Salomé Berlioux

Ashoka Fellow
Headshot of Salomé Berlioux, Ashoka Fellow from France
France
Fellow since 2020
This description of Salomé Berlioux's work was prepared when Salomé Berlioux was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

Observing that rural youth are the victim of profound inequalities, Salomé is conceiving a holistic program to support and help them switch their perception of themselves and of their future, thus enabling them achieve their full potential.

The New Idea

Having grown up in a rural area, Salomé observed how disempowered the rural youth are, given the cumulation of obstacles they needed to overcome to find their path, achieve their potential and intentionally build their future with ambition. Seeing that the problem was largely absent from the public debate and policies, Salomé rolls-out local and operational solutions on the field to directly help rural youth which allows her to draw national attention to this issue and catalyze a nation-wide mindset shift.

Inspired by existing equality of opportunities programs, she enriches those by broadening their focus on social determinism to a broader territorial determinism concept. By doing so, she offers a new interpretation of the very concept of equality of opportunity by moving from an assertion that everybody should be able to pursue higher education, no matter their social background, to a vision where everybody should be able to achieve their full potential and make enlightened choices, no matter where they live and what they want to do.

Through her NGO Chemins d’Avenirs (“Paths for futures”), she is building and empowering local collectives of diverse actors to implement a 360 degrees approach able to solve the cumulation of obstacles. Therefore, Chemins d’Avenirs plays a role of catalyzer through the mobilization and co-creation of various players. Mentors from civil society are solicited to act as role models and coaches. Companies offer internship opportunities. Local authorities design mobility solutions. Cultural operators and NGOs work together to develop more personal development opportunities and extracurricular activities on the territory. Schools and teachers are accompanied and trained to provide guidance support that they are not used to provide etc.

Through this sophisticated and integral approach, Salomé is broadening the horizons of thousands of teenagers, helping them reach their full potential, no matter their grades at school and regardless of what they want to do. Indeed, she is equally valuing trajectories leading either to manual or intellectual professions, as long as it is a conscious and enthusiastic choice made by the young person. In this way, Salomé also manages to change mentalities and behaviors of actors in the field, making them realize the importance of their action, thus strongly empowering them in a new role.

For Salomé, this fieldwork will remain a drop in the ocean if she doesn’t manage to drive political changes and shift mentalities. To do so, she has included advocacy activities as a major part of her work, to equip key decision makers with arguments and data in order to drive public policy change that will entice schools, companies, local authorities, and associations to develop appropriate responses. She is using a large range of tools to concretely shed light upon the issue, from the writing of a book to the publication of a poll comparing situations of urban and rural youngsters and including close work with the Ministry of Education through the writing of a report.

The Problem

The “Peripheral France ” phenomenon is increasingly blatant, with rural territories suffering from inequalities in access and treatment. This includes public services and infrastructures, access to culture and education and employment rate in rural areas compared with the 25 largest French cities. Since they grow up in places where their horizon is increasingly narrowed and disconnected from the rest of the world and from its globalization, the youth living in these areas evolve in disadvantageous contexts and therefore deeply experience these inequalities. Indeed, they are facing cumulative obstacles that prevent them from being actors of their future, and thus of the potential revitalization of their territory.

First, they suffer from a deep lack of information and role models, resulting in an ignorance of what their options are in terms of type of studies, scholarships, jobs and careers etc. Even when they have access to the information, their remoteness fosters difficulties of access to education since they would need to study away from home, and more than half of them cannot afford housing for studies . Compared to their urban mates, they lack local opportunities to develop their self-awareness and openness to the world through cultural and extracurricular activities, internships etc. Facing all these obstacles, rural youth suffer from a self-censorship, leading them to sometimes randomly choose their studies field/career or to decide to reproduce their parents’ model. Therefore, they fail finding a fulfilling and relevant path simply because they cannot realize it’s even possible or because they simply don’t allow themselves to dream and think about the right questions at the right moment. Academically wise, their chances to pursue further studies, if so they wish, are severely reduced compared to urban youth: the child of a worker/employee from the Parisian region is twice as more likely to climb up the social ladder than in a rural area.

With this rural youth representing 60% of the total French youth, this phenomenon is not anecdotal and corrosively rather than explosively undermines social cohesion. This category of population is indeed quite invisible : they are not constituted as an identifiable group since spread all over the territory, and they are silent versus claimant since so far, the issue has been a blind spot for the country. Indeed, in France, the emphasis has historically been on “banlieues”, that is to say city suburbs inhabited by socially disadvantaged categories. Therefore, public policies and citizen sector organizations have elaborated a whole system fighting for equal opportunities mainly focused on helping young people from low-social background academically succeed and climb the social ladder, thus fighting against social determinism. This has led to a situation where other types of determinism, especially geographic determinism, have been forgotten, leaving behind more than half of the young French population in need of a different support to help them fight against remoteness and lack of opportunities and discover they too have high potential, be it for becoming a baker or a senior executive in a multinational.

