Our Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr (voluntary ecological year) is petering out and now it’s time to consolidate our year’s work and prepare to hand it over to the next year of volunteers. So what’s it all been about? Unlike the FSJ (voluntary social year, often carried out in kindergartens, care homes or hospitals), the placements range from being in nature kindergartens, museums and environmentally political organisations to organic farms. My placement, for instance, is split between the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union and an organic vineyard.
The FÖJ is unique in having its democratic speaker-system. Volunteers are placed into seminar groups which meet up throughout the year for a total of 25 days to explore topics around sustainable development and environmentalism. Each seminar group has between 25 and 30 volunteers and each group votes for two “speakers” to represent them at state level. In Rheinland-Pfalz, for example, there are ten of us “speakers” representing 140 volunteers. Three of us were then nominated as state delegates to meet with the other state delegates three times throughout the year. The approximately forty state delegates represent around 3000 volunteers.
Last week, the state speakers of Rheinland-Pfalz organised meetings with politicians from the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party) and Bündis 90/Die Grünen (The Greens) at the Langtag (state parliament) in Mainz. After a preparatory meeting, we sat in on the Environmental Committee’s (EC) monthly meeting. Within each committee, there are sub-committees who put forward motions packed with facts and evidence. The motions are then presented to the EC, where they are voted on, and there are often experts in the room to defend and expand on the data. Anyone can sit in on these meetings and an official invitation can be found on the parliament’s website. This transparency is an important aspect of democracy.
After the meeting came our discussions with several politicians. We explained what the FÖJ is and our motivations in dedicating a year to the environment. A commonly asked question was whether or not we could afford to live from the little pocket money we receive. This was a great foot in the door to introduce the initiative, “freie Fahrt für Freiwillige” (free travel for volunteers). Not only would this stop a third of our pay going to our journey to and from work, but this would allow us to increase our activism nationwide. A benefit of Germany’s federal system is that a state’s success can serve as an example for other states, such as in Hessen where volunteers are able to travel throughout the entire state for one euro a day.
From Mainz, the three delegates amongst us travelled to the third and last federal delegates conference. There, we consolidated our wishes and goals we hope next year’s delegates will continue to work on, including topics such as free travel tickets, how we can make the FÖJ an illustration of democracy and how transparent it can be. Some political groups want to reintroduce an obligatory voluntary service for 18 year olds in Germany. Last year there were 12,000 applicants for the FÖJ which proves that there are motivated people out there. Instead of turning a voluntary year into an obligation, which could not be less democratic, we want to make the FÖJ as attractive as possible and create more placements.
The message I was left with as the week wound down was that democracy only works when you use your voice. The FÖJ, for many of us, has been the first time we’ve been able to vote for something and to actively and responsibly contribute to social and democratic processes. By not talking, rifts only grow wider. This week saw our first steps into a new world and although we’re near the end of our ecological year, our activism doesn’t end here. The environment is where we live and our home and it is being, and has been, neglected. If we want to carry on living here, then something’s got to change and that begins with us individuals. Educating people on sustainability and an environmentally friendly lifestyle is the goal of the FÖJ. If you believe in something, you have to commit to it.