50 Lost Chances – Why AEGEE Needs More Thematic Conferences

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Inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences are extreme­ly impor­tant for AEGEE. It is just a pity that hard­ly any­one organ­is­es one. Up until some years ago, AEGEE anten­nae made between 40 and 50 the­mat­ic con­fer­ences per year. Today, most mem­bers don’t even know what that is.

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Recep­tion desk of con­fer­ence about EU mat­ters in Maas­tricht

When did your anten­na organ­ise its last inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ence? I asked that ques­tion to board mem­bers, oth­er active mem­bers and young oldies of dif­fer­ent AEGEE locals – and the result was shock­ing: many peo­ple did not even know what an inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ence is. “Our last one was a Net­work Meet­ing”, said one board mem­ber. “I don’t know, can’t remem­ber, ask our pres­i­dent”, said anoth­er girl who was in the board recent­ly. “What is an inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ence?”, asked the third. “We had one about per­son­al improve­ment, but it was for local mem­bers”, said the fourth. The ques­tion: “What about orga­niz­ing such a con­fer­ence?” did not yield bet­ter results. “Yeah, we are think­ing about orga­niz­ing a Euro­pean School or an EBM”, replied anoth­er per­son.

Why are the­mat­ic events impor­tant?

What’s the big deal? Well, the­mat­ic con­fer­ences, organ­ised by anten­nae, have always been a back­bone of AEGEE. Next to Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ties they have been the biggest mobil­i­ty fac­tor in the asso­ci­a­tion – just with a more seri­ous con­tent than the huge major­i­ty of SUs. They are events with an impact. I am talk­ing about week­end con­fer­ences with 30 to 300 par­tic­i­pants, usu­al­ly three days long, with lec­tures, work­shops, sim­u­la­tions about seri­ous top­ics, but also great par­ties and sight­see­ing of course.

Here are some exam­ples:

  • Enschede: Win­dow to the World — Chal­lenges of the Infor­ma­tion Soci­ety
  • Szeged: Euro­pean Film Fes­ti­val (not a fun event, it had real­ly good con­tent)
  • Budapest: Per­spec­tives for Koso­vo
  • Wro­claw: Crime Sto­ry — Crime in Poland and Europe
  • Bratisla­va: Where Piano Meets Com­put­er — Mar­gin­al Music Styles.
  • Napoli: Euro School (This event was indeed about the cur­ren­cy)
  • Kaiserslautern/Saarbrücken: Fast Food Soci­ety.
  • Pas­sau: Go East?! Effects of EU Expan­sion.
  • Alba Iulia: No Visa: A Dream or a Real­i­ty to Come?
  • Bucuresti: Life Long Learn­ing.
  • Barcelona: Audio­vi­su­al Work­shop. Media rev­o­lu­tion in Europe
  • München: E-Busi­ness in Prac­tice.
  • Bayreuth: Eco­Con — Ecol­o­gy & Econ­o­my in the 21st Cen­tu­ry

These are all events from a ran­dom year from the past: 2000. In that year the net­work organ­ised 227 inter­na­tion­al events in total, 92 SUs and 115 oth­er inter­na­tion­al events. Like today, the major­i­ty of the lat­ter were train­ings, inter­nal meet­ings and fun events, but there were also 44 inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences. When you take away the ten weeks of Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty peri­od, there was about one the­mat­ic con­fer­ence some­where in Europe every week!

Great past, sad pres­ence

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Con­fer­ence about For­mer Yugoslavia in Udine, 1996. At that time the only chance for peo­ple from all coun­tries of For­mer Yugoslavia to dis­cuss the region was out­side of it.

So what do most of the anten­nae do today? They main­ly organ­ise fun events like New Year cel­e­bra­tions, SUs, local events and exchanges. Or they wait that some­one from the Euro­pean lev­el of AEGEE – for exam­ple a WG or project team — asks them to pro­vide logis­tics for some­thing they planned, like a train­ing, a Net­work Meet­ing, or an only local­ly pro­mot­ed event in the frame­work of a Euro­pean project with local mem­bers as par­tic­i­pants.

