UWC education in politics: between idealism and realistic change


by Lia Da Giau, United World College Maastricht
9th March, 2020


Lia Quartapelle, member of the Italian Parliament in the Foreign and European Affairs Commission and UWC AC Alumna, helps us reflecting on the implications of being changemakers, especially when young and in politics. Lia was interviewed as she concluded a meeting with the Parliamentary committee of inquiry for the death of Giulio Regeni, Italian researcher and UWC USA Alumnus tortured and killed in Egypt in 2016. #truthforgiulioregeni
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TFD: Is there still a place for young people to be changemakers in contexts like Europe, where the population is getting older and older?
Lia Quartapelle: Of course, there is a place for young generations in countries that are older, it is natural. At the same time, as for any other young generation in the past, you have to fight for that place, you have to fight to change things, you have to fight to make your voice heard and to make space for your point of view. Young people tend to see things in a different way, they tend to have different priorities and they are changemakers because they bring with themselves a different mindset. But, in order for their mindset to become mainstream, and for their priorities to become national priorities, the youth needs to fight. So you should not take that space for granted.
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In your professional life, especially as you entered parliament at a really young age, have you ever had the impression that your voice was not being heard or it was considered less valuable than someone else’s?
Well, when I entered the parliament in Italy there was this idea that we needed to change the people in politics: that’s why I ran for office. My slogan in 2012-2013 was “Finalmente Lia” [Finally Lia] because everybody was waiting for a candidate that was a woman, that was young and knowledgeable in a specific field. Of course, you need to fight for that [being elected] and, once you’re in, you have to fight for your voice to be heard. This is much more complicated for me: it is not just a matter of young age, it is also a matter of gender. I have to say it, and I have to be honest, it is difficult to be a young woman, especially being involved in Foreign Affairs. Foreign affairs is generally something done by old men, and since I need to be authoritative, I have to work much more than if I was working in another field. Because you have a lot of established voices in the Italian political arena on these issues, in order for you to be credible and be listened to, you need to work a lot.When I meet someone -a diplomat, a MP from another country, a minister, or someone from the armed forces- I introduce myself saying: “I am Lia Quartapelle, I am a MP, but I don’t look like it.” People usually don’t expect a MP or a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee to look like me: they expect someone that is older and much more accomplished professionally.
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Why have you decided to be a changemaker in politics?
Well, if I trace back my decision, I did choose because of UWC AC. There, I got an education that taught me that each one of us can be a leader and a changemaker. I really felt the impact of this education when I left the College. Being 17-18 and organising activities and events by yourself and being able to make things happen gives you a sense that you can change things: if you stand in the frontline and if you voice what you think is valid, things can change, you can have an impact, you can make things happen. When you are at UWC, you don’t realise that this attitude you learn when you are 17 will remain with you throughout your life and when you go back to your “normal life” you will be much more ready to apply it in your own reality. So, I went back to Italy, I had a few friends coming to visit me from AC. One of them was working on an Israeli and Palestine project in Israel: I did fundraising for her and, after the fundraising, we fund an NGO in Italy. You start with very small things like this, but you understand that if you do something, you work, and you create, then you receive much more. This attitude remained with me and when someone asked me to help them in running for Milan’s city council -which is a small thing- I said yes. In UWC, you learn the attitude of service -politics is service, a lot of service-, you learn and the attitude of leadership, and if you learn them in the UWC, then you’re ready for life.
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What are the biggest obstacles to being a changemaker in politics?
You have to learn how to deal with your own character. You have to work a lot on yourself because you might have some attitudes that are good for politics, but you also have attitudes that are a problem for politics. You have to be patient, which is something that is not natural. You have to be persistent, which is something that is not natural. You have to choose, which is something that is not natural -at least for myself- and you’ll have to be open to other people. You have to listen to other people, but you have to stand for your own ideas. In general, the complicated thing in politics is that you have to choose, you have to prioritise: it is not always easy to decide, and it is a responsibility that you have to take for yourself.
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Let’s say we believe in the assumption that “Politics is a dirty game”: what is the secret to keeping on being true to oneself in such an environment?
Politics is not a dirty game. It is a place where you have to choose: I think that it is much easier to think you are not “dirty” when you don’t choose, and it’s much easier to remain true to your values outside of the place where decisions can be taken. Each one of us is very political in the choices we make every day: what you eat, how you spend your time, how you spend your money. Think about where you want to go on holiday, if it is a place where people are paid fair amounts, or if you go to a big resort where waiters and waitresses are paid $100 per month: this is political, we all make political decisions.
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This idea of remaining true to oneself -of coherence- for me is fundamental. I keep doing small things that for me are very important not to change too much: I still travel second class, because I come from a life where I travelled second class will go back to a life where I travel second class, and I still use my motorbike. I want to keep these small things that are true to myself, I don’t want to change the way I live.
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I also think you remain true to yourself accepting that you cannot fight for and make a difference in everything: you have to choose specific causes where you can make a difference, and there you can make a big difference. For example, I work in Foreign Affairs, which in Italy is a field that includes many issues from the relationships with China, New Zealand and Syria. I cannot make a difference in everything but I can choose one thing, two things, where I can make a difference. So I chose development aid: there I want to make a difference, and there I won’t accept compromises, I will always speak my mind. I am speaking my mind every day, saying that we should increase the amount of money that we are spending on aid: on that specific issue, I became a thorn in the side, for my party and for the government. And then, for example, the Italian government used to sell bombs to Yemen: I decided that I wanted to make a difference in that. Guess what? A year and a half later, we are not selling bombs there anymore. We are still selling certain types of arms -we still have to work on that- but we stopped selling bombs. As I noticed that I could make a difference, I decided to make it…and I did! It took me a year and a half, it was not easy. Again, it is very important to choose your battles well.

