Speech from Project Director Katharina Teiting at the Network Conference of Generation Europe – The Academy, Hattingen (Germany), February 2023:
thank you all for listening to me again! For those of you who arrived after the welcoming speech of Monday, I want to repeat the quote I used from one of my favorite superheroes of all times: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering.”
I use this quote very often in my mind, to empower myself and to challenge myself to embrace situations that are a bit outside of my comfort zone. And for that it works really well – most of the time. But unfortunately, I think Yoda was actually wrong in this point. At least if you take it out of the context. And maybe even in general I don’t agree with this part of Star Wars Storytelling. Why do I dare to disagree with Master Yoda?
Let us have a look at the world and especially at our little corner of the world. We are living in times of multiple crisis. The political, economic, ecological, and social crises that are putting us under pressure are not only affecting us personally, our work and the people around us, we do not only worry about ourselves, our colleagues, friends and loved ones, but also it is getting to the point where it is endangering our freedom and, in some cases, already our lives. More and more people are questioning whether democracy is the best form of government. The number of dysfunctional democracies and autocracies is raising, also in Europe. The consequences of the climate crisis, the total destruction of nature, and therefore our living conditions are already evident here in Europe and we all can experience them. In the global south people are already dying because of it and will get worse. We have global refugee and migration movements that are affecting us also as hosting countries. People are dying in the Mediterranean Sea every week trying to save themselves from unbearable living conditions. They also get shot at our fences that were built by the same states and institutions that are supposed so support values of democracy and human rights.
At the same time, the social gap in our societies is growing. Research shows that this is not only a problem for the poor, but it is the problem for all of us. Because especially those people who live under the breadline do question democracy the most. Some numbers from Germany from 2019, so before the pandemic even started: 70% of those who defined themselves as working class or as poor do not trust the democratic processes in our country anymore. In the middle and upper class, the rate was at 48%. I prefer to talk about the country I am living in because that’s the environment that I think I can judge the best, but I know the numbers in other countries are similar or even worse.
Let’s look at the young people in all of this mess: In Germany, the number of drug-related deaths among young people under 21 more than doubled between 2019 and 2021. Cocaine is back, heroine is back, and the consumption of alcohol doubled in young people between 2019 and 2022. We have 60 percent more clinical depressions of young people compared to 2019. As our colleague already mentioned yesterday, this is often combined with eating disorders (75% more than 2019) and anxiety disorders (40% plus since 2019.) The numbers of suicides of young people also more than doubled in Germany during the last three years.
Every fourth person under 25 is at risk of poverty in Germany. In Germany! In 2021, Germany was the largest economy in the European Union with a gross domestic product (GDP) of around 3.57 trillion euros. And we have at the same time 3.2 million young people living in poverty or are in risk of poverty. So, think also about what I said before: People who are poor are less likely to believe in democracy. We have elections in Germany in 2025 and many of those will already be able to vote. I really hope that I am wrong, but I am getting to the point that I think I need to have some conversations with my Polish, Hungarian or also Italian colleagues very soon about how to prepare myself. Not so long ago, we were all very sorry for and empathetic with our colleagues from Hungary. Well, nowadays it looks like that was just the start and the spaces of democracy are shrinking faster faster everywhere around us.
Let’s reflect for a moment how absurd this is: We are here as educators, as human right activists, as artists, as citizens, offering to be a part of the solution. We offer our knowledge, we offer our perspectives, our competencies and tools to work together with the next generation to fight this. And as Philipp Dietachmair also said this morning and as we see and hear all the time on the news, there is actually money that is spent. We are not a poor country, if there would be the political will to support programs like ours or education in general, there would also be the possibility. So not supporting us, not supporting young people, not supporting less privileged groups, it is a choice. It is a choice of people in power, and it is the choice of every person and especially those who are privileged to stand beside and let it happen. And this situation that people in power do choose to not fight this social injustice together with us, but even making it more and more difficult for the human rights organizations to do their work, is making me even more scared and angry than the statistics I mentioned before.
Coming back to my opening words: Well, damn you Yoda! I am very scared of all of this. And yes, you are right master Yoda, that is definitely leading to anger. I am angry about this, because it is in direct conflict of my values and in my opinion, this is also violating social justice on so many levels that sometimes I must scream in my kitchen after listening to the news. I have friends in Italy that are leaving the country now, because they are not white and they are gay and they are scared, because immediately after the election the hate and change in discourse was noticeable for them. That makes me cry and it reminds of very dark times in the history of my own country. And I am not sure if I am crying because I am sad, scared or angry. Most likely I am all of those at the same time. And I am not ashamed of that, I actually think it is good and right to have these feelings because if all of this is not making me feel scared and angry, I actually think I would have lost my humanity. So, what’s wrong with you, Master Yoda??
Well, I guess I know what master Yoda was trying to tell the young Darth Vader in this scene: Don’t get controlled by your fear. Don’t let it blind you. Do not get lost in it. But my experience of fear and anger and frustration is, that it can also be very powerful, especially when you are not alone with it. As you all said during the last days, it helps to hear that others are in the same situation. Joining with others to oppose injustice and to fight for our rights and the rights of those who are less privileged than us and whose voices are less heard can be very very empowering. Understanding our fears and anger, owning those feelings, connecting with others in solidarity and standing up for our values is in my opinion the only way of destroying the death star that is already arriving on the horizon. Also, I think it is the best way, to feel less helpless and powerless.
The question is also, what is our alternative? We can leave the field, so that we don’t have to suffer the bad working conditions that are getting worse and worse with every crisis. That would also help us to ignore the devastating situation the youths are in. But we and neither the young people will be able to handle this in a healthy condition much longer. Especially as financial and other support from public and private sectors are getting less and less. So, I think we are all in a fight or flight situation here. Many did leave already the field during the last years, and I can really understand them. But I don’t want to leave, because for me it would be harder to stand beside watching all that is happening and not being able to contribute to the solution, even if my means or our means as youth workers are of course limited.
There is this African proverb that was already mentioned in other words in this room during the last days: “Many small people who in many small places do many small things can alter the face of the world.” And I want to be one of these small people, because that is not only giving me purpose, but I understand it as a responsibility, reflecting the privileges I have. So, in case you are scared and angry and frustrated as I am, we can offer you in Generation Europe the best support group ever: The Competence Group Lobby. As I already said on Saturday, and I meant it: Join the rebellion! And I do believe very much that youth workers, educators, for sure NGOs do play an important part in this and that we can be very powerful together.
Because let me give you another Star wars quote: “This is how we are going to win: Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love!” And with this introduction I want to give the word to our Competence Group Lobby. Thank you!