Call it what you want—a conference series, a think tank, a movement poised to change the world, but however you choose to describe it, Yaumena has made its presence known at Sciences Po Menton. And given the positive response it has received so far, I would predict that it is here to stay.
By Kathleen Sullivan
Although it was created at the beginning of 2014, Yaumena has already hosted two successful dialogues on campus. The first took place on April 5 with Tewfik Aclimandos, and examined the problematique: “L’armee est-elle l’avenir de l’Egypte?” The second took place April 17 with Fawaz Gerges and looked at the role of militias and the youth in Libya.
Yaumena, which stands for Youth, Art, and Unity in the Middle East and North Africa, was founded this year by a group of students who represent a cross section of our campus from both French and English programs, first and second years, and exchange students. Lamiss Azab also played a crucial role in guiding the team from the early stages of the project, and also acted as the facilitator for the first dialogue. This group is supplemented by a team of students who act as researchers before the dialogue and facilitate discussions during it. However the Yaumena dialogues as we have seen them are the result of a long process, which I was able to discuss with Bashir Bekka, one of the Yaumena founders. And this process, as Bashir explained to me, is still ongoing.
The original idea that brought the group together was organizing a TedX conference focused on youth and art in the Middle East. The board considered having the conference at a larger venue, possibly outside Menton, and had a list of contacts prepared. They applied to TedX, but were told that their idea for the conference was too specific to fit in the TedX mold. The group was faced with a decision: change their original concept and go forward with the TedX conference, or stick to their initial themes—youth and art—and create their won model for the conference. Though this would require more work in terms of branding, the group ultimately decided that remaining true to their original goals was most important.
Thus Yaumena (which is both an acronym and the transliteration of “our day” from Arabic) was founded in early 2014. Though the concept of Yaumena is still evolving, the formula for at least one of their activities is more or less set, that of the dialogue. The Yaumena dialogue is unique in that the discussion occurs both within the panel, which is composed of a facilitator, a guest speaker, and two student speakers, and between the panel and the audience. In the first two dialogues which have occurred, the guest on the panel has been an academic, though in the future the group hopes to involve other types of experts as well, such as artists and policy makers.
Several features differentiate Yaumena from other types of conferences. First of all, the dialogue puts students on stage next to experts, which is rare in most academic settings. The idea behind this type of panel is that the voice of the youth is often ignored, which is a tragedy not only because it neglects a valuable source of input which often has creative solutions, but also because it hinders the longevity of any policies. Ignoring the youth is ignoring the future.
Second, the Yaumena dialogue not only occurs between the student (on stage) and the expert, but extends to the audience as well. After initial presentations by each party on stage, the audience, which has been provided with information on the conference subject in the days leading up to the event, is broken up into smaller discussion groups. Each group is led by a student facilitator (who is also a member of the research team, therefore very well informed on the subject), and discusses the various issues raised, ultimately agreeing on one question to ask the panel. After this, each question is asked to the panel, and discussion between the various panelists ensues. The audience can continue to participate by writing more questions during this time which may be integrated into the panelists’ discussion. The dialogue is concluded by the facilitator, who synthesizes the major themes of the dialogue and responses to the challenge at hand.
Another core feature of Yaumena is the idea of a follow-up to the dialogue. The guest speaker and one of the student speakers from each of the two conferences are working together to write a document of action that outlines the results and the possible solutions to the challenge posed at the beginning of the dialogue. In this way, Yaumena hopes to give practical and concrete solutions to the problems discussed.
One of the most exciting aspects of Yaumena is that it still has the potential to grow in many different directions. In the future, there might be bigger Yaumena conferences that include youth from the MENA region to participate, or conferences held in other areas. The group has toyed around with expanding in the education direction, or incorporating a journalistic element. No matter the form Yaumena will take, it is important to the founders that the project always involve the youth in whatever conversation is happening.
As a participant at both dialogues, I can say that I not only felt better informed about each of the two topics afterwards, but I felt that I had been able to really grapple with the challenges surrounding each issue and help contribute to the discussions. The conference is also a tremendous learning experience for those students who take part in the research, since they become experts of sorts in the given subject. Furthermore, since the format is one of dialogue rather than debate, the conference serves as an arena for the addition rather than the conflict of ideas. During the dialogue, I felt that I could see ideas being built, and as an audience member, I was not merely a bystander since I aided in this process. Thus Yaumena is an educational experience in which the student is active in thinking about real world solutions to relevant issues. As the project is refined, I believe that it will only expand its potential to create change.