The Strategy

To directly help rural youngsters without waiting for public policies and mentalities to change, Salomé decided to conceive a holistic program to support and help them switch their perception of themselves and of their future. Chemins d’Avenirs intervenes in more than a quarter of the French school districts, directly the classrooms, to present the program: this is the first step towards showing them they are worth it, by adopting a positive rhetoric around the fact that even though they face obstacles, they also have plenty of talents that need to be revealed and exploited, no matter their grades. Indeed, Salomé has made the significant choice not to look at the student level as a selection criterion, unlike other similar programs. Indeed, Chemins d’Avenirs’ selection criterion is not based on the fact that the youngsters want to pursue long studies and that they are good students, but mainly on their motivation to take their future into their own hands by starting an introspective journey.

To structure this journey, Salomé has developed a sophisticated methodology in partnership with NGOs (among others, Une grande école pourquoi par moi) already working on the field and National Education (operational department of the Ministry of Education in charge of the curriculum). For students, the program starts either at the beginning of secondary school or at the beginning of high school. This is a watershed moment during which kids starts building their own personality and have to make decisive choices related to career and field of studies. It lasts 18 renewable months, meaning that a youngster can start to be supported by Chemins d’Avenirs for 3 years. Determined to remove all the cumulative obstacles the rural youth is facing, Salomé has developed a 360 degrees approach allowing her to remove the different breaks : self-censorship, lack of information and knowledge/soft-skills, mobility difficulties, lack of opportunities and role models etc.

To accompany the young, a mentor is personally assigned to each youngster. They play a role of coach, asking the right questions to help the student identify their talents, strengths, improvement axis, opportunities to explore (etc.) and encouraging the mentee to make enlightened choices regarding their future and profession. During this introspective and explorative journey, based on the choices made step by step by the teenagers all along the way, the mentors are able to identify potential specific obstacles to remove (e.g.: the student wants to do hairdresser studies but there is no school in the area). The mentors also detect leverages to activate directly (e.g.: the student wants to become a lawyer, then the mentor can connect him/her directly to one from personal network) or to report to Chemins D’Avenirs (e.g.: the student wants to work in the Fashion sector, then the mentor can report it to Chemins d’Avenirs so that the association can find a local internship for him/her and cover the transportation fees to go to an identified interesting professional exhibition in the region).

The originality and strength of this mentorship program lays in multiple factors. First of all, Salomé puts a lot of attention in the matching process: each mentor is carefully matched according to the youngsters’ desires and preferences, be it their professional plan (if it already exists) or at least their hobbies and passions. Therefore, if for example a youngster expresses a desire to become a chef, Chemins d’Avenirs systematically match this youngster with a chef (or will look for one if one not already part of the mentors’ network). Furthermore, the recruitment of mentors is particularly specific in the sense that Salomé not only taps into the group of employees of her corporate partners but also engages people from civil society in order to obtain an extremely broad scope of profiles compared to other similar programs, in which -most of the time- only employees of big corporations are mentors. Here, nurses, prison directors, artists etc. are also part of the network, making Chemins d’Avenirs promise to open up new horizons real and concrete. Willing to guarantee homogeneity and a high level of quality, she takes the mentors through an intensive training at the beginning of the program and provides them with a structured toolkit that guide them all along their journey with their mentee. Eventually, the mentor must come from another territory, which opens up new horizons, gives the youngsters the opportunity to interact with an adult who has a neutral and fresh perspective on him/her, and train them to the use of digital tools, another obstacle identified by Salomé.

To be sure to tackle these basic obstacles, Salomé combines this mentorship taylor-made strategy with more transversal programs guaranteeing to equip the kids with the appropriate tools to succeed, whatever the trajectory they take. Therefore, Chemins d’Avenirs rolls-out activities to multiply opportunities for youngsters’ to have access to culture (eg: programs in partnership with local theater), to professional internships (through partnership with local employers) and to give them the opportunity to acquire the codes and soft-skills that they are currently missing for example, workshops to practice interviews, write a resume, speak in public etc.

These direct actions towards rural youth constitutes a field of experimentation and an opportunity to create a pool of Ambassadors, future role models for the territories. However, conscious this is not enough and willing to make local systems evolve, Salomé focuses her efforts on empowering local players on the issue. Therefore, the programs are often co-designed with local NGOs and Salomé’s objective is to, step-by-step, have the local community lead these kinds of activities on its own. Indeed, to have rapid and massive impact, Salomé’s aim is to empower local actors already in contact with rural youngsters. To do so, she has started appointing local coordinators in charge of weaving an ecosystem surrounding youths. They will first, map and convene all the different local stakeholders (cultural operators, local authorities, NGOs working with youth, companies, schools etc.) and help them co-create together concrete solutions to bring to youngsters. Theaters start to develop free access to the students, programs around Culture and Writing have been developed in 3 school districts with local organizations, local companies open more and more opportunities and internships to welcome the students, local authorities understand the importance of mobility and are urged to think over solutions etc. At their own level, the 1.000 mentors lead initiatives to raise awareness on the problem and be more proactive in their own territory.