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Is there a space for the idealism we nurture at UWC in the real world, for instance in politics, where one works for finding concrete solutions?
You don’t have to remain trapped in the idealisation of idealism. I think that idealism is very important and you have to nurture it, but in order to do that, you have to put it into practice.
If you see something that is unfair and you realise you can’t change it immediately, you have to do it step by step. Take the bombs in Yemen. It is completely unfair to sell any weapon to any party in the conflict in Yemen, but we were not ready to stop the sale of all arms. However, we were ready to stop the sale of bombs, and now we are re-launching the campaign to stop more.
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Idealism is something you have there to guide you. You have to take small steps and be honest with yourself: are you compromising? Are you compromising too much? Is it too complicated to get there? There are certain situations that you know you cannot change. Let’s take, for example, what is happening these days between Turkey and Greece: I know that I cannot change this situation personally, but this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t look in their direction. I know that it is not in my power to do something there, but it is in my power to question and to poke our government to do something. It is in my power to ask other colleagues from other European Parliaments to be there.
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Ideally, you would like certain things to be changed because they are unfair: sometimes you cannot do it yourself, but what can you do from your position?
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Now, a cliché question: how does your UWC experience affect your personal and professional life -working in the Foreign Affairs Commission in parliament? Do you still “live up to the mission”, years after graduating?
Well, you are not asking a cliché question. I have a couple of interviews per week and nobody has ever asked me: I am very happy you did! I think that UWC really shaped my way of looking at the world. I found myself in a position to speak up on migration. I had to be very careful: the way I see the issue of migration, because of UWC, is very different from the way the average Italian citizen sees migration. I’m not giving a value of judgement in this respect: I am just saying that while we, in UWC, see the richness in the fact that people are different, this is not a natural attitude in an average European citizen. We grew up experiencing that international understanding exists, that multiculturalism is a value. I believe in these values deeply, but I should not take them for granted when I speak to citizens that have elected me. If you want people to get to that point of understanding, you have to understand where they come from. This new way of seeing the world is the biggest lesson that I got from my UWC experience, but also the biggest difficulty.

 

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