At the beginning of October, nearly 30 people who had previously volunteered in the Global South found themselves trekking through the forests of the Czech Republic to come together and discuss their experiences. Fortunately, the trekking was just the journey to our seminar house in the forests, where over 5 days we disconnected from the outside world.
Funded by Erasmus+, the course titled ‘What Next?’ involved four different organisations; Comhlámh (Ireland) Volunteering Matters (UK); INEX-SDA (Czech Republic); and finep (Germany). The course considered the ways participants can take the learning from their experiences volunteering in the Global South into their lives and communities and to work on social justice issues.
Although complete strangers, it didn’t take long for all of us to realise how deeply connected we were. The first day, our Reflection period, required us to consider our personal journey so far. We may have different motivations, travelled to different countries, have been involved with different social action projects, but we had the same perspectives on life and are committed to social action.
As well as focusing on our own personal histories, we discussed our expectations and thoughts in an open environment. A slow start, but it was necessary to help us build the foundations for the next few days.
Our second day focused on our knowledge, both pre-course and what we still had to learn. Starting with ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, we considered our own privilege. We acknowledged the difficulty of discussing our own experiences of volunteering overseas and how we can ensure that it gives a balance of stories of the places that we have visited. If not, our single story can create stereotypes as well creating unnecessary pity.
In the afternoon, we had an ‘Open Spaces’ sessions. Individuals could suggest topics they wanted to lead a discussion on. Anyone could get involved to give their opinion or ask questions. Over a few hours we had numerous topics; from gender equality to homelessness, alternative ways of living to the Sustainable Development Goals. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to discuss topics of great interest, as well as the chance to learn from each other.
Days 3 and 4 were our planning stages for our Action Projects. Some of us came with plans already, whilst others had developed them once arriving. Using the skills and knowledge of each other, we were able to get into groups to develop comprehensive Action Plans. Our Facilitators split the time up adequately as well as ensuring we were conversant in various areas such as setting aims and objectives, measuring progress, creating realistic timelines, estimating resources and networking. It was unbelievable to see the different ideas everyone came up with and how well-developed and planned they became by the end.
Throughout, our seclusion combined with a broken internet modem, ensured that our coffee and meal breaks were teeming with discussion. Indeed, for many, this was a highlight of the course. We were able to engaged with like-minded individuals on topics dear to us. Too often, we spend have the time trying to convince others why they should engage with social action, now we could just discuss how we were going to do it.
We were also keen to share our experiences and networks, setting up various posters around our communal areas where individuals could write down campaigns, funding, and volunteer opportunities to get involved with.
It was amazing to be part of such an inspirational experience. Together we learnt from each other, and the facilitation ensured we were able to turn our motivation into real plans to make tangible differences to people’s lives. We are incredibly lucky to be part of this international network and we’re looking forward to supporting each other’s Action Plans over the next few months!
By Meg Kneafsey