Who are you?

Who am I? Good question. I am Claire Dépit and I am French, from the region of Champagne in France. I am about to graduate from UCR.

Why did you come to UCR?

I wanted to do a higher education program in English without paying ten thousand euros per year. What I liked about UCR was that I could pick different subjects and bring them together. I wanted to study anthropology and law. In France you simply cannot make such a combination at university level. You either study this or your study that. And indeed, when I am back in France and explain what I do at UCR, people often have a hard time understanding how that is possible.

Did you know about liberal arts and sciences before you became interested in UCR?

I was about to take the exam to go to Sciences Po, a prestigious and highly selective ‘grand établissement’ in Paris. The full name is Institut d’études politiques de Paris.  I knew that it would be hard to get into the school so I asked what I could do instead. Some people said that, in the Netherlands, there are these really good ‘colleges’. At that time, I did not know what they were. ‘College’ in French means ‘middle school’ so it was confusing at first. I did some research through the Internet and became very enthusiastic about UCR. I made the decision and my first day in the Netherlands was actually the day before orientation week. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I made the right choice.

I invited you for this interview because I was impressed with your senior project. Can you explain what it is about?

It started with a grant from North Sea Ports and UCR to attend the Four Freedoms Awards last Fall at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. It was an amazing experience which opened my eyes to so many things. I was deeply impressed with the incredible things that the laureates did to stand up for the Four Freedoms principles. So I decided to look up the list with all the laureates since 1982. The list is daunting — but I could not help noticing that most people who got the award I would consider, well… quite old. So I asked myself; is it normal not to include people from younger generations among the laureates of such a prestigious international human rights award?

In the last few years, I delved deep into the subject of youth activism. I am much interested in young people standing up for societal causes and promoting them through activism. I brought that subject together with what I found about the laureates and arrived at the subject of my senior project; why is there relatively little official recognition of youth activism, in comparison to the much and prestigious international recognition for more senior activists?

What is youth activism?

It is not easy to define youth activism because, as the UN says, youth is a concept that has different meanings depending on your culture. For me, youth is about individuals under the age of 25. I decided to include younger children as well. A youth activist is a young individual who attempts to address or solve a societal problem: environmental, political, social, cultural. Youth activists, like all other activists, strive to take action that could change things in society.

You stress global youth activism in your work. What makes youth activism global?

Well, I use the same definition but the issue at stake is a global issue, happening at either local or international scale. Actually, most forms of activism, which are always situated, and hence local, are related to global issues: for instance democracy, colonialism, climate change, and environmental crises.

How did you research global youth activism?

I used several approaches. I was looking at youth activism since 1880. So I looked at a lot of historical sources about the impact of young people on society. I also looked at youth activism at present, but for the historical work I looked at a lot of books and journal articles on the subject to gain an understanding of the phenomenon.

Is there relatively more youth activism now than there was in 1880? Or is its frequency relative stable?

That is an interesting question, but I do not have an answer to it. Nowadays, youth activism is highly mediatized so we know what they are doing. Back in the 19th Century, and for quite some time since, this was not the case. So it is much harder to trace precisely what happened. But I do know that there is evidence of youth activism around the world since 1880.

In your senior project you talk about the misrecognition of youth activism.

I do. I asked myself: is it really a problem that some people may be misrecognized for their activism? In order to answer this question I had to look into the concept of misrecognition. I looked at Hegel, who developed the useful notion of misrecognition, which comes down to people not receiving from their fellow human beings the respect or esteem than they deserve. I wanted to see if we can say that young activists are misrecognized.

And what did you find?

There is indeed misrecognition of youth activists and, importantly, it often occurs in an institutionalized way. Two student organizations that I interviewed in France come to mind. There was one student association that organized a big event to raise awareness about rape and harassment at a particular university. The association’s work has been completely ignored and I would say misrecognized by their own university, which clearly had other interests than being open about these problems.

I then interviewed another student organization, at the same university, which engaged in activism for students with cancer. Their experience was totally different: they felt strongly supported by their university, which fully agreed that students with cancer need more support and provisions and which supported the student association’s activist cause.

So if what is on the agenda of youth activists fits nicely with what an institution itself wants to put in the spotlight, then the recognition of the activism will be there. If, however, the activism goes against the interests of major institutional actors and practices, then the recognition is not that easily found.

 I was made aware of an interesting proposal that you have done concerning a Youth Activism Award that you’d want to add to the prestigious Four Freedoms Awards.

I asked myself how many international youth awards concerning democracy and freedom there are for global youth activism. I found three. I did extensive google searches in Mandarin, Spanish, English and French and the results were very poor. But then there are so many international awards for the more senior activists! I decided to do a case study concerning the Four Freedoms Awards, awarded here in Middelburg and in New York every year in an alternating pattern. It is international, well-known, and it is about democracy and freedom. I looked at the 203 laureates until now and I was quite shocked to find that, on average, the laureates were sixty-eight years old. Only 2% of all the laureates were under the age of thirty.

Now I guess that one argument in favor of the status quo would be: well, you cannot expect to win an award that big if it cannot be understood as a life-time award. People worked hard and very long on their activism, and that is part of the reason why they get the award.

But that argument focuses too much on quantity and not enough on quality. The question most definitely should not be: how long did you work on it? It should be: what did you do? This is about encouragement, about supporting role models. A seventy years old laureate is not necessarily going to inspire a 21 years old idealist. What we need, I argue, is a Youth Freedom Award, an award that recognizes and celebrates the importance of global youth activism.

It is a very strong idea. Did you bring it to the Roosevelt Foundation, the organization behind the Four Freedoms Awards?

I started the conversation although I did not yet meet with the Board. But the people I did speak to where really interested in the project. They asked me quite serious questions about how we could really make this work and convince the board to accept the project. I was thrilled and I am quite optimistic about it.

Well, wonderful. I always end the interviews with the question if you have a message for our community.

This may sound a bit cheesy, but here is my message: believe in youth.