Interview with Nora Ait Boubker, Chair of the UNESCO Youth Committee in the Netherlands

Youth at Heart is all over the world, both within the work of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and beyond. This interview series gives a spotlight to relevant youth leaders across the world. What are their experiences, their recent thoughts, and their future plans? The second interview in this series is with Nora Ait Boubker, chair of the UNESCO Youth Committee in the Netherlands. 

Nora Ait Boubker

Can you give a general introduction about yourself?

“My name is Nora Ait Boubker, 24 years of age and currently following the Master’s Law and Politics of International Security here in Amsterdam. I’m also part of the city council in Amsterdam-East, as well as the youngest board member of Amnesty International and chair of the UNESCO Youth Committee.

Other than that, I value joy and leisure time, so I try to take care of myself wherever possible – not to worry. But generally, I consider myself an activist and politician working on justice and human rights. Especially in relation to my position with Amnesty, I can actively work on these topics. It really provides me with more insight into national and international processes.”

And you started last year as chair of the UNESCO Youth Committee, why did you choose this position and how did the process go?

“All in all, I’ve always been interested in the United Nations and what happens over there. Especially in relation to UNESCO, we focus a lot on education, which is a quintessential part of anyone’s life – not only youth. UNESCO focusses on our mindset, and how we think about ourselves and the world. The organization really focusses on creating mindsets in which people are enabled to pursue peace on an individual, communal, national and international level.

It goes without saying that education is an important part of this. Something we talked about a lot over the last year is the role of world heritage in conflict. People often underestimate that tangible and intangible heritage is a quintessential part of people’s life and informs how they relate to their environment. In times of war, these tend to be demolished.

If we’re talking about establishing peace and what we should protect: heritage is an important part of peacebuilding. So protecting it to the best extent possible is imperative for peace and securing human rights. That wasn’t something I thought about before, but is something I came to realize over the last period.”

Interesting to understand the role of this heritage in peacebuilding. Do you have concrete examples?

“Not too long ago, I was in a panel at an arts conference in Maastricht where these type of issues were discussed. I follow quite some activists online, for example relating to the situation in Gaza. Discussions about human rights are always omnipresent in these conversations, but if you look at people from the area itself; they want others also to focus on learning about their culture and their heritage. For example olive trees, and what the role of olives trees play their in their culture, or how it is a cornerstone of their greater history. This way, people ask us not to see them just as victims, but as humans.  Because of our heritage and culture, we are human.

In Gaza, there was a mosque demolished that kept a collection of ancient manuscripts. It’s not just a building; it’s a place where people have an active relationship with and which is part of the peoples history connection to their land. So talking about these type places and the cultural – or personal – habits surrounding them is imperative for guaranteeing people a sense of autonomy. Everyone is proud of their own heritage, and we simply have to recognize that in order to understand the human story.

That’s such a positive way of looking at things in a situation which is not pretty at all. It shows that people place a lot of emphasis on continuing their story at large, and that forgetting the stories of individuals and communities is some of the biggest grievances these groups of people experience. Talking about their monuments, artifacts and customs challenges this idea, and through education we can contribute quite a lot to peacebuilding in this manner.

You also see it in Afghanistan right now. Their heritage and monuments are destroyed because it carries a story that represents a part of their history. For the people, this is disastrous. The same for museums in the region, which contain pieces that are thousands of years old but are demolished right now. Upon destroying these, part of the story is forgotten. These forms of heritage are a beacon of hope for people because it also provides a venue to sustain cultures and histories, but it’s also a political tactic to destroy it.”

Nora Ait Boubker

You are chair of the UNESCO Youth Committee. Can you explain a bit about your role and what topics are relevant for the group right now?

“We have 11 members in total for a year-long period –  quite short. The first meeting was therefore important to decide a focus. What are the topics we find important? In what areas do team members want to find growth in the upcoming year? Like I said, education is an important part of our topics, as well as culture and science. UNESCO talks about peacebuilding and human rights, but always through that lens.

As a youth committee, we’re present at the board meetings of UNESCO, can put things on the agenda, and advise the board on different topics. Courses and classes are the second most prevalent activity of the committee, but we’re also organizing all type of events and festivals and what not.

Just highlighting some of our work: we give a lot of classes and courses to schools across the country. We’re currently working on a project relating to equal opportunities in education, which we work on in different thematic groups. For example, a joint manifesto surrounding menstrual equity is being developed, which will be presented to different universities and other technological and vocational schools.

More generally relating to UNESCO topics, we try to give tangible and intangible heritage as much attention as possible. Because, although many people have an idea about world heritage, all its intricacies and what it means for people – including youth in the Netherlands – is easily overlooked.
So our thematic groups focus on inclusive curriculum and other themes, like including the oversea territories of the Netherlands; something that is still overlooked within education.

