Screenshot eines Videocalls zwischen Austin, Texas und Koblenz Screenshot eines Videocalls zwischen Austin, Texas und Koblenz
USA-Special 2022

Strengthening youth civic engagement in the USA and Germany

Civic Education

In 2021 the American Council on Germany brought together representatives of youth councils from five sister cities in Germany and the U. S.. The idea for this initiative came from the mayors of the cities themselves. In several online sessions and webinars, young people from Austin/Koblenz, Buffalo/Dortmund, San Antonio/Darmstadt, Charlotte/Krefeld and St. Louis/Stuttgart exchanged views on racism, climate change and youth participation. Project coordinator Robert Fenstermacher would like to see more of this in the future and tells IJAB about his experiences in the German-American Sister Cities Youth Forum.

04.03.2022 / An Interview with Robert Fenstermacher about the German-American Sister Cities Youth Forum

In 2021 the German-American Sister Cities Youth Forum brought together young civic leaders from Germany and the US. What’s the idea of the project?

The main purpose of the project was to bring together representatives from local youth councils and youth leadership programs in five pairs of U.S.-German sister cities to have a transatlantic dialogue about issues confronting their local communities. Our hope was not only to build greater mutual understanding and collaboration between the youth, but also to help strengthen the relationship and ties between the sister cities so that future exchanges can take place among the next generation in these communities.  

Who initiated this youth exchange?  

This exchange is a direct result of a series of 2020 Transatlantic Town Halls with German and American mayors in the same sister cities in which the mayors discussed how their cities have adapted due to the pandemic and how their communities are rethinking plans for the future on issues like urban development and climate change, social equity and cohesion, and government engagement and communication with citizens. In each conversation, mayors specifically mentioned the need to engage more with youth in their communities on these issues, so the Youth Forum seemed like an obvious project to launch. 

Young people face different challenges in their life depending on where they live and grow up. Yet, racial inequality, climate change and diversity seemed to be key issues keeping young people on both sides of the Atlantic on their toes. Why is it so valuable for young people to take a peek at civic life and engagement outside their own country? 

Each individual community may have its own unique set of challenges, but issues like climate change and diversity, equity & inclusion are much bigger in scope. Learning how different communities and countries are attempting to tackle these issues (or not), understanding what the main challenges are, and recognizing the similarities in our societies allows youth to learn from, and support, one another. It also increases a mutual understanding that working on these issues is not just an American or German challenge, but something that is a responsibility for all of us regardless of where we live.

Terms such as racism, diversity and inclusion are often looked at and used differently in German and American contexts and discussing them can be challenging. Did this show in the youth forum and how did participants manage to create a safe space for open discussions around these topics?

Since words are used differently, we shared a glossary of terms related to diversity, equity, and inclusion that included words used in both the American and German contexts which helped participants communicate with one another with a greater understanding of their meaning. During our conversations, we wanted everyone to feel that they had a safe space to talk about these topics and to share information openly because we recognized that some of the topics are very sensitive and may be difficult for some to talk about. And given the community in this project represented youth from different backgrounds and walks of life, it was critical that everyone respect each other’s opinions and perspectives. Therefore, the youth advisory council for the project early on created a document called “Guiding Principles of Communication” that outlined standards for all the discussions. This included the concept of using a “safe word” to calm things down if a conversation became tense or someone felt attacked or insulted. There is only one rule — when someone uses the safe word, you stop. No more yelling, no more talking, nothing. You back down, you back away. No further discussion, disagreement or argument around that topic will occur until everyone has had a chance to cool off. I was impressed that the youth wanted to have guidelines like this to ensure the safe space. In the end, however, all of our conversations were free of conflict, very open and transparent, and incredibly respectful.

Looking at young civic engagement, what would you say appeared to be major differences with regards to the work of young civic leaders in Germany and the US?  

To be honest, rather than see major differences regarding youth civic engagement, I think the exchange in fact highlighted how similar youth commitment to addressing issues in their communities is on both sides of the Atlantic. In all ten cities, youth are passionate about change, informing themselves about issues and pressing decision-makers in their schools and in their local governments to implement new policies. Perhaps one difference between Germany and the U.S. is that many of the American youth organizations are independent, nonprofit organizations, whereas the German organizations are formally affiliated with, and funded by, local government agencies. In some cases, the formal affiliation means that the youth have a stronger voice in policymaking. During the exchange, youth expressed a clear desire for their views to be heard, so participants liked the concept of official “youth councils” or “Jugendräte" that allow youth greater input into the decision-making for their communities.  

 The Sister Cities Youth Forum took place online. What opportunities lie in going virtual for exchanges like these?  

Prior to this project, none of the youth organizations in the sister cities had had any contact with each other. The virtual exchange was a great way to begin conversations between the youth in both countries, to form relationships, and to start building mutual understanding on issues they face in their communities. Ideally, we hope that the virtual exchange creates a foundation on which the youth organizations in the sister cities can build a sustainable, long-term relationship for further exchange and dialogue on these issues (and others) in the future, as well as in-person exchanges in their respective countries once the Covid-19 pandemic has been overcome. 

One of the project’s goals was to strengthen local youth engagement. One could argue that there are other ways to achieve this than transatlantic exchanges. What makes international exchanges such a unique civic learning opportunity for all parties involved?  

