Strengthening young activists by tagging-in local mentors and standing back
By CIVICUS youth
On the celebration of the International Youth month in August 2020, CIVICUS Youth launched a new mentorship format for the ten participants of the Youth Action Lab. The Youth Action Lab is a pilot project that seeks to test ways to strengthen youth activism in the global south. In the first year we learned how to better resource the next generation of changemakers in civil society through different approaches and the most valuable one was the mentorship component of the Lab.
Why mentorship was part of the Youth Action Lab
During the design phase of the Lab in 2019, the co-design team, composed of nine young grassroots activists itself, said that a mentorship or bespoke support component was necessary to support young activists to strengthen their activism strategies. Furthermore, other research from CIVICUS previous pilot projects with young activists, such as the Goalkeepers and interviews with other organisations working with youth, also highlighted the importance of mentorship and how valued it is by young people. Therefore, we knew that mentorship had to be a key part of the Lab to strengthen the efficiency, resilience and sustainability of youth movements advancing social justice agendas at the local level. With the support of an Advisory Group, we framed the mentorship as a horizontal learning exchange between the Lab participants and experienced civil society partners - not a traditional hierarchical mentorship. We wanted both parties to learn and grow from the experience in a safe and respectful space.
How did the Lab learning partnership start?
By the end of August 2020, each of the ten Lab participants identified a thematic and a technical learning partner to engage with over the course of 6 months. The Lab participants chose the themes and technical areas based on their area of work, geographic location, and previous skills needs assessment. Reflecting the diversity of the Lab participants themselves, there was a range of themes such as feminist leadership in the Pacific, Indigenous Rights Advocacy in the Philippines and rights of rural trans sex workers, women and youth in Uganda. Laber’s skills need assessment also showed diverse needs, so there were technical partners covering project management, budget management, and volunteer coordination to mention a few. In two cases, the thematic and technical partners were the same person, but in most cases, these were two separate experienced civil society partners. A really innovative arrangement came from the Lab participant Seif from Tunisia. He was interested in completing a film project during his lab year, so he decided to use his video service provider as his learning partner. This allowed him to learn directly with his partner by completing a project together. It was an arrangement outside of how we had conceived the partnership but led to an impressive body of work and skills transfer.
Seven of the ten Lab participants identified people they already knew and three were introduced to each other by CIVICUS. We tried to have the learning partner in the same country as the Lab participant and this worked for those that identified their own, but the CIVICUS matches were in different countries than the Lab participant. The CIVICUS matches also took longer to find which meant they did not get the full six months. Having the partner in-country was a high predictor and factor for success.
Once the learning partner confirmed interest in participating, CIVICUS sent a formal invitation, including the expectations: time commitment of six months, two sessions a month, one hour a session, USD900 stipend for the full commitment. If the learning partner accepted, they sent back their CV and three references. CIVICUS sent them a contract, workplan template and care pack which included information about CIVICUS, the Lab, CIVICUS Diversity & Inclusion Statement, accountability mechanisms, and how to create teams and psychological safety. They had one month to complete the workplan and submit it to the CIVICUS Youth coordination team along with the signed contract. The workplan was a one-pager that asked: what is the knowledge or skill you want to build, the projected outcome, the skills needed and the target completion date that the Lab participant and the learning partner agreed on.
The workplan was the only formal deliverable in the program. It was up to each of the partnerships to determine the times, ways and methods to best accomplish the desired objectives. Therefore, they had the flexibility to proceed with the meetings in the ways and times that worked best for them. They decided how to best use their time. For many, they had conversations on networking and advocacy plans. The learning partners filled many different roles over the six months – sometimes as advisors, sometimes cheerleaders, and sometimes actively making connections. For example, one learning partner helped connect the Lab participant to someone in government for an interview that furthered their activist objectives.
What were the key ingredients of the Learning Partnership?
Offering a stipend to a civil society leader or specialist in the area of interest of the Lab participant for their time mentoring them allowed both the Lab participant and learning partner to engage in a committed relationship structured by a contract moderated by a third party and in a space where the time of both partners was respected and valued. It was an investment in local network strengthening and provided flexibility within clear objectives and structure. Both aspects have been shown to be ways CIVICUS can add value and provide a high-quality experience for participants.
‘Relationships are key to building leadership and that takes time. Therefore, a space within a program to really invest in challenges and working
with young leaders expands our understanding of the reality they live in while also working together to grow through it. The Program is quite
open and flexible without a lot of complicated systems or interference from the CIVICUS team, thus giving ownership to the participant to work
the way that is best for them.’ - Youth Action Lab Learning Partner
We evaluated the programme with the most recognised standard, the Net Promoter Score (NPS) and it scored 92, which falls into the highest range: World-class. The learning partners all showed up for a final reflection session to share what worked and what to improve for the next round. The learning partners said it was a good experience because they learned about how to be mentors and about the struggle of the work of young activists in their countries. Because the learning partners were in the same country as the Lab participant in most cases, they could really provide specific and personalised advice better than what CIVICUS could provide. The Lab participants noted how important this was and it highlighted that for a global organisation like CIVICUS, it could not provide such bespoke support that a local experienced civil society leader could for these youth activists. They specifically mentioned that they really appreciated the workplan template, the autonomy, and the flexibility.
‘The learning partners helped expand on practical and contextualized knowledge I needed in my work, especially because they were also focused
on the same area, which for me is Indigenous knowledge in the Philippines. The programme also allowed me to gain more relevant skills such
as comms.’ - Kinja Tauli, Youth Action Lab participant
Despite the high score, the learning partners and lab participants still had ways we could improve. They highlighted that six months was too short, therefore, the 2021 cohort of the Youth Action Lab will have a ten month instead of six-month learning partner engagement. From the feedback session, we learned that some additional support on tracking the journey and sharing what is learned would be welcomed. As such, the new resources will include tools to track the progress of their learning journey through outcomes and story harvesting. And if interested, they will also have the possibility to write a blog post capturing the highlights of their work as learning partners.