Friday, July 25, 2014

Estonian Youth, Activisim and the Estonian Dream

On July 23, a group from the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn visited the Estonian Youth Council’s (EYC) opening day of Summer School in Olustvere. The program hosts approximately 100 to 200 Estonian youth activists every year, representing different youth organizations from the Eesti LGTB Uhing (Estonian LGTB Society) to the Eesti Skautide Uhing (Estonian Girls Scouts).

(Photo: Amb Levine with some organizers of the Estonian Youth Council./Aylin Erdogan)

U.S. Ambassador Levine, Estonian MP Kalle Palling and President of the Youth Council Reet Sillavee were the opening day guests. And while they had interesting things to say, it was discussions from the participants about the difference between an inactive adult and an engaged young adult and why it’s important for youth to be a part of decision-making process at the local or national level that made the panel more interesting for me.

One point they raised during the session was their take on public protests. Youth activists said that Estonians are actually polite people and even if they vent their frustration on a number of issues during social gatherings, they refrain from voicing negative opinions in public. It’s a stark contrast to what we’ve seen with Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests. But Palling, a young politician, shared his insights on youth participation in Estonian politics, saying Estonia is doing a fair job encouraging young adults to be active in politics. They currently have six members under 30 in the parliament, something that is different from the U.S.

(Photo: Amb Levine, Estonian MP Kalle Palling and President of the Council Reet Sillavee discusses youth activism in Estonia and USA./Aylin Erdogan)

In America, we see many young people in high school or college take an active part in political campaigns. We also see those who succeed in campaigning later heading to work in Congressional offices in Washington D.C and in their districts—and indeed, nearly 60 percent of Congressional staffers are between 20-35. However, when we look at executive offices, we see that older folks have a more direct hand in the in the governmental decision-making process. 

Still, I think that youth activism has always had a positive impact on American society.  In my school, SUNY Buffalo, for instance, students’ protested an increase in college tuition and student activity fee. The action influenced State Senators to negotiate with the SUNY administration and reduce the 5 percentage increase SUNY was aiming for to 2 percentage.  We heard from our Estonian peers that the youth council in Rapla was able to raise their voice and influence the mayoral election in the city.

The second part of the event was dedicated to a smaller discussion session on the “Estonian Dream” with Ambassador Levine, Assistant Public Affairs Officer Menaka Nayyar and about 20 Estonian youth. I was looking forward to this discussion to hear what Estonian youth had to say about what the Estonian Dream is or whether it has ever existed. In the past, the Estonian dream was freedom and that one common vision united Estonians. But now that freedom has been achieved, and after the economy started to decline, with young people finding more opportunities in other countries, the Estonian youths at the meeting said they feel as if the Estonian dream doesn’t exist anymore.  Still, they added that it’s important for them not to lose their identity no matter where they are or what language they speak. Estonia is now more open to world cultures, but young adults want the world to know Estonia too. 

(Photo: Amb. Levine and APAO Menaka Nayyar discuss the Estonian Dream with EYC members./Aylin Erdogan)

Thank you to all Estonian Youth Council members for sharing their thoughtful insights with us and the Summer School organizers for giving such a talented group of young people an opportunity to get together and share their voices!

-Post by Aylin Erdogan

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