Have a look at AEGEE’s upcom­ing events for this autumn, as shown in the Intranet: http://www.intranet.aegee.org/event/european_events/future. 11 events are list­ed there: sev­en Net­work Meet­ings, three Ago­ra pre-events and one train­ing. Well, I have to admit that accord­ing to the Napoli pre-event descrip­tion there seems to be seri­ous con­tent. If you look at the past events of 2014 in the Intranet Cal­en­dar, you get the strong feel­ing that AEGEE is a beach & fun trav­el agency. Out of the 43 events list­ed there, only five have a seri­ous the­mat­ic con­tent. There were a few more, main­ly the Y Vote events, but they were not in the Intranet cal­en­dar. Here is a typ­i­cal event descrip­tion:

Want to fin­ish your sum­mer with a bang? Well we’ve got exact­ly what you need. Come and join us while we play games on the beach, learn how to cook food, and go on walk­ing trips, etc! Make sure you fin­ish you sum­mer the right way, cause every­one knows life’s a BEACH!”

A look at the excep­tions

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Con­fer­ence about minori­ties in Europe in Presov, Slo­va­kia.

Among the few anten­nae, who still val­ue inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences, is AEGEE-Cagliari. Mat­tia Abis, Net­work Com­mis­sion­er and AEGEE-Cagliari mem­ber, told me that his anten­nae organ­ised an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence 12 months ago, which was ini­ti­at­ed by his anten­na in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Elsa Cagliari and for which both organ­is­ers cre­at­ed the pro­gramme. “It was called Youth Euro­pean Par­tic­i­pa­tion and we had 60 par­tic­i­pants from abroad.”

Mat­tia has his own expla­na­tion why there are so few inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences: “I think this is because our Strate­gic Plan is still con­sid­ered a far and aca­d­e­m­ic thing by many locals. We should have a bet­ter strat­e­gy in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the aims of AEGEE and how to put them in prac­tice with events and activ­i­ties with an impact.” The men­tioned Strate­gic Plan is like a cat­a­logue of good ideas for events with rel­e­vant con­tent. But of course, great con­fer­ence ideas are not only lim­it­ed to that, since all anten­nae are free to do what­ev­er they want.

The Net­work Com­mis­sion­er will bring this top­ic on the agen­da of the upcom­ing Net­work Meet­ing in Bres­cia. “We will have the pos­si­bil­i­ty to start get­ting involved in this kind of activ­i­ties. They rep­re­sent they main focus of our meet­ing there and the biggest chal­lenge, in my opin­ion, my area should have for next year!” Cre­at­ing more events with an impact is not only impor­tant for AEGEE-Europe, stress­es Mat­tia. “It is also impor­tant for the local lev­el. The locals give you sig­nals of good func­tion­ing, if they are able to pro­duce the­mat­ic con­fer­ences by them­selves and not only under request.”

What about the big projects of 2014, where are they?

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Dur­ing the minori­ties con­fer­ence in Presov the pres­i­dent of the anten­na signed the gold­en book of the city.

The events of the big AEGEE-Europe projects such as Y Vote, EuroArab and Europe on Track were not list­ed in the Intranet Cal­en­dar of Events. Six Y Vote con­fer­ences with very inter­est­ing sub­jects took place this year, which were def­i­nite­ly a high­light of 2014. The prob­lem is that they were only pro­mot­ed on the mail­ing lists, but not on the Intranet Cal­en­dar – and they were only pro­mot­ed two months in advance or less. In case of Y Vote there was a list of upcom­ing events, but for that you had to active­ly go on the Y Vote page and click your way through the page.

The con­tent of the Y Vote events was main­ly cre­at­ed by the project team. “All the anten­nae that par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Y Vote 2014 project had the con­tent made by Y Vote 2014 – of course we could add some things and con­tribute”, said one organ­is­er. This is a great help for many anten­nae, who might not organ­ise events oth­er­wise. In this mat­ter, it is very impor­tant that project teams give local organ­is­ers a lot of free hand regard­ing the con­tent, sup­port them and assure a qual­i­ty con­trol; oth­er­wise they would be just ser­vice providers, which is not in the inter­est of net­work devel­op­ment.