As someone who personally took part in exchange programs to Germany, I believe they are extremely valuable because one is forced to step out of the daily life you consider to be normal and to look at issues from a different perspective. Both similarities and differences can lead to greater understanding or to finding best practices that can lead to better ideas and policies which improve the quality of life in communities. Overall, exchanges broaden people’s horizons and openness to considering different ways of approaching issues while simultaneously trying to solve similar challenges or take advantage of common opportunities.  

Looking at this from a municipal perspective, transatlantic exchanges can seem challenging and overwhelming, especially if built from the ground up. You are one of the initiators of the German-American Sister Cities Youth Forum. Do you have any advice for municipalities who wish to go forward with their idea of a German-American youth exchange?

My recommendation is to start small and to take advantage of virtual exchanges to start building a relationship before expanding to a larger in-person exchange that requires greater planning and funding to implement. And in terms of finding a partner in the other country for the exchange, there are 100 sister city partnerships between U.S. and German cities that can serve as a great foundation. From personal experience, each of the youth organizations approached for this project indicated that this type of exchange was on their “to do” list and was of great interest; all that was needed was someone to pick up the phone or to send an e-mail suggesting the idea. I’m also happy of course to provide more advice to anyone who calls me too!  

Make a wish: What do you hope to see in the future in terms of German-American youth exchange?  

Recent elections in both the United States and Germany showed that the next generation is engaged, committed, and motivated to take action on serious issues confronting our local communities and the world. My wish would be that our respective governments would invest more resources and dedicate greater funding to exchange opportunities that bring youth together to share ideas and learn from one another. Every one of the 100 sister city partnerships between Germany and the United States should have an exchange and the infrastructure to support them. Our governments talk about enhanced transatlantic cooperation, so as one of the participants in our exchange said, “Be the change you want to be.” 

ACGUSA online
American Council on Germany

About the Autor: Robert Fenstermacher is Chief Content Officer with the American Council on Germany. Following multiple experiences in Germany beginning with a high school exchange in West Berlin in 1987, he has pursued a 30-year career working on German-American exchange programs. 


What participants say

Shalia Ford, FOCUS St. Louis

Ms. Ford, why did your organization decide to participate in the G-A Sister Cities Youth Forum? 

FOCUS St. Louis is the premier civic leadership organization, preparing diverse leaders from high school to C-Suite executives to work cooperatively for a thriving St. Louis region. At FOCUS we educate leaders, connect leaders and facilitate the important conversations. Our decision to partner with the German-American Sisters Cities Youth Forum was in alignment with our vision and mission as well as aspirations to connect students nationally and internationally with leaders. Our intent was to expand their view on the critical issues of our times by participating in forums where students can learn from and lead with their German peers. This partnership encourages students to think globally about issues of racial equity, climate change and sustainability while promoting youth participation in civic life locally where change can be realized. Founded in 1989, Youth Leadership St. Louis is an internationally recognized program that informs, connects, prepares and empowers St. Louis area youth to become civic and community leaders.  

What potential for local youth engagement do you see in transatlantic exchanges?

The potential is great for continued youth engagement. Not only are youth able to connect during the virtual forums, but continue discussions between forums to foster understanding and build lasting relationships. At a recent forum, a youth leader from St. Louis exchanged contact information with a youth leader from Stuttgart to share more about their Action Research Project done through participation in Youth Leadership St. Louis. Youth-led action research is an approach to scientific inquiry and social change grounded in principles of equity that engages young people in identifying problems relevant to their own lives, conducting research to understand the problems, and advocating for changes based on research evidence. This exchange was great to hear and see! We anticipate learning of more of these exchanges and connections.    

Shalia Ford, Director, Leadership Programs,  FOCUS St. Louis, Missouri, USA

John Schubert, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council

What did you learn about Germany that you didn’t know before?  

The thing I learned about Germany itself that most surprised me was how involved and motivated its youth are to be changemakers. Whenever anyone from the Americans would discuss a problem that we would have, the German youth were always the first to ask us what we were doing about it, sometimes pushing us to do more! The tenacity of these young leaders amazed me then and now. 

Breonna Tuitt, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council

What motivated you to participate in the G-A Sister Cities Youth Forum?  

I wanted to know what the political culture in Germany was like. I wanted to try and understand how Germany's government impacted the people and the way they lived, then compare this to the United States. 

Ann Vadakkan, Austin Youth Council

What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience? 
My biggest takeaway from the experience is learning about a particular initiative the Germans used that I would like to implement in my school. Essentially, they created a way to track carbon emissions in their school to see how much certain factors in a school setting contributed to the overall carbon emissions. With this information, they were able to target certain areas where they could reduce carbon emissions. Putting this into effect in our school systems today could be a great way to decrease our carbon footprint.  

USA-Special 2022

With the "USA-Special", the first IJAB publication with a German-US-American focus was published this spring, presenting and highlighting existing partnerships, successful projects and topics in transatlantic exchange.

Contact persons
Elena Neu
Project Officer
International Youth Policy Cooperation
Tel.: +49 (0)228 9506-105
Cathrin Piesche
PR Officer, Online & Print Editor
Tel.: +49 228 9506-215
Julia Weber
Project Officer International Youth Policy Cooperation / Project Assistant
Tel.: +49 (0)228 9506-165