ALTERNATIVE PATHS – an interview with Luca Ciubotaru

In the summer of 2014, I and Luca had just finished our 4-years degree in Law from the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași. As two fresh graduates, we were both contemplating the next steps of our academic and professional careers. Little did we know that though our paths would somehow diverge, a common denominator would impact both our lives in a seemingly decisive manner. That was the year when Luca decided to apply for the UN Youth Delegate of Romania Programme, introducing me to the existence of an idea that would subsequently shape my ambitions and goals for my return to Albania. For those prone to metaphorical nexuses, that episode might have caused a butterfly effect, but we seem to recall it differently.  

“Honestly, I didn’t know very much about the concrete and the effective action and activity of the UN Youth Delegates.” – says Luca. “The programme had been going on for eight years in Romania, so it was quite a tradition. I simply found out about the opportunity from the page of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. I was a young student leader at that time and I was following all these opportunities for students. I applied; I just knew it was a representation position.” Obviously, he tells me that he started reading about the role and contacted former YDs asking them about their experiences and advice. Then he realized how it was somehow both a bigger responsibility for delivering the right message and having this message being connected to the youth priorities in his country. It must have been a very interesting time because in that year, 2014, the SDGs were being debated and were being prepared for adoption by the UN. “So, we just got at the right time because there were very active discussions on various topics going on, from education to youth unemployment and a lot of other issues.”. 

However, the fact that he ended up being selected as one of the YDs is not a coincidence. Luca had been used to represent roles, albeit on a smaller scale. He was a student representative in the university; president of ELSA Romania (Iasi branch), and founding officer of a student NGO at the Law School in Romania (just to name a few of his engagements). By the number of his involvements, he was – and still is- typically the kind of person about whom one secretly thinks that has found a way to squeeze 36 hours in a day.  

“I was twenty-two years old. So somehow I tried to pay forward and give back as much as I could from this experience and somehow inspire some other young people, not only to apply for the programme, but also to be curious enough, to be connected, to keep learning after they finish their studies, or even if they are already employed, to keep searching for opportunities because we are somehow – and I keep saying this – we are some lucky generations because our parents in the Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe, were not able to do this. They were not living in democracies, they were not having this freedom of movement and everything, and somehow this was one of the key messages I kept on promoting: to keep being curious and find opportunities and, you know, follow your passion, reach for the sky. You might find that limits are nonexistent.” 

But for those questioning limits, he thinks that the programme is a unique opportunity in many ways. Take for example the selection process and the speech to the UNGA. “In Romania, we had a collective interview with a commission from UN Agencies, NGOs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so on, and that was the moment when it triggered me. After that collective interview, I got rid of all the tensions and emotions for the rest of the interviews in my life. And at the same time, after you speak at the UNGA, on behalf of your country, it’s almost impossible to – I don’t know – be anxious when you have a public speaking activity. So, you were there, you were at the UNGA, so you can’t be nervous when you speak to 100-200 people in your national capital or your university. It’s incomparable.”.  

On top of that, he tells me that this experience helps you identify what you want to do for the next 20 years of your life in terms of career choices. “…if you want to become a diplomat or a public servant, you could just get a larger perspective of how the world functions because the UN is an amazing place. It is the only place in the world where you can experience firsthand multilateralism. There are a few places in the world where you can see diplomacy at its best and see how the debates on the big issues are going on. Also, it is a great satisfaction that you can represent the young generation of your country and bring their voice to that forum”. 

Focuses and New Perspectives 

Luca highlights the importance of choosing one or two topics to promote at the national level but he is conscious now that a lot depends on the youth delegates and how they want to configure their mandate and set the priorities. “I focused a lot on civic engagement.” – he says.  “I think I met about 2000-4000 young people after I came back from the UN, in about 30 or 40 youth events I organized around the country. And yeah, I focused on this topic because I considered it somehow a topic that was not covered enough in the formal system of education. The mission of those events was also to offer an international perspective about youth issues around the world. Usually, students and young people only focus on the local or national context. But those issues are not exclusive. There are similar challenges that some other young people face in other countries, and they could find support, opportunities, summer schools, internships, and everything else.”  

