Gdansk trip part 3: The Solidarity Academy

This third blog about my recent trip to Gdansk focuses on the European Solidarity Centre’s Solidarity Academy programme, which I was able to visit thanks to funding provided by the University of Manchester’s Investing in Success staff development scheme. 

The European Solidarity Centre’s Solidarity Academy is, as far as I can tell, absolutely unique in both its purpose and methods. The Academy itself is not a new concept: from 2006 until 2013 the programme had been delivered, mostly through lectures and workshops, to groups of up to 60 young people as a youth leadership programme with the aim of supporting participants to implement Solidarity in their home country.

The arrival of a new ECS director in 2013 saw the transformation of the Solidarity Academy into “an international project aimed at inspiring and supporting the development of the young intellectual elites across Europe”. In its new form, the Academy supports young journalists, activists and critical thinkers through an intensive and participatory programme providing participants with opportunities to develop a network of contacts as well as their skills and experiences. The new programme has necessitated a smaller cohort – now just 16 places are available each year – but by opening it up to applicants from across Central and Eastern Europe, both the depth of impact and geographical reach of the Academy have been increased. To ensure that the programme remains relevant and fresh, each annual ‘edition’ of the Academy focuses on a different theme, and this informs both the selection of participants and the content of the workshops.

Before describing my experience of attending the Solidarity Academy (to follow in my final blog), I want to use this post to introduce the programme and acknowledge the amount of thought and care that goes into planning and preparing each edition; the ‘behind the scenes’ work that, due to the skillful delivery of the programme, would otherwise go unnoticed. To do this, I will refer to the nine key ingredients that the ECS team identify as the basis for the Solidarity Academy:

1. Partnership

The SA works closely with a range of partners, from NGOs and foundations to academic institutions. These partners support the SA in various ways, from funding and content development, to providing tutors, trainers and experts. In the first instance, a common set of goals or shared values forms the basis for all of the partnerships, and a considerable amount of time and care has been taken to nurture these relationships. This has paid off: each partner brings something special to the programme and, as a result, while it is managed by the ECS, the Solidarity Academy is a truly collaborative endeavour.

2. Recruitment

Each year, the team receives between 100 and 750 applications for the 16 available places on the Academy. In the first instance the selection process focuses on the eligibility criteria for the programme, namely that participants must be aged between 20-30 years old, have some form of interest or experience in the media or journalism, and be able to speak and understand English. Beyond this, the team look for well-written applications that provide evidence of relevant interests, knowledge, skills or experience, based on the particular theme for the edition. The idea is to recruit a group of participants who will make the most of the programme as individuals, whilst contributing to the group.

3. Quality

The quality of the programme is down to the expertise and commitment of the ECS team who have found the right mixture of learning, sharing and doing, both for individual participants and as a group. The attention paid to every aspect of the programme – from the content of the workshops to the refreshments and hotel accommodation – is vital. The content itself covers both the processes and products of journalism, providing opportunities to connect with experts and specialists and access to expert advice from experienced professionals.  The partners are absolutely vital here, and the status of the experts who come back each year to deliver a programme is testament to the collaborative spirit of the Academy.

4. Group Development

This intensive seven-day long programme necessitates attention to the group dynamics and this is not left to chance. Considerable thought and care are put in to the development of productive working relationships and there are many opportunities for participants to work in different groups through activities and tasks that are delivered during the workshops. Small ‘tutor groups’ are also in place to provide pastoral support, and these groups are carefully selected to bring together a complimentary mixture of experience, interests and backgrounds, both in terms of the participants and the expertise that the tutors bring to the table.

5. Responsibility and Independence

The SA is a highly competitive programme, and the recruitment process aims to select those participants who will make the most of the opportunities that are available. The team ensure that there is a clear understanding of expectations from day one by prompting participants to formulate a contract that they all sign up to. Through the tutor groups, the programme supports participants without stifling their independence, ensuring that they are able to follow their individual interests and create their own piece of work whilst collaborating with their groups.

6.    Formal and Non-Formal Educational Tools

The methods that are used to deliver the SA are varied, and the team has worked hard to find the right balance between formal and informal approaches. On one hand, the programme nurtures the existing knowledge and experiences that participants bring to the programme. On the other hand, it also prompts them to explore new and different ways of thinking and working. The tools that are used to deliver the programme achieve a balance between challenging and developing participants without slipping into didactic mode.

7.    Feedback and Evaluation

From day one of the programme, a feedback loop is established between participants, tutors, trainers and the central ECS team. The daily schedule includes “comfy time” where tutors check in with their groups to gather feedback. Each morning, tutors meet with the ECS team and share this feedback so that any adjustments or changes are made or acknowledged immediately. This is also vital for the longer term development of the SA as the insights gained throughout each edition are used to feed in to the design and delivery of the next programme.

8.    Postgraduate Programme

The ECS team have worked hard to develop opportunities to extend the SA beyond the week-long programme. As well as using the Solidarity Academy website as a platform for publishing articles, a Facebook group keeps participants in contact with their peers and connects them with graduates from previous editions. The postgraduate programme also includes opportunities for graduates to participate in the development and delivery of subsequent editions of the SA, from providing a point of view or discussion piece for a workshop, to delivering a workshop or becoming a tutor.

9.    Individual approach

From the selection of participants onwards, the ECS team works hard to balance the group dynamics with the need to treat participants as individuals. The individual approach is apparent in the time taken by the ECS team to create a document, part of the welcome pack, that lists the names of everyone involved in the SA along with their role, a brief personal statement and a photograph. By making this information available, valuable opportunities are opened up for participants to ensure that they meet and network with those individuals that are most relevant to their own background.

A recipe for success?

The quality and success of the Solidarity Academy reflects the care and attention that is paid to each of the nine components. Listening to the way that the ECS team introduce the programme, it is clear that they are justifiably proud of their work. They are not, however, complacent: nobody seems to be under the impression that their work to develop the programme has finished. Rather, the team continue to approach each edition as a new challenge. Their commitment to evaluating every aspect of the programme is particularly important as it ensures that the Solidarity Academy continues to develop and evolve with each edition. This reflective process along with the decision to change the theme for each edition may well be the secret to the success of the Solidarity Academy. On one hand, there is a certain amount of structure that continues through each edition, meaning that the team does not have to start from scratch each year. On the other hand, the changing theme seems to be a great motivation for the team who approach each edition with a renewed sense of energy and excitement.

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