An FÖJ and its democracy


Up until 2011, 18 year-old German men were required to carry out a voluntary year in a hospital, school or in assistive care as an alternative to conscription. For the last seven years, placements in social (FSJ), cultural (FKJ) or ecological sectors (FÖJ) have been available for young people aged 16-27. An FÖJ (freiwilliges ökologishes Jahr = voluntary ecological year) is one of the several volunteering programmes offered in Germany which offers a placement with an ecological organisation, seminars and opportunities to engage with environmental politics and topics.

Amongst the programmes, the FÖJ is unique in having a speaker system. Each of the 16 German states has several seminar groups. Within each group, two representatives are voted in to form a committee with the other representatives from their state. In Rheinland-Pfalz, for example, we have five seminar groups containing a total of 140 FÖJler and ten representatives. Within each state committee, 1 to 3 people are voted to represent the state. Lucky enough to be a part of this system, I had the opportunity to travel with the other two Rheinland-Pfalzers to Erfurt for the national delegate conference. I’ve never been surrounded by so many engaged and committed people who spent three days in a room demonstrating democracy.

What is there to be democratic about? We spent hours discussing how we would vote, sometimes as late as 4am. Did we want 2/3 majority or 50/50? Should we implement a quota so that at least 2 of the 5 voted in are female? Should we base our vote on capability rather than gender? What about a quota for those who identify as transgender? Sould Saarland get an extra seat since they’re the only state that has just one representative? Should we move away from social networks that don’t respect data protection regulations? How should we regulate it that everyone gets the chance to be heard? What do we stand for? Who do we represent?

The speaker system entails the philosophy that young people should have much more of a say in politics and the fact that so many people sign up for the voluntary year shows a tremendous degree of engagement. At the conference in Erfurt, the 41 delegates voted 5 FÖJlers to represent the FÖJ family. Throughout the year, they’ll meet with politicians and organise an array of campaigns focusing on environmental politics whilst considering how to represent the ca. 3000 FÖJlers in Germany.


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