The Dutch government asked for our advice on these topics, which they will now process in their policies. Lastly, Freedom of speech and rights of protest is also something that is on top of mind of a lot of students in the country, so we’re also trying to do some activities relating to that.”  

You have a seat at the table at the board meetings. How is your advice integrated by the wider UNESCO organization? Do you have examples?

“Well, admittedly, it’s only a period of a year, so this can be tricky to answer. But the board meetings are quite harmonious. A topic we recently put on the agenda is the culture and art forms of everyday youth. We relate to arts in another manner than the somewhat elitist undertone it often has. Putting these topics on the agenda is a good example. Generally we’re in contact with the national office and are interwoven with the educational network here in the Netherlands to reach our objectives.

UNESCO as a whole simply supports our vision – as long as it’s well thought through. We have an advising role, so no particular voting rights. Still, I think our input is more ambitious and a little bit activistic. The older generation isn’t as direct as us. The balance is also a good thing to have, but it’s essential for us to show our progressive and pragmatic stance to contribute to this overall balance in an effective way. Overall, we do feel meaningfully included, although our tenure is only a year.”

Would you like to see that differently?

“A year is short. And you want to achieve a lot of things. But in my other roles, it’s three years or more. A certain continuity is needed to achieve certain things. Still, in fact, there is a continuity with UNESCO because two members of the committee stay involved for two years in total.

This doesn’t change the fact that it remains a topic that we are currently discussing; how can we improve the effectiveness of our tenure, and is it needed to extend our tenure in order to be effective? But it’s difficult to have exact conclusions on this topic, whereas change is the driver of innovation.”

How do you practically insert the youth perspective in UNESCO policy?

“During the education session we have a lot of conversations on the concerns and needs of youth. We realize that youth doesn’t have any interest in vagueness and long meetings with no result. If you want youth to relate to your programs and policy, you need to take this into account. It’s the same at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs: in order to talk with youth you have to speak their language.”

Nora Ait Boubker

How is the relation between your position with UNESCO and with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Dutch government more widely?

“I think we’re closest to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. But, admittedly, we’re mostly in contact with the UNESCO office nationally, since we’re a body of the United Nations and the Dutch branch therein. One of the tasks of UNESCO includes advising the Dutch government and the different ministries. We’re trying to search for the relationships with relevant partners, something we also tried to search when connecting with the team for youth, education and work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We’re constantly searching for improving our network, finding synergies.

The story how it came about is pretty fun. I was at a youth forum in Paris where we discussed youth participation in different settings. There I met the Ambassador for Youth, Education and Work, but we didn’t know each other. We talked about the relation between the UNESCO Youth Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also how this relates to the youth representatives of the National Youth Council. Based on this, we decided to strengthen the relationships between all the aforementioned organizations.

We all have the same goal, which is strengthening the position of youth in societies. So bundling our networks and expertise contributes to reaching this goal. With the National Youth Council, for example, we really feel we have the same type of energy and we can really funnel our energy into the change we want to see.

We empower each other to conduct change from within, which in turn motivates youth outside of our organizations to do the same. Because if they do not have the feeling they can make a change, you loose the youth. Last thing we want is that youth thinks their voice doesn’t matter, so searching for linkages between relevant parties to counter this trend is essential. So, too, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Youth at Heart strategy and the things they pursue.”

Looking at other UNESCO offices worldwide, youth participation is designed differently. Can you reflect on that?

“I was in Paris at the conference I just talked about. My idea was that I would encounter youth in the same position as I’m in. However, it couldn’t be further from the truth. In a lot of other countries, it’s one or two people that might attend a board meeting here and there, but nothing consistent and sustainable – in my point of view.

I have a team that supports me and we have a lot of space and support to invest in what we believe in, and to relate with youth surrounding topics important to us. This isn’t normal if I look at other countries. It really showed me how progressive our program is and how we in the Netherlands engage meaningfully with youth.

Other countries started reaching out to pick our brain about our approach. Worldwide, youth participation is still seen as a box that needs to be ticked – tokenism. Meaningful youth participation is not just ticking a box, it’s believing in us and taking us seriously, investing in us. It’s not only cute and fun, which is often assumed by the older generation. They look at us with joy and thereafter they go on with business as usual. That’s not inclusive, and certainly not the reason why we’re here.

Since UNESCO in the Netherlands creates a bigger team that consists of youth, we can actually have an impact. We’re not just there, our energy is seen as something the whole organization can thrive on. In other countries, I see this less than here. But, this also has to do with financial backing and other forms of facilitation from both UNESCO and the government of the Netherlands. In other countries, these opportunities are often diminished.”

When you explained the way of working in the Netherlands, how did other countries react?

