With the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine coming soon, Ukrainian young people are being called upon and shaping the present and future of Ukraine. Some serve their country through their military service, while others, like Kateryna Hlushchenko, support Ukrainian civil society and are beginning to plan what the future of a free Ukraine would look like. Kateryna is a Board member of “Community of Active Youth”, a National Endowment for Democracy-funded civil society organization that promotes youth activism and supports youth amid war. Through their efforts, young people like Kateryna ensure when the Russian aggression stops that Ukrainians are able to rebuild the country based on principles of democracy for a stronger and more resilient Ukraine.
For Kateryna, her civic roots and national pride started from a young age. Her father used to be an active member of a civil-political movement “People’s Movement of Ukraine” which played a key role in Ukraine regaining its independence in 1991. “At the age of 5, I recall myself reciting Taras Shevchenko's poem "By a Spring a Sycamore" at the Independence Day rally. I felt enormous pride back then and those little steps shaped my future identity as a community activist,” mentioned Kateryna. Her family and close community formed a sense of unity and the idea of a big independent Ukraine, where the voice of everyone matters and democratic principles are in place.
Kateryna, together with her family, confronted the war in 2014 when Russia started its armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. “That was the first boost of my civic activism. I started volunteering and collecting humanitarian aid in my home village for newly arrived refugees,” she recalls. As she resided in a small village in the Dnipropetrovsk region, there were almost no activities or opportunities for young people, so she took responsibility for organizing them on her own and engaging youth: “I brought young people together and organized meetings with opinion leaders. The group was always very proactive in promoting Ukraine’s identity. For instance, young women and men organized the March of Ukrainian embroidered shirts in the community. Kateryna continues: “I did my best to form a network of active young people who share the same values and are willing to change society for the better.”
That happened once Kateryna met a team of Dnipro-based NGO “Community of Active Youth” (CAY or the Community) – a group of young activists who strive for youth engagement and meaningful participation. In the beginning, she was a volunteer and later became a member of the organization. With NDI’s support, CAY implemented one of its largest regional projects – Youth Political Leadership School in 2021 – which equipped hundreds of young people with knowledge related to political engagement. The highlight of the program was individual mentoring sessions and implementation of community-based projects. Program alumni established a youth center in one of the villages, a regional youth council to advocate for young people’s needs, and numerous events on civic and political education. “The educational program had a powerful impact on youth in the region and boosted networking among youth leaders,” she confirmed.
From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war, Kateryna, like most Ukrainians, did everything in her power to help the country. Just like many young activists, she decided to remain in Dnipro and started volunteering, collecting humanitarian aid and sending it to besieged regions of Kyiv – despite shelling and air raid sirens. “We faced a huge challenge,” Kateryna explained, “and many young people felt fully disoriented, and needed help in adapting to the new conditions under missile attacks and constant threats. To do this, we went to the comfort zone of young people: social networks.” As a part of an NDI supported project, Kateryna became the face of the social media project where the organization spoke to young people in simple language about important topics. Short videos provided information on how to deal with the current challenges: media literacy, psychological resilience, tools for civic participation, and opportunities for youth amid war. CAY created videos on how to deal with legal aspects of the internally displaced status, to receive necessary help, and to adapt to life in new communities away from young people’s homes. They have released up to 100 short videos, and have engaged over 1.5 million young people through social media.
After a year of full-scale war and the liberation of large areas, the issue of engaging young people in Ukraine’s restoration and decision-making remains weak and lacking. To address this, the team of the Community created a thorough youth-focused online course, "Youth Participation in Restoration." Involving the best national experts, the online course becomes an accessible tool for young women and men to participate in shaping Ukraine’s democratic future. “To me, it is important to show young people that even in times of war, there is an opportunity to help their country through local projects that make an impact,” adds Kateryna. As more and more young people complete the course, the team of CAY started negotiations with regional universities and made it part of their curriculum, which will help to expand youth opportunities and form a culture of civic education among young people.
Starting this work now is critical as it lays the groundwork to rebuild Ukraine based on principles of democracy, inclusion and equality. “[Ukraine] will be a country where our defenders - veterans who will return to peaceful life - [have] paid their due, and all social and infrastructural conditions are created for their inclusion,” says Kateryna. Kateryna and other young people like her are key to Ukraine’s current success and are the building blocks for Ukraine's future.
Authors: Rashyd Bilalov, Youth Program Assistant and Mariia Kovaliova, Youth Senior Program Officer from NDI’s Ukraine team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.