UNITED for Intercultural Action works on the basis of the idea of intercultural learning. It works with organisations and activists that take part in activities in ever-changing roles, sometimes as teacher and sometimes as student.
This concept has been developed in close co-operation with the youth directorate of the Council of Europe. The European Youth Centre and the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe have produced several good guides that suggest practical methods to be used for workshops and plenary at conferences and other events. These institutes have also developed several interesting guides for project management that take the principles of intercultural learning to heart.
International Preparatory Group
The International Preparatory Group at a UNITED conference decides on the contents of the programme.
The members of the International Preparatory Group (IPG) change each time from conference to conference. The IPG consists of experienced and less experienced activists from different regions of Europe and different organisational backgrounds. Most are somehow involved with UNITED campaigns or other activities. They are asked to answer questions such as: how can we translate the main line of the conference into different themes and issues, what methods should be used in the workshops, who should lead the workshops/plenary sessions, what should the participants’ profile be (except for obvious profile characteristics such as gender equality and geographical balance). They are responsible for the day to day running of the conference, together with the secretariat.
The function of a conference in the work of the UNITED network
The UNITED network organises conferences as part of the total work of the network. There is an interaction between the information exchange through the mailings and the conferences, there is an interaction between the conferences and the campaigns that are coordinated on a European level, etc.
A conference theme is chosen on the basis of the communication between the secretariat and the network organisations, which is going on constantly. The conference is prepared by a group of organisations that have been active. A ‘general rapporteur’ will be asked to take the responsibility of reporting on the conference, helped by the rapporteurs of the working groups and by the organising team. This report is produced right after the conference. It is distributed to the full mailing list, containing over 2500 addresses, and is made freely available on internet.
The contacts that are made during UNITED conferences are cherished. The follow-up of a conference also includes keeping in touch with the participants and their organisations. Regular enquiries about their activities after the conference are part of the way the network works.
Why a conference in this particular place?
Conferences of the UNITED network are each time in a different country. The country is chosen in response to the needs of the network. For example, the conference in Dresden gave organisations in East Germany a chance to introduce more topics that are of concern to them, including the rise of Neo-Nazi movement. The conference in Poland gave the possibility of bringing up the issue of antifascism youth work. In St Petersburg we addressed the need of organisations in the network to work on the problems related to the changing ideas about national identity and consequently the flaring nationalism in the region. As a member of the IPG put it: “They need to know that they are not alone in their struggle”.
Participants of the UNITED conferences ‘rotate’. Each conference there is only a small amount of participants that have attended more than one UNITED event previously. The network is very large and needs to make sure that all have a chance to work within it. The participant’s profile for the Rieti conference, for example: “Participants should represent (inter)national anti-racist and human rights organisations, active grass-roots groups from all over Europe are also invited. Priority will be given to nominations from minority/migrant delegates, and media organisations. Preference is given to those organisations that actively take part in UNITED campaigns. Participants should act as multipliers, spreading the information to as many people as possible. We will try to reach an equal balance of female/male participants and good geographical distribution. Each organisation can nominate only 1 delegate.”
As conferences are conducted in English, participants are asked to have a basic knowledge of the language. As English is almost nobody’s mother tongue, they are encouraged to help each other.
UNITED conferences have a standard length of six days, including arrival and departure day. Their aim is to strengthen the movement against discrimination. They are set up to make sure that there is a concrete follow-up, a ‘multiplying effect’ and ‘synergy’. Learning takes the form of cognitive learning, emotional learning and behavioral learning. UNITED conferences use all three methods. Emotional learning is stimulated through working with people in a safe environment. Cognitive learning is stimulated by presentations and lectures as well as plentiful written material to take home and study later. Behavioral learning is taking place in the practical ‘training working groups’ as well as the planning/campaigning working groups. Conferences are often roughly summarised as ‘information, training, campaigning’.
On the first day, the first part of the day is taken up by meetings with the International Preparatory Group (IPG) and with the working group leaders / chairpersons. When participants arrive they register and fill out some paperwork. This first day is used to get to know people in an informal manner. Methods used are, among others, ‘games’ such as “Breaking the Blocks” and “Interview Game”.
The second day is dedicated to getting participants to the same understanding of what work needs to be done at the conference, clarification of the concepts used by the method of discussion groups and the effective start on the topic.
In the morning the programme, the team, UNITED and local partner are presented. All participants are asked to briefly state their name, organization and provenience country. The second part of the morning is used for the workshop “The danger of words”. This working group gives people a change to come to a common understanding of many of the concepts that will be used during the conference. They can get a variety of meanings when used in different countries and by people with different backgrounds. This is done on the basis of the UNITED information leaflet “The danger of words: definitions of concepts most used in anti-discrimination work” (see attached leaflet). Participants are not expected to come to a common definition but to discuss the different interpretations of these concepts.
The afternoon starts with an introductory presentation which should give an European perspective as well as examples from the country in which the conference takes place.
Workshops in the afternoon give people a chance to present their ideas and opinions in a more informal atmosphere.
In the evening an information market is organised, during which participants can present their organisation. Local non-governmental organisations, media, local authorities and sponsors are invited to visit the conference at this point to meet with the participants.
The third day is used for an exchange of experiences and for training. Participants present their work against intolerance and their methods and react to each other’s presentations. An often used method includes the presentation of a ‘case study’. Participants are asked to find solutions for the problems presented using their experience of successes and failures.
In the evening informal meetings take place, such as ‘political cafes’ and ‘video presentations’. A political cafe is an informal meeting on a topic that is very actual and did not fit in the programme, which was made already months beforehand.
On the fourth day the skills and knowledge that have been accumulated will serve as a basis for the development of (common) action and activities. Participants are encouraged to work out (for example) a campaign, including ideas for campaign materials and ways of approaching the media. They will present their plans to the plenary, where more discussion takes place. Participants can ‘register’ to be part of one project or another and will receive contact addresses or other information to pursue their plans.
On this day a presentation in plenary will contain good practice examples of past actions against intolerance. The presentation is followed by discussion and debate. The last part of the day is dedicated to an ‘open forum’ where participants can make presentations that they feel have been missing in the programme, bring up a specific topic from their work, provide concrete information, etc.
The day ends with an ‘intercultural evening’ in which participants present dances, songs, jokes and theatre plays. Often participants chose to work together in mixed groups, from different cultures and countries.
On the fifth day the conference is closed with an exciting and new insight on the topic in plenary. Afterwards a discussion takes place. The last day also contains time for discussion on concrete ideas for follow-up, plans for common activities and campaigns. Evaluation takes place in (at least) three ways: a visual, an oral and a written way.
Conferences are seen as catalysts, part of a longer process. The conferences have many links to the other work in the network, such as the campaigns and the publications. When evaluating the specific conferences, we ask different questions than when we review the network as such.
Evaluation takes place at the conference itself. Participants are asked to express their opinion. A second evaluation takes place by the International Preparatory Group that prepared the conference. A third evaluation takes place within the team working at the secretariat. It is only in this third evaluation that the long-term effects can be assessed.
Evaluations are condensed into a few practical points to be used at the next conference by the secretariat.
The evaluations have led to several changes in the methods of working over the years:
- introduction of “political” cafe to encourage discussions about important topics that are too actual or new to be included in the programme
- attention for the accessibility of buildings and working methods for disabled participants
- the fact that there are usually two working group leaders from West and East Europe was a result from an evaluation point
- participants have found that it is extremely beneficial to have contacts with local organisations and if possible even an visit to the working places of these groups.
Working methods have been improved and changed at each meeting. However, since each meeting reaches a different audience, the events are different each time.