It’s been a really crazy, hectic, fulfilling, and productive past three and a half months in Paris!
In February, I arrived at our office in PlaNet Finance (http://www.planetfinance.org/EN/), a micro-finance organization that funds small social enterprises in France and the developing world. It’s a very impressive organization, and all of the people that I’ve interacted with are young, smart, and nice professionals who are very welcoming to us! The office isn’t as laid back as E5 in Chinatown, but it’s still pretty casual. The only thing is, we are up in a little loft, so we don’t get to interact with them very much, and sometimes everyone is SO quiet, you feel like you’re even breathing too loud. But it’s a great place to work. They have a section that funds youth projects and we set up a partnership with them and our youth (a little bit like Ashoka and GP in the US).
We also have a great team of volunteers already: notably, Margot Clavier, our President, Niki Borofsky, our Vice-President, Elizabeth Craig, our secretary, Romano and Cindy, two GP youth who did internships in NYC, Hakima, a great volunteer, and we actually just started with two youth interns from La Courneuve who are doing their “stage” (internship) for their first year of college with us for the month of May and half of June. (From what I understand, the education system is very different in France than it is in the States: most of the people I’ve talked to have had to do some kind of internship at some point during their studies - usually towards the end in order to write their thesis - and it’s also actually much more common go to two-year vocational schools and start work early. Unless you haven’t passed your baccalaureate exam, which is a huge oral and written exam that you MUST pass in order to graduate from high school. If you don’t pass, you can retake it in the summer or take time off before retaking it, but you don’t have a high school degree until you’ve passed. Stressful.) There are many, many more passionate people who give their time here and there when they can. Sarah G, myself, Hakima and Niki have been leading most of the workshops, Margot has come as well, and there are members of La Courneuve who come from time to time (notably, Mariatou, who has come to every workshop. A woman in her mid-twenties who has her own dance and music association, she came at first just to observe, but has made a huge connection with the youth and with us as well!)
In February, we also had a lot of meetings with non-profit organizations and high school instructors from La Courneuve to establish our presence, understand the needs of the community, and recruit students from our new class. La Courneuve is a shocking neighborhood. As opposed to the U.S., where the most “high risk” neighborhoods tend to be “inner-city”, in France, low-income neighborhoods are pushed outside of big cities, into the banlieus (suburbs). You definitely do not have the impression of being in Paris, or even Europe: there are no quaint, picturesque buildings, no shi-shi shops or bakeries. There are big, grey, uniform apartment buildings, and a huge number of poor immigrants from Northern and Western Africa and the Middle East. In 2005, after a fatal shooting in the neighborhood, former President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that La Courneuve needed to be “cleaned out” of its immigrants with a kärcher (high pressured water-hose). Needless to say, no one that we met liked Sarkozy at all. And later, what was a little surprising (even though not too much because I knew that immigrants have a very hard time integrating into society in France), but very sad to me, was when we had a workshop on stereotypes and identity, EVERY student expressed feeling like they were not French, regardless of whether or not they were legal citizens of France. La Courneuve is only a 35-minute metro ride from the center of Paris! But the majority of the youth expressed feeling trapped or suffocated in their neighborhood, and that they never could, and never would, be a member of the society in which they lived. The youth who we work with are so impressive, profound, and motivated. I always feel cheesy saying this, but I learn many many new things from them all the time. They seriously do have so much untapped POTENTIAL in them!
Most of the meetings were exciting for me – meeting community leaders in another country, presenting Global Potential, trying to make new connections – but frustrating at the same time. Apparently, another difference between the U.S. and France is that the French like to talk and talk and talk, but are afraid to take action. Generally speaking, the French are less likely to take risks or do things that are out of the ordinary. Global Potential is very out of the ordinary: it requires kids to think out of the box, question morals and stereotypes, and become a social entrepreneur. Many people said: “This idea is awesome, but no one here will participate”. It’s natural for the people of La Courneuve to be a little bit skeptical as well – it has been the site for many politicians and outside organizations to make promises to help out just to gain publicity, and never follow through. Regardless, all of the people and associations were incredibly friendly, welcoming, and I think eventually, they noticed our sincerity. In March we attended a forum that was held by the mayor of La Courneuve, and the majority of people there recognized us, shook our hands, and stopped to talk to us in a friendly way. That felt incredible.
Another interesting cultural difference I saw here is the regard toward homosexuality. On our mentor application, we translated direct from English to French. The gender question had three choices: “man”, “woman”, “other”. Pretty standard. In France, the idea of transgender or even homosexuality is still much much more taboo than it is in the States. (Even in a big city like Paris!) A lot of people were actually freaked out by the question. We had to take it off.
Recruiting the youth was challenging. There weren’t any teachers or social workers who were particularly committed to introducing us to any one, or introducing GP to any of their students. We eventually went into a high school to talk to students, and we found a lot of motivated kids at the Youth Forum as well. In the end, we had to extend the deadline a few times, but at the last deadline, we ended up getting over 15 applications!! We held our first workshop on March 10, 2012. We’ve had to change the curriculum a little bit to adapt to relevant topics and try to squish in 20 modules in three months instead of six, but so far we have talked a lot about community, communication and conflict resolution, stereotypes and racism, human rights, and a LOT about religion. I had (am still having, actually) a little bit of culture shock when I realized how attached our youth are to religion (Islam) and their religious identity. When some of them found out I was Jewish, they were shocked… a lot of them have never met a Jewish person, or been in a Synagogue.
We did also have a workshop on fundraising, but it has been less successful than I imagine it is in the States. Some of the youth told me that there is less of a sense of giving in their community – they did not have faith that we could even hold a soccer tournament to raise money if there wasn’t a big prize or something in it for the participants. We ended up holding a viewing of the League of Champions soccer finals, and it was very successful! I thought it was a great idea that I had never thought of before: we projected the game on a big wall in a community center, and some GP youth made rice and BBQ and everyone paid 5 euros for entry, a soft drink, and food. They raised 300 euros at the end of the night (150 after how much we spent to put on the event). They basically planned and put the whole thing on by themselves. Another example of how impressive they are.
We have tons of projects for the next few months. We’re organizing two more fundraising events, recruiting tons of more volunteers (woohoo!), organizing outings and programs for the youth who don’t travel, creating a mentoring program, and making sure GP France is here to stay!