Sharing the Power with Young People in the German National Agency

Year of production: 2024

What is meaningful youth participation and what is tokenism? We discussed youth participation and changing organisational culture with young people in the German National Agency (JUGEND für Europa) and what there is to learn from it – so, let’s learn!

JUGEND für Europa is responsible for promoting Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps programmes in Germany. Their role is to ensure that young people and youth workers know about their opportunities and feel supported in their journey. The programmes offer international youth exchanges and training events, opportunities for volunteering and living abroad and getting funding for youth-led projects locally and internationally. These are just some of those opportunities which some young people know about but too many don’t.

With the horizontal priorities guiding the EU youth programmes and youth participation in democratic life being prominent there, we sat down online with Marlene Mayer from JUGEND für Europa (the German National Agency for Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps) and Simon Pladwig (18) and Mira Schneider (23) from the Youth Advisory Board. They shared examples of what meaningful youth participation means, how it can make a difference and how to avoid tokenism.

Youth Advisory Board shifting organisational culture

The Youth Advisory Board was created in 2019 with a small internal working group where the agency discussed how to engage young people within the structures of JUGEND für Europa. On the European level, this process was supported by the EU Youth Strategy, the development of the Youth Participation Strategy and the creation of the Federal Government’s Youth Strategy which focused on youth involvement with a cross-sectoral approach.

The agency decided they want to encourage a counselling body to support them in developing the strategies with external counselling services being utilised to help find a diverse group of young people to start planning. After the ideation and the initial concept paper had been created, an open call was launched to put together an advisory board. Young people were invited to the selection committee, and they comprised 50% of decision makers.

This all led the agency to the realisation that to accommodate all this, they needed to change and adapt as an organisation. Marlene says that it has taken more time and human resources but it has been very valuable. Together with young people, they could, for example, improve their approach on diversity even more.

Diversity of the group was also an expectation from Mira and they recall their hesitation.

  • “I was afraid that we are going to be a showpiece for JUGEND für Europa as you see happening too often. You know, just being there for show and not really being listened to,” they share.

They are glad to report that all members of staff were really interested in listening to them and many changes are now being implemented.

  • "The other thing I was concerned about was diversity. I would not have wanted to just see white, cisgender, able-bodied people with academic education backgrounds trying to represent the voice of others. Quite often there are similar youth boards where you remain in the same privileged bubble over and over again. For many young people in our society, engaging in volunteering work is simply not possible. The structures of volunteering need to be rethought and become more accessible for everyone, allowing a more diverse group to engage in these projects as well,” Mira adds.

Simon was concerned about the age gap. “I felt a bit nervous at first,” he recalls. “When I heard I’m one of the youngest in the group I was not sure how it’s going to be. When we got to know everyone it was a great relief because age difference wasn’t an issue at all! This was a fear I had and I think many young people have. When you don’t have specific experience, it’s not easy to jump in. We are not that experienced with EU programmes, so I really appreciated that I was valued for bringing my fresh perspectives and input,” he says.

“Yes, creating the right atmosphere for cooperation is very important. Usually when we attend events, we’re in youth hostels sharing rooms with many people. We are accustomed to this but at the same time most of us are officially adults and it is nice being seen as one and being appreciated. With JUGEND für Europa, we meet in proper seminar venues, where we are usually the youngest group present. We even had name tags and single rooms! It made us feel appreciated and important,” Mira comments.

“Sometimes you’re travelling and delivering very important messages, doing a lot of work actually. This can be tiring. Getting similar comforts as adults lets you rest and rewind. Young people need it too,” they add.

Tokenism – a common mistake in the youth field

Marlene explains that in the work of the National Agency, this means meaningfully including young people in the work planning of the agency on topics that concern young people. For an organisation that has young people as one of the key target groups this means they should be engaged in many aspects.

Examples of the German National Agency bringing young people on board in designing its actions and strategies are the Youth Advisory Board and EuroPeers. EuroPeers is a network of young people who have participated in the EU youth programmes and can work with peers to encourage others to use the opportunities as well. The Youth Advisory Board serves the role of giving input to the work of JUGEND für Europa as an organisation.

“No matter if we give advice to applicants or beneficiaries or involve young people in some activities, it’s important to avoid tokenism. My so-called favourite example is using young people in the pictures in communication without them really being involved meaningfully,” Marlene shares.

“Another common mistake is to include young people in the process too late when most projects or plans have already been designed and major decisions have been made. Meaningful participation requires involving young people from the start, from the planning phase. They know better than anyone else what they need and how they need it,” says Marlene.

“Too often we see that decisions are being made for, rather than with young people. It’s quite common from the municipal to European level but one also sees this in youth work.

  • It’s also tokenistic when one creates a space for discussion with young people but does not make sure there are results and follow-up. Young people often experience that their work and contribution doesn’t lead anywhere,” she adds.

“Being exploited is something to be careful about. It’s not the case at all with JUGEND für Europa and we have been treated very well. We don’t need a lot. Honestly, simply seeing unlimited croissants for breakfasts in one of the meetings got us all excited! We just want to feel appreciated and seen, even through small gestures like these,” Mira says joyfully.

