In 2004/05, I coordinated a few EU Youth Projects. These projects aim to build understanding between youths from different cultures. One such event was held in Egypt in summer 2004. As usual, I met the 9 participants accompanying me a few days before departure.
During this meeting excitement was high (an subsidized travel does have that effect) but there also was a measure of tension and mistrust: Western fears of Muslim culture engendered by world events were being compounded in the Mediterranean by large numbers of illegal immigrants from Africa. Such racist sentiment was particularly evident in two participants who quickly turned hostile when informed that they would be sharing rooms with Egyptian hosts. Suppressing an instinctive reaction to engage in verbal disparagement I arranged to have a private chat later. During our meeting I felt much like an NAACP activist listening to the troubles of a KKK member. But I asked simple questions and listened the whole evening, giving them space to voice concerns and prejudice without feeling patronized or looked down upon.
The least important outcome of this was that I was able to tweak elements of the program to minimize negative feelings – like suggesting roommates who I felt would match personalities. However, I believe the most important outcome arose from the very act of listening itself. By being given space to express themselves – albeit to a disagreeing (but non-contentious) audience – these participants, rather than being antagonized, had their curiosity aroused. As a result they landed in Cairo with, if not the most open of minds, at least ones that were completely fenced in… and landed back in Malta 2 weeks later not simply having made friends, but making plans for hosting our Egyptian counterparts in Malta.
I never felt that EU public funds were so well spent.
Why this is still relevant to me today:
Two reasons. The first is simple. I still look back on these events as something that I feel had good outcomes: fun, friendships and a little bit of an understanding that somebody doing something differently is an opportunity to learn something new.
The second reason is perhaps a bit more ‘philosophical’ and goes something like this: it takes time to change things. We look at bodies like the EU, large corporations and governments as slow and sometimes lugubrious entities that don’t seem to achieve much besides the successful manufacture of red tape. (Just think of 100-page funding applications for getting a few thousand Euros.) Certainly sometimes this is true. But there is also value in slowly and steadily working towards a change – or shift in thinking – that you may believe to be worthwhile. In the fast-paced techy/internet/start-up world we inhabit, it is easy to believe that change has to happen overnight and must be disruptive to be successful. That is also sometimes true but not necessarily always the case. Outcomes (products, strategies, policies or what have you) can be much much stronger and built on a much more solid foundation when they are the result of consultation, listening, dialogue and consensus building.