduct a music festival and make free tours of the newly-designated canyons. We put forward this initiative to the City Council, and they agreed to help. Our activities attracted wider publicity during the pandemic, and the committee gained in popularity. That’s why we are going to further boost our activities, at least remotely.”

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