Second time around: NetCom Candidate Elena Panagopoulou already tried to get elected as Network Commissioner one year ago. In the end, the former board member of AEGEE-Athína member was not elected in a very competitive field of eight candidates. Now, with many new ideas and plans, the 26-year old gives it another try at Agora Kraków.

Gunnar Erth: Elena, how would you describe yourself in five keywords?
Elena Panagopoulou: Enthusiastic, spontaneous, determined, eclectic and neophiliac – I always crave for novelty.

You already ran last year for NetCom, but did not receive enough votes. Why should this time more people should vote for you? How have you improved your knowledge or abilities since then?
Agora Enschede was a very intense event for me, where I stood before the Agora and tried to explain why I believed I could serve the network and instill my vision into the locals. Many people I didn’t know came after my presentation to congratulate me because they felt inspired. For me that’s a tremendous feeling, no matter the disappointment of not getting elected. I have to note also the competency of the other candidates, probably some of the most difficult elections for the Network Commission in the recent history. In this sense, I was confident and still am that I am a perfect match for the position. Because I combine the two most important traits that an ideal candidate should possess. Knowledge and genuine interest for fostering the locals. I care for the locals, and this can be proven by the joy and enthusiasm I have worked with them through Human Resources Committee.
I have been working on creating a platform for actively helping locals on human resources related issues, but this can be broadened into including a whole fostering program for locals and a way of collaborating with each other.

Which locals would you like to take care of?
Working with locals is such a unique experience and can be different on every occasion, a whole new challenge. In this sense I would happily work with any local, especially considering that sometimes an “outsider” can bring a new perspective and viewpoint into a local’s reality; it can be beneficial. About the Greek locals and the locals that share with them a geographical proximity, and usually consist an area, I would be more than willing to take the challenge. In Greece we face many challenges for sustaining and develop youth NGOs, which comes as lack of volunteering culture and subsequent less opportunities for funding and taking a spot in universities’ lives. I do have great ideas of how to foster and make Greek locals stronger, especially considering that they have been neglected recently.

The network is shrinking. It’s important to found new ones. Where in the area would you help seeding contacts? Please name some cities and explain why they would be your first choice.
I am ambivalent to this argument. I do feel that we could seed new locals, but on the other hand I strongly believe that a network should expand as long it is already strong and thrive. Our priority should be the fostering and the development of the current antennae and most importantly, the understanding of the reasons that this shrinking takes place. Why is the network shrinking? Why are we losing members and many antennae mulfunction? Because we don’t have a proper branding and because most of the times we lose the point of what we aim as an association. We need to find and promote our Identity. About the founding of new locals, I could speak about Greece. Some interesting options would be the traditional university cities. Refounding a local in Creta would be nice, like Heraklio or Chania. Furthermore another good option would be founding locals in Thrace, a region on the northeastern part of the country, in proximity to the borders with Turkey. This is a fascinating region, with many students and a diverse cultural background, where really amazing conferences, and even case studies could take place.

AEGEE needs more European projects and thematic conferences. Which topics would you suggest and motivate locals to turn into events?
We are always so proud of what AEGEE can tackle, from soft skills education and employability to European integration, and breaking down the stereotypes and creating a more equal and just environment. So the possibilities are endless. Every local has its own identity and has to face different realities. Every project and thematic conference should be planned in this way, in order to fulfil the mission of the antenna as a youth NGO, which will serve the needs of its members and the local community. It’s always most effective to think European and act locally. That’s what makes AEGEE unique. We are a network of unique and diverse antennae and cities, and whether we can have an impact should be determined on the amount of the impact each one of the locals make in their city.

The concept for Network Meetings changed this spring. How would the programme of the perfect Network Meeting look like?
Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to attend the new version of the Network Meetings this spring and I suppose we cannot tell how effective it is. But as a firm believer of making changes and trying new things, I welcome the initiative. I do like Network Meetings, they are a marvelous place to exchange ideas, to learn and to bond with other AEGEEans. Usually through Network Meetings new collaborations begin. And that’s the point I would like to change. I would want to introduce a platform for giving the locals the opportunity to collaborate. I want concrete plans and activities to be inspired and set into practice, by the locals that are represented in a Network Meeting. For example, in a Network Meeting we could have as a topic Environmental Sustainability and Locals Sustainability. So we could have sessions about the environment, and deciding into creating a project between the locals that they participate in, or even more in the specific area. This project could run until the next Network Meeting of the area, where results and forthcoming actions can be held as long preparation for new actions in different fields. It’s just an idea of how to make Network Meetings as a kicking act of involving the antennae into project management, which can benefit the network in so many levels.

Your programme consists only of six bullet points with 25 words in total. This makes it very hard to understand your plans. Why didn’t you present a more detailed programme?
People keep telling me that I talk too much, so I’ve chosen to be laconic, as an hommage as well to my origin! [she laughs, ed] Actually I would like to thank you for the detailed interview. I hope I can shed the light and explain my viewpoint on quite a few important aspects considering the network. So I have decided to develop my programme, which you can find in my application. Furthermore, I would encourage you to approach me through social media, e-mail or in person during the Agora in order to discuss any point you find interesting or have any feedback you want to give.

