From November 18 to November 22, 2019, the State Department’s Strategic Religious Engagement Unit and the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program supports and empowers young people to collaborate across social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices.
The first iteration of the program took place in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Turin and Vicenza: cities with populations that have been at the heart of increased demographic change in part due to migration trends, economic decline resulting in high levels of youth unemployment, and political tensions that have increased societal divisions, including a rise in anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia, and racism.
The program brought together more than 250 youth leaders and more than 50 organizations to tackle societal challenges at the local and national levels, engage and build coalitions with their peers across differences, and contribute to their communities effectively through advocacy and education. Participants included representatives of diverse populations – voices traditionally lost within the democratic process – as well as organizations working on migrant and refugee integration, social inclusion, youth engagement, and leadership. During the program, American experts Christin “Cici” Battle, Executive Director of Young People For, and Rebecca Lenn, a strategic communications consultant, led workshops to promote civic engagement and leadership with a focus on building community, strengthening interreligious and intercultural cooperation for action, advancing integration, and boosting traditional and digital media literacy. Participants also learned effective strategies on recognizing and countering hate speech, disinformation, and cyberbullying.
“On the Road to Inclusion” provided the Public Affairs Section in Milan with the opportunity to strengthen transatlantic ties and to reach various Italian youth audiences in a priority area, as part of their broader mission to promote inclusion and interreligious dialogue. With an increasing number of second and third generation immigrants coming of age in the country, Italy, like many other Western European countries is undergoing a social and demographic transformation with needs reflecting a rapidly changing society. These recent changes suggest that efforts to promote a renewed commitment to democracy is needed at all levels of society. The youth population is a target audience, particularly given so many new arrivals. The “On the Road to Inclusion” initiative helped equip young individuals from all backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, and opportunities to access and fully participate in the democratic process.
The U.S. Consulate in Milan will initiate follow on activities, which will include opportunities for alumni of the program to engage with American youth and organizations to exchange civic engagement best practices. The Strategic Religious Engagement Unit will continue to work closely with the Helsinki Commission to expand “On the Road to Inclusion” in other Western European cities in the coming year. The amplification of the project through social media using #Youth4Inclusion we hope will continue across the new projects.
The U.S. Department of State has long worked with the Helsinki Commission to support strategic investment in young and diverse leaders to enhance democratic development and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies across the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe region though programs like the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network and will continue to do so. In December 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission’s Chairman led a hearing focused on the role public diplomacy leadership programs for emerging and established leaders can play in sustaining western democracies and the transatlantic partnership for the future.
About the Authors: Nida Ansari serves as a Policy Advisor in the Bureau of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State, and Kim Natoli serves as the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Milan.