Make the net­work think for itself

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Who says that the­mat­ic con­fer­ences mean no fun: here a wine­tast­ing.

What is miss­ing in AEGEE? The ini­tia­tive of anten­nae to think of a top­ic of rel­e­vance and put it into prac­tice. Mau­rits Korse, who was active on local lev­el and mem­ber of sev­er­al Euro­pean bod­ies has his own point of view in this mat­ter: “The­mat­ics should not only be pushed from Euro­pean lev­el, which this is hard­er to do any­way, because some­times you miss a direct con­nec­tion with the local that is organ­is­ing the event. A too strong the­mat­ic push from the Euro­pean lev­el onto the local lev­el may cause a sort fatigue in an anten­na; AEGEE might even­tu­al­ly lose its rel­e­vance as an organ­i­sa­tion.” Mau­rits added that there should be some the­mat­ic pull – mean­ing locals tak­ing more ini­tia­tive in mak­ing small­er and larg­er the­mat­ic events. “As Euro­pean lev­el it might be bet­ter to stim­u­late that by offer­ing some form of sub­sidy instead of mak­ing open calls for themes that most peo­ple don’t even under­stand what they are. For exam­ple, I don’t think a lot of peo­ple can explain what civic edu­ca­tion is, while peace and sta­bil­i­ty is quite clear what it means.”

Tak­ing up the chal­lenge

But for this it is nec­es­sary that more anten­nae are will­ing to take up that chal­lenge. This is most­ly a mat­ter of tra­di­tion and knowl­edge. I’ve been mem­ber of more than half a dozen anten­nae and I remem­ber count­less dis­cus­sions every year like this: “What kind of the­mat­ic event do we want to organ­ise this year?” Every­one had been to inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences, there­fore peo­ple knew more or less what it takes to organ­ise one. Today, the prob­lem is the short mem­o­ry of AEGEE. If some­thing hasn’t been done for two years, many peo­ple don’t remem­ber any­more how to do it. This knowl­edge needs to be increased in many anten­nae and also the exist­ing fear of a finan­cial fever needs to be over­come.

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Con­fer­ence about secu­ri­ty issues in Europe in Moscow, 1996. The guy sit­ting in the mid­dle is David Stulík, hon­orary mem­ber of AEGEE-Europe.

Réka Sala­m­on, project man­ag­er of both Europe on Track projects says about this: “It is hard­er to organ­ise such events, because it is hard­er to find finan­cial sup­port. But it is also said that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion is less engaged and less moti­vat­ed. If we see that some­thing is too dif­fi­cult to organ­ise we rather drop it. This is a pity, because I recent­ly went through doc­u­ments about the his­to­ry of AEGEE and was amazed on how many fields AEGEE was pio­neer.”

Even the biggest anten­nae are infect­ed by the the­mat­ic con­fer­ence fatigue. “Our last inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ence was EUtopia I think, some­where in 2008”, recalls Mau­rits Korse, who was board mem­ber of AEGEE-Enschede. “One of the rea­sons for us to organ­ise the Ago­ra in 2012 was actu­al­ly to keep the knowl­edge in the anten­na on organ­is­ing big­ger events.” It sounds sur­pris­ing: the biggest local in the net­work used to organ­ise at least one big con­fer­ence every year. What changed? Mau­rits: “It might have to do with the dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing peo­ple to organ­ise big things that require at least a year of work. And that is most­ly caused by the chang­ing atti­tude of the gov­ern­ment and uni­ver­si­ty on being active.” But that is not the only rea­son. “I also think that in the past few years the focus of our boards have not so much been on the­mat­ics, but more on get­ting our mem­bers active. And low­er­ing the thresh­old is an easy way to do that. But a low­er thresh­old will not be a good basis to organ­ise a prop­er the­mat­ic con­fer­ence.”

No long-term strat­e­gy

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Dur­ing the Cher­nobyl con­fer­ence in Lviv, 1997, the par­tic­i­pants vis­it­ed the reac­tor site.

