From 3 to 5 April 2023, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels facilitated the participation of 25 current American Fulbrighters and 25 European alumni of EU-funded exchange programs in the 2023 EU-US Young Leaders Seminar on Active Civic Participation.
The event marked the sixth iteration of the EU-US Young Leaders Seminar, which was first held in April 2017. The initiative, jointly funded by the European Union and the United States, provides a unique opportunity to discuss some of the most important global challenges and the creation of strong transatlantic people-to-people connections. Since its inception, over 300 alumni of U.S. and EU-funded educational exchange programs have participated in Young Leaders Seminars dedicated to topics such as migration, the future of work, disinformation and media literacy, the future of cities, and the future of democracy.
Co-organized by the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, the U.S. Department of State, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, and the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission, this year’s program welcomed esteemed guests — including Chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board Donna Brazile — and included a memorable visit to the European Parliament with First Vice-President Othmar Karas.
From the U.S. perspective, the young leaders heard from Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, Erica Lutes, who delivered welcoming remarks and led a panel on the role of civic engagement in democracy with Thomas de Luca, Fulbright Scholar, Cezara Grama, Rule of Law Expert at the Expert Forum, and Kim L. Smouter Umans, Director of the European Network Against Racism. Fulbright Academic Exchange Specialist Patricia Bass also led a panel on Education for Democratic Citizenship with Saad Bokhari, Political Officer at the U.S. Mission to the EU and Oren Murphy, Regional Advisor for Europe at USAID.
Panellists and participants were particularly enthused by the presence of renowned political strategist and analyst Donna Brazile. She joined the participants during the Welcome Dinner, where she personally met with all students and made time for conversations and photo opportunities. At the end of the seminar, she delivered inspiring closing remarks to encourage and reassure the young leaders of the value of their civic engagement for society.
Other highlights included speakers and panellists from EU institutions. From the European External Action Service, attendees heard from Managing Director of the Americas, Brian Glynn, and the EU Youth Coordinator, Biliana Sirakova. They visited the European Parliament and had a private audience with First Vice-President Othmar Karas, where they learned about the workings of the European Parliament and discussed the dynamics between the 27 EU Member States at the European level. To get first-hand insight into the EU by a seasoned MEP was greatly appreciated by participants. Visiting the hemicycle where MEPs sit in Parliamentary session gave a flavour of where decisions are made.
Attendees learned about the advocacy work of many international NGOs, ranging from: gender inclusion and diversity; youth political participation; support for migrants; campaigning for inclusion; and raising awareness for causes such as the impact of the war in Ukraine on civilians. Speakers included: Kajal Odedra (Change.org); Kelsey Beltz (The Good Lobby); Kim Smouter Umans (European Network Against Racism); Marta Barandly (Promote Ukraine); Mpanzu Bamenga (Human Rights Initiative); Wietse van Ransbeeck (CitizenLab); Mariam Harutyunyan (A Seat at the Table); Frank-Victor Laurant (CIVIX) and Maria Stratan (FH International).
Inspired by keynote speakers and panel discussions in the plenary, participants could compare and contrast their ideas in peer-moderated breakout groups on how to get involved in topics such as the environment, human rights, peace and security, and technological innovation. They had many opportunities for discussion on the topic as well as casual conservations during frequent coffee breaks and meals.
European participants Sander de Souza shared his thoughts on the seminar: “I am a strong European enthusiast and I want to exchange with other young people from the European Union and from the United States because (…) our relationships are very important (…) all issues we face in our countries are often the same. So maybe together we will be able to find solutions.”
Fulbright grantee Katie VanderEspt added: “My favorite part of this seminar is being able to learn about other peoples’ perspectives (…) it makes me think about things that I’ve never considered before.”