Volodymyr and his team members exchange experiences with colleagues at the Shelter NGO in Kryvyi Rih. Photo: Dmytro Gavrysh.

Originally published at the UNDP Eurasia web-site on August 8, 2018  

People say “young people are our future,” but I disagree. Young people are our present, and we should start addressing their issues now.

It’s no secret that in Ukraine young people are trying to escape from small towns and villages. They’re looking for opportunities for self-realization in the big cities. I know this: I also left my native village to study in Kyiv. I enjoyed living in a big city. Something interesting happens every day. It’s no surprise people enjoy well-developed infrastructure, having youth spaces for sports and art, and meeting people with similar views and values.

As a student, I enjoyed organizing activities for my friends, such as thematic clubs and movie nights. When I returned to living in the small town Koryukivka, I missed that active lifestyle and wondered why we couldn’t do something similar here.

That’s how the idea for the Alternativa youth NGO was born. I found people who shared the same vision, and together we started thinking how to jazz up life in Koryukivka. First we organized a bicycle parade, and then established photo, cinema, and board game clubs. If we could boost interest in the social life of the community, we could then leverage their civic engagement.

We were the only youth organization in a town with a population of more than 10,000. As pioneers, we of course faced difficulties. The biggest challenge was the passiveness of young people. Sometimes only three or four people would come to an event. But we kept going, trying various formats and approaches.

The passivity of youth in Koryukivka is not unique, but rather a systematic problem across Ukraine. For a long time, young people were abandoned and no one paid attention to their interests and needs. Rural areas lacked creative spaces, sports grounds or platforms where young people could learn or communicate with each other. A lack of infrastructure and opportunities led to the mass migration of young people to big cities. Those who left simply had no chance to raise their voices and discuss their needs.

The decentralization reform has created new opportunities for young people . Moving resources and powers to the local level has increased people’s engagement with politics and decisions, and more active young people are finding opportunities in management positions. So local authorities have become more responsive. They understand that to gain the trust of young people, they need to listen to them.

Last year a group of kids asked us to build a sports ground for roller skating and skateboarding. They used to skate in the car park because it was paved. Just imagine how dangerous that was for both the kids and drivers! We approached the local authorities and explained the need for a safe space, and they supported the idea.

It took a while to develop the project, find the location and design and construct it. But last summer, we officially opened the sports ground. I’m proud of this, as it is the only skate park in Chernihiv region. It attracts not only local skaters but also young people from Chernihiv and nearby cities.

Little by little, I can see young people starting to believe in their voice. Small things can add up to create big impact. Now, more and more young people want to take part in our activities.

In 2017, we joined a UNDP project to develop Youth Councils, which are intended to mobilize such young activists and ensure that their voice is heard. Engaging young people in this way could breathe new life into their communities. It has potential to stop the mass migration of young people from small towns and villages, as they now see a place for themselves and the potential for growth.

I know from experience. I’m staying in Koryukivka and making a difference.

UNDP Ukraine’s project “Civil Society for Enhanced Democracy and Human Rights in Ukraine,” financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, supports youth empowerment through specialized training for workers on civic engagement. The project supports youth initiatives for increased participation in decision-making, social innovation and volunteering for civil society organisations at the national and subnational levels.

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