Simon and Mira recommend organisations to engage independent mentors to help avoid such situations. The mentors should not be part of the organisations because in case a young person has a problem, directly addressing organisations does not always feel safe to them. Such thoughtful support can also support avoiding burnouts.

What can we learn from this?

So, how can we ensure meaningful youth participation and an empowering experience for both the organisations and the young people who are engaged?

The JUGEND für Europa team took the process step by step. “The aim was to create a concept to define how youth engagement would best fit our organisation, what would be the role and the rights of the young people involved to ensure transparency regarding limitations. We also explored scientific perspectives of youth participation. The report of the conclusions will be published as soon as the translations have been finalised,” Marlene explains the cornerstones of the process. The approach they had was consultative from the beginning – before anything was written down, workshops with young people were organised and this is where the concept was created.

“Before anything was written down, we conducted workshops with young people where the input to the concept was created,” Marlene recalls. Also, the statute describing the rights of the Youth Advisory Board was created through these workshops. This will be revised every two years, and this document binds the Youth Advisory Board to the German National Agency.

“Our recommendation is to plan the steps and take time and see what approach fits the organisation – one doesn’t need to do the whole package at once. Otherwise it’s too much. When planning together with stakeholders and target group representatives, make sure you evaluate human resources it requires as well as time and financial resources,” she shares.

“The implementation process to start the Youth Advisory Board was quite long and as the groups change after some time, the process always starts a new cycle with the new group. In the beginning, take enough time for teambuilding and getting on the same page,” she brings more examples of what to keep in mind.

Another tip from Marlene is to bring qualified external partners on board to help improve the diversity of the group. This way, one doesn’t remain stuck with its “usual suspects” – the people who already know your organisation and benefit from the activities.

Mira adds that even though it’s participatory to keep the process open, some structure is still helpful. “Most of the discussions in the first meeting were about our tasks and what we were supposed to do. We were given a lot of freedom, which was great but also not easy. We finally designed these guidelines ourselves, but some structure is helpful.”

“The first very big discussion was when someone asked, “What do we have to do here?” and everybody realised that we were not certain. We could see there are different ways of doing things and needed to decide together. Currently we have parallel working groups. For example, about awareness and team culture, Inclusion and diversity, sustainability, Public Relations, the EU youth programmes and so on. We are using these structures to advise JUGEND für Europa on the funding systems, reaching out to young people and so on,” Simon explains.

“It took some time to define how we want to work together. This also happened a lot through non-formal learning and getting to know each other. Our advisory board has focused a lot on building working groups and systems that the next generation after us could take over. Maybe even other National Agencies or organisations could eventually use these,” Mira concludes.

  • Analyse and think through how and why you need to engage young people. It all has to fit your organisation or project.
  • Engage young people from the beginning. Ask them what they need.
  • Treat young people as esteemed partners and colleagues.
  • Consult and expand your expertise through partners.
  • Define a common starting point.
  • Be transparent.
  • Pay attention to diversity!
  • Take your whole organisation with you!
  • Monitor regularly and learn from this. Adapt next steps if needed.
  • Don’t engage without knowing why you need it.
  • Don’t start with previously set outcomes that can’t be changed.
  • Don’t start without basic structure.
  • Don’t exploit voluntary contribution!
  • Don’t use young people as a “showcase”.
  • Don’t forget to give credit for young people’s work.
  • Don’t rush the process.

Looking for more inspiration about great youth participation?

The “New Power in Youth” Strategic Partnership between National Agencies for Erasmus+ Youth & European Solidarity Corps is actively working to advance youth participation in democratic life through diverse approaches. Among its different initiatives, one is specifically dedicated to supporting youth involvement in the work of National Agencies. Check the 2022 mapping report which captures various inspirational practices and suggestions for youth participation from 10 National Agencies and SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre!

The work on meaningful youth involvement in decision-making of National Agencies is ongoing as one of the aims that Youth Participation Strategy calls for.


Meelika Hirmo

Meelika Hirmo is a Communications expert who is currently working at Citizen OS promoting digital participation worldwide. The topics of democratic participation, environment, media and information literacy and culture are very close to her heart. She has campaigned for lowering the voting age in Estonia, coordinated international events, led the communication of the international civic movement World Cleanup Day, and is eager to put her skills into practice to create a positive social change.

New Power in Youth Strategic Partnership (NPiY)

New Power in Youth is a Strategic Partnership between National Agencies for Erasmus+ & European Solidarity Corps and SALTO Resource Centres. Its main aim is to foster youth participation in democratic life and it contributes to three specific objectives: 1)Introducing Erasmus+ & ESC Youth Participation Strategy and supporting youth participation projects through E+ & ESC programmes; 2) Supporting the strategic development of youth participation in democratic life on local, national and European levels; 3) Enhancing the partnership between the non-formal and formal education sectors in order to better support youth participation in democratic life.