We’re excited to present Comhlámh’s contribution to IVCO 2023 – a thought-provoking piece by our colleagues, Sive Bresnihan and Julia Haimlinger, titled ‘“What If We Don’t Have The Answers?” The Generative Potential of Questions When Working with Young People for Change’. This insightful article is part of Forum’s IVCO 2023 Blog Series, a collection of 12 posts delving deep into the conference theme: “A New Generation of Volunteers as Changemakers.” These posts have been published in the weeks leading up to the IVCO 2023 conference in October, aiming to prompt delegates to contemplate various facets of the theme and raise important questions for consideration.

Please read our blog post below.

In August 2023, some of us at Comhlámh attended an all-island Climate Camp in Leitrim, a county in the North West of Ireland. The camp took place over 5 days, with participants camping and cooking together on fields gifted by a local farmer. Every day all kinds of talks and activities took place inside all kinds of tents (the barn tent, the elephant tent, the circus tent, the spider tent) and in the evening, after dinner, participants enjoyed music and fire. At the end of the 5 days, participants got behind the local environmental group ‘Save Leitrim’ and participated in direct action on the hills around the town of Manorhamilton.

Over the course of the 5 days, we were struck by how Climate Camp was creating ideal conditions for learning and change. Aside from the collective form of organising that underpinned everything (from putting up tents to cleaning out toilets to preparing the evening meal) and the hosting of the camp by some incredibly inspiring local campaign groups, there were the sessions themselves. Running for 1.5 – 2 hours, we would leave these sessions feeling pretty humbled, called upon not to ‘go do’ but rather to sit with the learning and “find ways in”.

Finding ways in

Whether the focus was ‘data centre expansion in Ireland’ or ‘community resistance to mining’, what characterised the ‘big issue’ sessions was the format, with 5-6 people from different communities presenting side by side. There was something activating about this kind of format. Indeed, after the 1st and 2nd speakers, you begin to pick up the ways in which there are differences but also overlaps – same river, different currents. There is also something emotive about hearing voices from struggles and so, as you listen, you find yourself asking the question: ‘How do these currents connect to me?’. If you are in a privileged position of being able to ‘choose’, you might also find yourself asking: ‘How do I find my way into this river? How do I join these currents?’

Staying with the metaphor of a river and its currents, there are many ways to enter a river. At the same time, the ‘river’ doesn’t stop for anybody or anything – it keeps flowing. This can be disconcerting for somebody looking to get involved in change work. With their intentions to ‘do good’, they might expect that the entryway be made clear for them. But what happens when it isn’t? Do they make demands? Walk away? Or do they try to figure it out? Other things may also happen. They might get as far as the river bank but remain gripped there, overwhelmed by the currents and what they ask of them. Another possibility is a seat on a passing speedboat. They might jump on board. What a relief! But in this, have they found a way in, or is the speedboat more ‘a way around’?

Climate Camp direct action, August 2023
Photo credit: www.climatecampireland.ie


In our education work with young volunteers and those interested in activism, we grapple with how to bring learners closer to that edge and to consider ways in. It is a challenge to insist that there are no prescriptions for ‘what to do’ while insisting that engagement is of utmost consequence.
In recent years, one way that has opened up to us is through social cartographies – tools which map diverse perspectives and use images (metaphors and analogies) and comparison tables to invite different conversations. ‘The House that Modernity Built’ is an example of one we use, as well as ‘The Beach’ and ‘HEADS UP’, all developed by the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective.

The cartographies based on comparison tables have echoes of the 6-person format we encountered at Climate Camp in so far as they draw attention to points of tension and connection that can otherwise be hidden. While seeking to stir, these cartographies are also not setting out to take participants from A to B or change positions in a directed way.

Over the past number of years, these cartographies have provided us and the young people we work with, the opportunity to question the lens through which we are viewing the world, and to ask ourselves what change looks like? And for whose benefit? These questions (among others) provide critical pathways to troubling the idea of saviourism and uncomplicated fixes and are of particular importance for those who are thinking of going overseas to volunteer.

They highlight patterns of social hierarchy and provoke those of us positioned in the North to think about our urge to help, often thousands of kilometres away from our own homes. What are the historical and systemic processes that lead us, over and over again, into this position of helper/saviour and is it help/saving that is needed at all?
While the cartographies help to open up different kinds of conversations, we also acknowledge the power of stories of struggles and are always looking for ways to weave these into the learning space. These stories represent important ‘currents’, and help us shift away from what we know, or how we usually consider things towards what we might have missed and how we might engage with those issues ‘differently’. They also interrupt this idea of needing to ‘fix’. Much like with Climate Camp, the stories invite us to get comfortable with trying and testing and embracing the idea of failing, with knowing that our world and its problems are complex and, by nature, in a constant state of change.

Weaving these stories not only offers a new and different orientation for young people but also emphasises the importance of critical, deep and authentic connections between people and the planet. As Adrienne Maree Brown writes, this is what adaptation and evolution depend on – “a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience”. Experiencing these kinds of connections over and over can help us get more comfortable with the currents in the river and guide us as we continue to look for ways in.

Comhlámh soon turns 50. One of the things that have been learned over all those years and that today feels more important than ever is that ‘finding ways in’ can sometimes mean examining the assumptions that we hold to be true about change and, as citizens concerned about justice and equality, our place in it. As folks with ‘good intentions’, how to accept that entry might not be on our terms – maybe the point is that it can’t be. How instead to pause, take a breath and tune into the layers and rhythms of the river’s flow.

More about Climate Camp

Climate Camp 2023 was organised by Slí Eile, an anti-capitalist climate action group, in collaboration with several local campaigns, including Save Leitrim, which campaigns against the expansion of industrial conifer plantations, Treasure Leitrim, which campaigns against gold mining and Love Leitrim which continues to work on the threat of fracking, particularly in Northern Ireland. www.climatecampireland.ie

You can read this and other pieces on the dedicated IVCO 2023 Blog Series page. This blog series has replaced the previous IVCO Think Pieces Series, and Comhlámh is proud to make its third annual contribution to this global conference. You can read our previous contributions below:

Watch the video interview below as the authors unpack the topic.


Forum’s annual conference of International Volunteer Cooperation Organisations (IVCO) is an annual conference that brings together leaders of international volunteering agencies from around the globe in a unique dialogue focusing on the challenges and opportunities currently facing volunteering in development – longstanding and newly emerging. IVCO allows Forum members to learn, exchange ideas and practice innovation, build supportive peer networks, and shape sectoral policy and advocacy initiatives.

The 2023 theme “A New Generation of Volunteers as Changemakers” focuses on the “new generations” concerning the future of volunteering. It will bring together volunteer-involving organisations, policymakers, volunteers, and the private sector to engage in a conversation on providing an enabling environment for new generations of volunteers to flourish and continuously create impact.

Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa (YSS) / Student Volunteers Foundation is hosting IVCO 2023 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 22-26 October, in collaboration with Forum.


The International Forum for Volunteering in Development (Forum) is the most significant global network of Volunteering for Development organisations. Forum exists to share information, develop good practice and enhance cooperation across the volunteering in development sector. It promotes the value of volunteering through policy engagement, mutual learning and by sharing innovative and good practices. Forum is a ‘virtual’ network, with a global membership that includes a range of organisations involved in international development, including non-government and state organisations.