As it was my first time participating in a project that was fully organised online, I had some fears because I thought we would succeed through Zoom only if we had a good team. But I am very happy that at the last moment I decided to join. I was in the team working on the campaign about domestic violence. It was very interesting to see that so many people who suffered harassment would still keep silent. As for the photoshoots, it was very difficult to capture the feelings of people suffering from domestic violence. I think we succeeded, thanks to very good teamwork. I am using all the knowledge I acquired during the project. For example, when I became coordinator of another project about people with disabilities, I used the skills gained to run a social media campaign. Now I am used to doing fact-checking when reading the news. It was eye-opening for me that I can spot mis- and disinformation. Also, I am planning to run a podcast with my friends soon. Lately, I realised that what we learnt in a few months, with amazing teamwork, other people would normally need an entire year to learn.
Reacting to the isolation caused by COVID-19, a group of young activists in Armenia aimed to digitally connect and empower other young people. Despite the difficult conditions, they also managed to engage youth from remote, rural areas of the country. And stay tuned, they are unstoppable — their work continues even today!
In Armenia there are many young people who are raising their voices but they are not heard. Nowadays, the situation is very unstable in the country, and different propaganda machines are working to mislead people — especially young people. It is therefore especially important to develop their critical thinking skills, so that they can analyse and understand what is happening before taking action and participating.
From the Armenian Progressive Youth NGO (APY), the president, Grigor Yeritsyan, and the vice president, Nelly Paytyan, who was also the project coordinator and one of the main people behind DigiYouth, told us more about this curious initiative.
What was the context that inspired you to work on media literacy and digitalisation with youth?
When the pandemic started, our office needed to be closed. We were losing the connection with our beneficiaries, young people. So, we tried to find new ways to reach them. We have always promoted youth civic activism, and made the voices of vulnerable youth groups heard, but this time we had to move our action from the streets to the digital space. With a team of trainers, mentors and experts from different fields, we set out to design interactive workshops. This was DigiYouth, a programme in which young people from marginal groups and rural areas could participate.
What activities did you implement?
First, we selected 25 highly motivated young people with whom we met online twice a week for two months. These 16 Digital Ambassadors Academy workshops circled around topics related to the digitalisation of youth work: e-democracy, e-governance, digital activism, digital tools to mobilise local communities, online campaigning, crowdfunding and fundraising — just to mention a few. On Zoom, we held detailed presentations, interactive workshops and group discussions in breakout rooms. Though young people are thought to easily get bored in online activities, in our case they dug enthusiastically into the topics. As during the second phase of the activities the COVID-19 restrictions were decreased, we could move more activities offline. Participants came to Yerevan, where our association is based, and produced, edited and published super exciting, original multimedia content together. At the end of the project the participants came together at the graduation ceremony to present their project results, receive their certificates and network.
How did it go and what were the main results of this process?
In three months, participants created an unexpectedly big amount of fantastic content such as five radio and video podcasts on media literacy, labour market, mental health, impact of COVID-19 on youth, and four social media campaigns. They created a podcasting channel called Youth Talk which is still active. Their chosen arguments for the campaigns were serious and deep, raising awareness about what was happening with #BehindtheWall (domestic violence during COVID-19), getting involved in environmental activism and living in more eco-friendly ways with #IamtheNature, fighting hate speech and cyberbullying with #WordsCanHurtToo. The radio programmes were done in collaboration with the public radio of Armenia which gave us a lot of visibility. Even the more shy participants were able to develop public speaking skills and felt motivated to appear in the programmes. It was their first time doing that and it seems that they had lots of fun.
Who were the participants of DigiYouth?
16 to 30-year-old young people from 8 regions of Armenia. Out of 25 participants, only five were based in our capital, Yerevan. Most of them belonged to minority groups or had socio-economic obstacles. We searched for people who were already active on some level, therefore the main characteristic that was shared by all the candidates was a strong motivation towards civic activism.
How did you give visibility and bring in new people, especially from remote areas?
Most of the participants were based in villages and faced socio-economic difficulties in their hometown, and because of those difficulties they have been deprived of many educational opportunities and meaningful participation in active community life.
Our most credible messengers were young people with whom we had already worked. As well as our friends, colleagues, and family members who recommended us. Contacting grassroots organisations who are active on a local level also helped us reach out to young people, including those that were previously non-organised.
Visuals, logos and online promotion with catchy slogans increased the outreach too as during the pandemic most people spent long hours online. But social media was secondary to word-of-mouth communication. We are based in the capital, so regional organisations are closer to the smaller communities. The local population trusts first and foremost the local population, so even if somebody found our call for applicants on the web, they asked their network for reference — to make sure someone knew us. Aside from youth programmes, we also try to be present in these areas ourselves through our work in adult education, so that when the time arrives the locals would know us and trust us.
How was your project connected to European Youth programmes?
We worked with the support and co-financing of the European Youth Foundation and the Council of Europe. Luckily, they were helpful and flexible throughout the whole process. They assured us we could always request changes or share doubts in the context of the war, and approved such requests. We also work with Erasmus+, as in Armenia there is almost no state funding for any youth projects. Without the European programmes our youth sector would look very different. Luckily, we are also able to do big things with very small resources. In a project like DigiYouth, lots of results are based on enthusiasm, motivation, fundraising and crowdfunding.
It seems you did not face major challenges engaging participants. What was your method?