Understanding that National Education would be an unavoidable stakeholder, Salomé started her initiative in close partnership with her own rural school district (Clermont-Ferrand) , rapidly gaining trust from school principals and above all teachers, first influential interlocutors of the youth surroundings. Teachers have a role to play in the rolling-out of the program, that they particularly well received, seeing it as a powerful solution to an issue they felt they had to helplessly face on their own. Once involved, they soon realize the importance of their role and influence on the students and for example, a group of teachers coming from the first schools supported by Chemins d’Avenirs has asked them to get trained on specific topics related to guidance. Another example is the principal of one high school, stunned by a workshop on “Public Speaking” organized in partnership with Eloquentia (French Ashoka Fellow Stéphane De Freitas) at the national Chemins d’Avenirs gathering, has decided to plainly integrate it into his school's curriculum.

Willing to answer to this emerging need, Salomé is initiating a training pilot for teachers to help them endorse a more significant role in terms of rural youth empowerment (working on self-confidence and identification of talents/skills but also on admission interviews, writing of a resume etc.). A train-the-trainer model will allow her to quickly reach out to a large number of teachers. In the future, she is planning to strengthening the partnership with National Education to proceed to even more skills transfers, giving greater responsibility on the topic to schools and principals, and helping the current guidance counselor (called Psy-EN, or “conseiller d’orientation” in French) revisit their role.

In only 4 years, Salomé has made her program available to more than a quarter of the French school districts in 40 schools, support 1.000 young people. 85% of them state that Chemins d’Avenirs has played an "important or decisive" role in their post-high school choices, 81% believe in themselves more after 6 months, and a quarter was admitted to a study branch that they had never dared to consider at all before entering the program. Salomé is aiming for a national coverage by 2025, with 100% of school districts covered. She will rely more on role models by strengthening the new community of alumni and structuring its role in terms of mentoring, advocacy and media coverage.

This thorough fieldwork gives Salomé traction and credibility to lead powerful advocacy actions and change the national perspectives on the issue. She understands that to drive mindset changes among key political decision makers, she needs to influence public opinion first, she puts a lot of efforts in documenting the problem and creating new public data on the issue. In 2018, after two years of direct work with the youngsters and their families, she decided to gather all the testimonies in a book called “The Invisibles of the Republic” that drew major attention. It has sold more than 10.000 copies and 700 individuals spontaneously applied as mentors after reading the book or seeing Salomé talking about it on TV, acknowledging she was disclosing a major issue they had themselves been confronted to while young. Following the same strategy, in November 2019, she released a national poll in which the renown polling firm IFOP interviewed young French people aged from 17 to 23 about their studies and career choices and their relationship to the future in order to compare answers given by rural and urban youngsters. The results are striking and allow Salomé to give substance to her speech. Salomé leads a well-thought media strategy around these publications, and has thus become an influential and credible player, especially for the Ministry of Education, who has recently asked her to produce a special report on this topic. It will allow her to make structuring recommendations to drive changes in public policies and institutionalize the issue.

In just a couple of years, Salomé has managed -on her own- to make the issue prominent. She will leverage her position to urge changes in public policies by planning to help public authorities. She will support them in leading large-scale experiments . She will also encourage them include more rural territories into the French “Priority Education Network” (REP) in order to benefit from additional financial help like what happens in big cities.

The Person

Salomé grew up in a small rural village in the French countryside, along with her 4 brothers and sisters. She spent her childhood fighting against boredom by using her imagination and launching small companies like a housekeeping company or an organization dedicated to help kids with schooling difficulties. Her parents were actors and raised the family in the respect of nature and patience, and the love of art and literature. All her siblings decided to choose the same path. Even though she felt anxious and helpless about the studies choices she had to make, she knew she didn’t want to reproduce the family pattern.

Going against her teacher’s advice and her parent’s opinion, she applied for a Parisian ‘classe préparatoire’ (two years of preparation to integrate the French Grandes Ecoles) in literature and got accepted. She moved to Paris thanks to a scholarship and soon discovered a tangible gap between her and her urban classmates in terms of culture, knowledge, self-confidence and plans for the future. She failed the admission process three times for Sciences Politiques - a prestigious school teaching Political Sciences in Paris - before succeeding, according to her precisely because of this gap. All along her studies and beginning of her career in Paris, she observed and suffered from these differences, to the point of denying her own origins and forgetting the forces she had developed by growing up in a rural context. Simultaneously, while giving classes to student in preparatory classes for Sciences Politique and repeatedly witnessing the failure of rural youngsters, she realized she was not an isolated case and measured the extent of the problem.

In 2016, after several internships in Ministries and an experience in strategic communication, she stopped pretending being a person she was not and decided to quit to dedicate her time to an organization with the mission of reducing these inequalities. Stroke by the fact she could not find any, she decided to launch Chemins d’Avenirs to implement operational and political solutions to this slow-burning and unaddressed issue. Through this project, she has found a creative way to reconcile her origins and the trajectory she decided to take.