This also gave him the chance to work with many NGOs in Romania, youth organizations, and think-tanks which paved the way to new opportunities. Subsequently, he was invited to join the team of the new Minister for Public Consultation and Civic Dialogue and he gladly accepted the offer. “My first role in the public sector was to be the liaison officer with the non-governmental sector. And then, having a legal background, I started working on other issues in governance such as transparency in public administration, public participation, how to organize a public consultation, and public data. And as far as I know, most of the Romanian Youth Delegates found opportunities when they were serving as YDs, or just right after. For instance, one of my colleagues was interested in digital education and he promoted it a lot during his mandate, and right after his experience he was hired by Google Romania and now he’s working abroad and so on. So, it’s inevitable, you create a lot of contacts as a YD, and for me, I was able to work for the Romanian government after I was promoted a lot a year before civic engagement and a good relationship with and between non-profits. It was a great opportunity then.”  

Sliding Doors  

Luca’s shift to public administration is interesting because he confesses that initially, he wanted to become a career diplomat. He was looking for internships and summer schools and was waiting for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to open the call for new entries in the diplomatic service. But it seems like this was not the only case of sliding doors. As a true advocate for civic engagement, he established the only local NGO that promotes such activities in his home city (Rădăuțiul Civic). “Based on the actions of that NGO, together with some other people that got involved, we became the voice in our small city. Somehow, the fact that I had a little background and these international experiences, made me and my local NGO very creative when dealing with local administration. We made them more transparent by recreating their website, or we participated in budgeting and made some journalistic investigations about some businesses between local politicians, etc.” And this local prominence earned him honorary citizenship from his municipality. “Somehow in the eyes of the local decision-makers, I was an interesting young man with a lot of potentials.” 

In 2019, while he was working for the Romanian Presidential Administration, he received an offer from a politician/businessman to run in the local elections and become the new mayor of his home city. The offer included political and financial support. “…honestly it was not an easy decision because I wanted to contribute to the welfare and the good governance in my city, and at the same time, as a professional track, I had to give up all these opportunities, like my current activity in Bucharest. So, I said no. I refused that politician that wanted to support me to become the mayor of my city, and well, after that it seemed he found another candidate, and now that candidate is the mayor. *laughs* I also had all the chances to win the elections because it was the local context that favored the candidate from that party. Anyway, I don’t have any regrets even though I could have been the mayor of my home city, because I made a choice, I chose to professionalize my career before entering the political arena. So, I thought that I needed to invest a few more years in my professional development, and then who knows what will happen.” 

Following the Obama track?  

I guess it is clear by now that good governance and civic engagement are two of Luca’s main passions and they continue to be so. In one of our previous conversations, I discovered that he had become keen on community organizing. When he tells me about the roots of this new connection, it strikes fairly familiar to the Albanian context. “In 2018, when Romania was under assault from the political class on the rule of law issues, there were a lot of street movements, a lot of civic groups initiatives as a reaction to the legislative or governmental actions. But all these movements faded away really quickly and the reason was that they were civic activism and not community organizing, they were always reactive and not always constructive in their activities, and I started reading more about this community organizing process, which involves not doing things by yourself but empowering other people to deal with the issues they have on the local level. So right now, I am in the process of trying to extract myself from all these projects and I try to be there as a coach, as a supporter for my local NGO and develop local leadership. This is a lesson for sustainability. If you don’t develop the power of the other people, if your NGO vanishes one day, there will be nothing left after you, so there is no capacity developed in that community and the people won’t know better their rights, or the right to petition, or the right to fill an information request or ask the local councilman why that money is spent the way it is spent.” 

Unsurprisingly, this vocation was inspired by a 6-weeks fellowship programme in the U.S. During this time, he worked for a local civic organization and lived with an American family. He seems positively shocked by the state of civil society in the U.S. “That organization had 30 years of experience and the guy where I stayed had been a community organizer since he was 16 years old and now, he was 72, just imagine that.” – he tells me. I remind him that President Obama used to be a community organizer and he shares with me another interesting story. He had attended a community organizing course taught by Marshall Ganz at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “This guy is a legend at Harvard, he created President Obama’s model of community organizing for his first presidential campaign. So, the model that was used for the first election campaign was based on the methodology that this professor built for Barack Obama.” Now Luca wants to create a network of similar groups and initiatives in his home country applying such models. 

“The civil society leader that hosted me in the U.S, showed me a restaurant at Harvard and told me that he was there when Obama finished his studies. He drank a coffee with Obama and tried to convince him to come back to community organizing. But Obama had replied that he had just finished Law School and would go back to Chicago and get involved in politics. And this is what he did. Somehow my host felt good that he didn’t convince Obama to go back into community organizing.” *laughs*