Our power lies in the fact that we are young people ourselves. We had a peer-to-peer approach. We shared our own personal experiences and those of the other young people. That motivated the participants to get out of their comfort zone, and try out new things. Instead of just being experts, we engaged with them as mentors and friends. Regarding the topics for the campaigns, we encouraged them to follow their interests and pick the theme that they were truly passionate about.
How did you deal with the difficulties that came up in the project?
At some point, we had to stop our activities because a war had started in Armenia. When people around us, our relatives and friends, started going to the frontline, then no one was interested in educational opportunities anymore. In these circumstances, it was difficult to get ourselves back on track and keep going with the project. We understood that adapting the programme to participants’ current needs was essential. For example, we integrated workshops about mental health and wellbeing into the programme. Also, our team was very connected so the mentors formed a strong and safe network for the participants. Meeting regularly online helped us to concentrate much more through follow-up, and to evaluate the learning process with them. And this was not the only purpose. Mentoring also helped us to monitor how they really felt on a personal level and make sure they would join and enjoy the activities.
As organisers, what did you learn?
In times when face-to-face communication was impossible, and people found themselves with mental health issues because of lockdowns or war, this project was like a light in the dark. We could not meet the young people face-to-face, so we created a digital safe place where they could stay active and connected. One of our learning points was that you should be there when the community needs you the most. Create support systems and go through the worst together. And we did! DigiYouth was rewarding — we didn’t expect so many wonderful initiatives to be born out of it.
Is there anything you would do differently today?
In 2-3 months, a lot of work can be done, but next time we would want to allocate more time for creative work and production. It was great that we didn’t impose preselected topics on participants, but instead gave them space to figure out what they wanted to do. Organisations often tend to force their own vision on young people, so the final outcome does not go beyond what the project requires. However, we decided to experiment with being open to whatever participants wished to focus on.
What kind of advice would you give to young people who want to get active?
Do not be scared to stand up for your rights and for the rights of others. Find allies, like-minded people, and start making connections with them. That’s the first step to take.
What happened to the DigiYouth participants?
They haven’t stopped! Our philosophy is that first you provide a fun learning experience, improve skills and mobilise. But what happens next? Are we leaving them in the community where they can remain marginalised, or are we continuing to engage them in other initiatives? Many of them applied for further programmes or for membership of our organisation. From being young people trapped in problems related to stigma or difficult backgrounds, they became active members of civil society. This is a great result.
Do you have any further plans? How will you take the project outcomes forward?
We are continuing the podcasting channel with our own resources, involving volunteers and participants from other projects. The topics they talk about vary, but our objective is the same – to make young people speak their mind about things that concern them. Topics like: How do you want to learn in school? What do young people lack the most in the transition from school to the labour market? What kinds of obstacles do young people remaining in their regions face? The radio programmes are continuing too, with a special focus on combatting sexual violence, having healthy relationships, and disabilities. As for our digital engagement, we’ve extended our outreach geographically — now working with three border regions where youth work is the least present in Armenia. In these areas, young people do not usually have either opportunities for self-growth or professional development. They don’t even have youth centres, where they could have some fun. With our support, they are encouraged to do something for the development of their small villages and towns. It is very much worth investing in these young people, among whom we found brilliant bloggers, vloggers and creatives who have mastered storytelling in our radio programmes, and have been very happy to do so.
Participation is having the skills, competencies, and tools to bring about change to improve society. Very often, young people feel that they are participating, but sometimes it is not the truth, because they are manipulated, and are not consulted or informed. Participation is a conscious process when you actually have a say. I think it is a big challenge for our society to create environments where young people can meaningfully participate.
Grigor Yeritsyanpresident of APY NGO
I saw the application call for DigiYouth on Facebook, and a friend of mine also recommended the NGO, so I decided to join. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life! The campaign not only gave me knowledge about subjects like marketing, cyber bullying, and how to deal with violence, but also lots of connections. It was fascinating to do podcasts and photoshoots presenting what the victims of violence have had to face. I remember that it was super challenging to decide the name of our campaign. Imagine, about 10 girls in one group with plenty of ideas. In the end, we chose Behind the Wall. Another memorable thing was that mentors encouraged me to be an interviewer in the podcast. It was very exciting and I felt honoured. After the project, as I work in a school, I used what we learnt about fundraising and led a successful crowdfunding campaign to renovate a classroom. I also conducted training for children about media literacy and about how to understand which news is real and which is fake. The good connections have remained with me too.
No wonder this project won the SALTO Awards 2021! Despite the pandemic and the war, Armenian young people took significant steps in promoting media literacy and creative digital participation for minority youth — especially from remote, rural areas. Indeed, they did not only listen and discuss, but also created their own awareness campaigns. The youth who had previously very few development opportunities turned out to be brilliant content creators and campaigners. Moreover, some of their initiatives are still ongoing.
More participant feedback
Their online campaigns, videos and photos have been shared on several channels.
Young people, the creators themselves, have left their feedback on Facebook (English translation available), in the form of catchy visuals.
About the project
EU Youth Programme Priority:
Participation in Democratic Life
Youth Participation / Promoting Participation for All
Videos, radio programmes, online campaigns and social media publications gave constant visibility to this project. As did the superpower of the young activists: using their own voice, and becoming content creators themselves! They have been authentic multipliers of their own messages.
Armenian Progressive Youth NGO (Armenia)