“Well, highly interested. Also when the Ambassador was speaking at the conference, I got a lot of messages about our way of working and how things are constructed here in the Netherlands. I realized it really is a privilege that we have it in this way here in the Netherlands, but it’s also a matter of prioritizing youth participation in countries where this infrastructure isn’t there yet.

Normally, without any particular reason, youth is treated as lowest on the hierarchical ladder. In the Netherlands it’s different; there is no ladder in this regard. That’s really something that we can export internationally.”

How do you work with the Youth Committee, both when you’re in the Netherlands and abroad?

“Youth works differently than the bureaucratic institutions that represent us. Our group is also quite young, with people between 16 and 25 years old. So if you’re working with youth, you have to admit that they are not people with a lot of experience. This doesn’t mean they have no expertise, but experience is often missing. For me, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of experience from my previous roles. So I consciously try to have a certain structure in our ways of working.

Me and the vice-chair of the committee designed our initial committee meeting in a very structural manner, with clear outcomes on a group and individual level. What are your strong and weak points? What can you help others with, and what do you need help with? Now, we meet each other on a monthly basis as a group, but the thematic groups also convene on a more regular basis.

After two to three months, you’re acquainted with all the processes and everything rolls quite smoothly. Again, having the experience of working with youth really helped in this sense, as well as the support of the national UNESCO bureau. It’s true that mentorship is very important.

Monthly meetings help a lot, because you actually see each other regularly face to face. We also pay a lot of attention to mental health and feeling good in any situation. We start with a check-in: how are you feeling, is there anything you want to share? And after, we do a check-out, where everyone can indicate what they thought of the meeting and with what feeling they leave. It’s about providing the space, both for positive and negative aspects of our work, or how it impacts us on a personal level.

Everyone is passionate on specific themes which contributes to our collaboration going so smooth.  And because of this, I feel like every single person can work on their personal development during this tenure. Fun is the main driver that we try to encapsulate in our way of working and the passion of our members is the fuel for the engine.”

Is this also the thing you are most proud of in your tenure with UNESCO?

“It’s hard to say, because I had a lot of opportunities that I didn’t have before. For example speaking at TEFAF and establishing peace through arts and heritage. But really, our first meeting: it was so cool and inspiring! It gave everyone so much energy and allowed us to build a foundation for the growth our personal members experience now.

But in a sense the best is yet to come, because June and July will be very busy months for us. Our projects needed quite some preparation and –  taking into account the schedule of youth and students – the start of the summer provided a great opportunity for a lot of activities.

But also, I’m proud of collaborating with youth internationally. I met so many inspiring people from all over, which really has been a door that had been opened over the past year. So no real specific moment, but it’s a ‘high’ all the way with many different moments that motivate me on a personal level. Sometimes it’s just a realization that we’re really doing it, really connecting, and really going places and creating spaces for topics important to us.”

What was different from your expectations?

“Well, I didn’t really expect to learn a lot about motivating people. I was used to working with people that are always older than me, but now I was one of the oldest in this group and had to provide the motivation and group feeling myself. How do we get the best out of this group, how can I lead? That definitely has been different than I expected, or rather a positive aspect that I didn’t expect.

What also positively surprised me was the collaboration with the national office of UNESCO and the extent to which we are supported by them. But, also, their ability of selecting the right people for the Youth Committee has been impressive. Me and the vice-chair of the committee are almost working as one. So kudos to the organization for selecting us so appropriately. It has been a true learning process, and the journey has been more impressive than I could imagine beforehand.”

Leadership and realization about the importance of arts, culture and heritage has been the red line in your experience. How do you take this with you in your future endeavors?

“The idea of heritage as being central to peacebuilding and conflict is something I will take with me everywhere I go. I have a migration background and always think about a situation in which you flee your country because of a conflict situation.

The realization that a lot of people do not only leave the lands that they call home, but also leave behind their culture and the places they express their cultures – that realization has become central to my thinking and my approach towards assessing situations of conflict and peacebuilding. Telling their stories, recognizing their artifacts and monuments, and creating the story of a human rather than the image of only a refugee – that’s the thing that will be my drive in the future.

At the moment, that’s an aspect of sorrow that’s often overlooked. Also for me, for example within my studies, there is a lot of focus on human rights and lawful conduct, but the human story can be overlooked in this way. Leaving the world better than I found it is what drives me, and I’ve realized the whole philosophy of UNESCO is imperative for pursuing this goal.”

Any last words?

“Really, just want to encourage every national and international organization to include youth in agenda setting and policy making. Take them seriously, not just as a form of tokenism – ticking the box.

Sometimes it’s as if organizations think that you partner with youth only because it’s beneficial for the involved youth. This is simply not true. Of course, youth gains valuable experience, but it’s your own organization that benefits the most of meaningful youth participation: new ideas, critical thinking, novel ways of working, and inclusion across the board. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t make use of such an obvious benefit.”

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