In your programme you mention the importance of helping locals to find their identity. What does that mean?
Local’s identity is the direction, the strategy that every local has decided to follow, which serves its’ members beliefs, ideas and socio-economic and cultural background of the city. This Identity is a custom-made interpretation of vision and mission of AEGEE and should be reflected into every activity, project or conference the local organize.

Can you give two examples of locals you know, explaining what’s their identity and how they preserve or strengthen it?
You realize that I couldn’t be sure which antenna has developed its whole activity around its identity, simply because, sometimes even the antennae cannot realize that the way they are working can be defined as something as complex as identity sounds. But I can give you some examples through my observation. I have recently asked a board member of AEGEE-Moskva, whether they believed that organizing Transsiberian Dream for ten years is something distinctive for their identity, and they haven’t realized it. But in my humble opportunity it is a great example of a Summer University, with distinctive cultural lesson, of a way on the wheels, of breaking stereotypes, of understanding their diverse country. Another example are locals who have become more political, organizing conferences, speeches, collaborating with other associations. AEGEE is a political association, but in many parts of the network this aspect is not considered relevant and they concentrate on other fields. Other prime examples are AEGEE-Torino and AEGEE-Cagliari. AEGEE-Salerno has recently been organizing such great events, collaborate with the Franck Biancheri Association, having concentrated on Civic Education. Many locals do well. We should make these successes more visible. My dream is to give the locals the chance to reflect and discover their identity. It’s the golden circle all the way. Realize and know always the why. Why you organize anything. Because it serves your Identity, your mission in the ocean of NGOs.

You want to increase the collaboration between locals. What should locals cooperate on exactly? And how can you foster or optimise this collaboration?
You know the song lyric, “together we stand, divided we fall”. I will speak now from personal experience in my local and area. In recent history there haven’t been any concrete plans on how locals can communicate and have joint events on significant matters. The main reason I find this collaboration important, is that I am not the only one. Elena Efremova has wanted to create a platform for her locals to collaborate and learn about human resources, and that’s why she approached the Human Resources Committee. People need this platform, this strategy. Firstly because it is a wonderful way of creating projects and foster the thematic part of the association and a way of helping weak locals. We could introduce a mentoring programme between the area, of pairing stronger locals with weaker ones. I dream of a place where locals are never alone and can find materials for workshops, trainers, ideas or fundraising techniques, without having to ask the NetCom. Locals should grow up. NetCom is the supporter, the parent who takes care of the children and help them to learn and to stand by their own feet.

You mention that HR related issues are the most problematic area for antennae. Please present three concrete ideas, which were already implemented by other antennae, to solve these HR problems.
Lacking of members, insufficient knowledge transfer, training of the members: these are only three of the most common HR problems local faces. And what are the solutions that have been proposed in the past? For the recruitment problem, the most common solution is to make a plan of what kind of members you want to recruit. Or in which places you seek for them. Some locals have introduced a preliminary period for a person, in order to be eligible to become a member. In this way they recruited motivated volunteers. About knowledge transfer, a good solution is to learn from other locals who have already an established system, tricks and techniques. At last, the training of the members and the lacking of knowledge possibilities, can be tackled by establishing local activities, training events and collaboration with other NGOs on European or local level, sending members to their events.

Additional questions by the network

Question 1: Many candidates, especially those for CD, mentioned in their programme that they want to bring the thematic part of the association closer to the locals, but yet you didn’t mention in yours anything related to that. What are your plans to do push local a bit to organise local activities related to the Action Agenda and the Strategic Plan?
I do find the Strategic Plan quite relevant to the issues and problems Europe and AEGEEans face in their lives. But as I have stated, locals should understand the importance of organizing events – whatever these events are – and the difference these events can bring in their lives as persons and as a local. It is again about identity. You cannot tell the locals to organize anything, without explaining them the added value of this act. You should teach the locals the vision and mission, reflect upon it, understand why we have a Strategic Plan and an Action Agenda. Make locals care and understand. If we do so, then the rest will come naturally.

Question 2: What do you think about the antenna criteria proposal proposed by CD?
I am quite skeptical and have many questions. I do welcome the idea of the “entry pack” as a sum of minimum prerequisites for establishing a local and the effort to stick to legal clarity – sometimes it has been tricky. But I do miss the explanation to many of the changes proposed. I find the proposal is lacking this reasoning. About the monthly reports, I have always found them difficult to be analysed and to secure the consistency and amount of truth in them. But I wouldn’t abandon the practice in once, especially if we haven’t come up with an alternative for a – let’s say – monthly or bimonthly communication between Netcom and local.

You can read Elena’s full candidature here.