Open Space, a voluntary forum, is a platform for youngsters to voice their opinions and transform lives

They are young, they are concerned, they have ideas and they want to make a difference. Yet they are not often given the space to air their views. Open Space is one of the few enabling spaces in the city where young people can open up, think, debate and take steps for change.

“Young people with ideas and ideals are the force that can change the world. Ideas and ideals create creative imagination. Open Space is a voluntary initiative of the youth, for the youth and by the youth. It gives them the space to interact, explore and express their experience and perspective on society, environment, art, culture, and policy,” says John Samuel, policy expert and Global Advisor – Democratic Governance, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who initiated Open Space, a youth outreach initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development Studies, Pune, in 2003 and in Kerala late in 2012.

What started as a handful of youngsters, who were part of an UNDP internship, joining hands for a campaign to stop violence against women, in the wake of the Delhi gang rape incident of December 2012, has now blossomed into an active forum. Many of them meet up at least twice a week, mostly on the premises of Institute for Sustainable Development and Governance (ISDG) at Golf Links in Kowdiar. The forum has now set up branches in Kochi and Kozhikode.

“The best thing about Open Space is that we can be who we are. The discussions never get heated and everyone has their say, or rather, everyone is encouraged to have a say,” says Gayatri Devi, a former student at the Government College for Women. “At first, I was rather inhibited about speaking up, because it was something I was not used to, given the rigid hierarchical structure of our education system, which does not encourage questioning. At Open Space there is no hierarchy and nobody will judge you for your opinions. It’s actually quite fun,” adds the youngster as fellow volunteer Farzana, an economics graduate from the University of Kent, nods in agreement.

“We initiate and coordinate the activities, with the help of members and mentors such as John, Jobin Thomas, who coordinates Open Space’s activities in Kerala, Godwin S.K., a lecturer at Women’s College, and ISDG staff members and academics V. Madhusoodhanan and P. Cyriac Mathew, to name a few. My interest in politics and history and the desire to make a change keeps me motivated. Lack of awareness, inhibition to try new things and the fear of failure is, I think, what keeps youngsters from stepping up for the better good. The idea is not to think of the end result, but participate and persevere,” says Renjitha Raj, a sprightly second year student of economics of Women’s College.

Many say that Open Space interactions and perspectives have empowered them. Gautham Jayasurya, an erudite civil services aspirant and another coordinator of the policy dialogue series, says: “I came across the group on social media sites and joined at the behest of my friend Rohith Jyothish. The discussions have given me a diversity of perspectives on various subjects. For instance, an opinion on water scarcity from the perspective of a lawyer, an economist, a layman, an engineer, a doctor…”

Rejoe Sudarsanan, who was an active volunteer of the group, meanwhile, says he has been inspired to start an Open Space forum in Dehradun, where he is currently studying for his management degree. John adds via email from Kigali, Rwanda: “The joy of watching young people discovering their talents and purpose in life is indeed a great experience. Today those who have been a part of Open Space youth initiative are playing important leadership roles in academia, media, civil service, the United Nations and many social change organisations.”

Check out Open Space’s Kerala specific programmes on www.facebook.com/OpenSpaceKerala

Activity roll

On Wednesday afternoons the group alternates between ‘book tasting’ (review) sessions and screenings of socially-relevant films and documentaries. On Friday afternoons the youngsters conduct ‘policy dialogues’, where they make their voices heard on a variety of issues, from electoral reform and climate change to urban planning, banking and financial sector reforms, and the ban on plastic flex boards, occasionally interacting with policymakers, scholars, writers, filmmakers, resource persons and stakeholders. They also organise awareness campaigns in schools and colleges on current topics, such as violence against women and right to information, leadership and innovation workshops, capacity building programmes, nature and photography expeditions (sometimes in association with Tree Walk and Heritage Walk in the city), street plays, seminars, lectures, games, cultural events, and so on.