So: mak­ing fun events or local activ­i­ties as the easy way out? That’s a short-term strat­e­gy. Because AEGEE is los­ing a strong sell­ing point to poten­tial mem­bers who want to do more than par­ty­ing and for whom inter­nal meet­ings such as Net­work Meet­ings are too …inter­nal. In some coun­tries such as Ger­many or Nether­lands, Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ties are not rel­e­vant for get­ting new mem­bers. From my own expe­ri­ence I know that in Ger­many new mem­bers are rather inter­est­ed in the­mat­ics. Telling them that AEGEE is doing great lob­by­ing and deal­ing with many top­ics in Brus­sels doesn’t help. They look for con­crete activ­i­ties, they want events they can go to or that they can organ­ise in their anten­na – putting their own field of inter­est in real­i­ty. Hav­ing hard­ly any inter­na­tion­al the­mat­ic con­fer­ences is basi­cal­ly turn­ing many poten­tial mem­bers away. Not in all coun­tries, but in sev­er­al.

Bet­ter pro­mo­tion need­ed

How­ev­er, we do not only need more the­mat­ic events, but also a bet­ter pro­mo­tion of the few exist­ing ones. In the past the Intranet auto­mat­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed a Cal­en­der of Events, which was sent to all sub­scribers of aegee-event-l, basi­cal­ly every sin­gle active mem­ber. Every­one was remind­ed reg­u­lar­ly by the lat­est trav­el oppor­tu­ni­ties. Today, you have to look them up, take the ini­tia­tive your­self. And, as the exam­ple showed, the events of inter­na­tion­al projects are not even list­ed there.

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The Brain­storm con­fer­ence in Vien­na about Neu­ro­science had a superb pro­gramme. The world­wide elite of speak­ers came to the event and stayed for the whole dura­tion of the event, con­tin­u­ing the dis­cus­sions in the breaks. One speak­er even came from Chile.

But aside from send­ing out mails with the cal­en­dar the qual­i­ty of events pro­mo­tion need to be improved. While some anten­nae excel at it, oth­ers start too late and don’t reach their tar­get group. And this pro­mo­tion doesn’t end with AEGEE. If the con­tent of an event is real­ly good, it attracts also new mem­bers from out­side of AEGEE. Most anten­nae for­get to pro­mote their events in their uni­ver­si­ty, oth­er uni­ver­si­ties or com­mu­ni­ties out­side of their asso­ci­a­tion. One of the key fac­tors of the project “Find Your Way” in 1996 was the fact that near­ly 50 per­cent of the par­tic­i­pants of the five the­mat­ic con­fer­ences were from out­side AEGEE! Sev­er­al of them found­ed new locals in their city, cre­at­ing a net­work boom.

Con­clu­sion: Live it up!

In short: AEGEE might lose mem­bers in case the num­ber of seri­ous the­mat­ic con­fer­ences doesn’t go up. On the oth­er hand: strong the­mat­ic con­fer­ences are good for the image, the skills of mem­bers and also attract new ones, who also care about doing seri­ous stuff.

Get­ting fun mem­bers with descrip­tion of beach events is nei­ther sus­tain­ing the asso­ci­a­tion, nor liv­ing up the promise of AEGEE as an organ­i­sa­tion that has strong top­ics at its core and that offers its mem­bers to cre­ate great things on all organ­i­sa­tion­al lev­els.

There are top­ics every­where: from cur­rent issues such as 25 years of the End of the Iron Cur­tain, the Ukraine cri­sis, the rise of nation­al­ism, immi­gra­tion, Islam and Europe to any­thing you can imag­ine! Suzan Dila­ra Tokaç, who just organ­ised a great SU for AEGEE-Eskişe­hir, said: “I def­i­nite­ly agree, about mak­ing more the­mat­ic con­fer­ences. I would love to have some­thing about Euro­pean inte­gra­tion, because for most of the coun­tries Turkey is still a mys­tery. Also some­thing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty would be great.”

Go for it!