Maria Chatzopoulou (COMM’ON, Greece) visits Argyro Barata (FEAST Greece) in May 2017 in Thessaloniki.
Until I met Argyro in person, in our CitizensLab meeting in Brussels last March, I only knew her by name and by stories (yes! good ones…). Despite of a general description about her project – FEAST- I didn’t know what she was actually doing, what was her story, what is her vision, her community etc.. We live in the same (small) country and we work in the same field, it only felt logical, to go and spend some time with her in Thessaloniki!
We had the chance to connect about a month before my trip and we started making an unofficial agenda with all the things we wanted to discuss and all the things I could see while being there! The time came, and after an unusual spring storm, a missed train, a 7 hours trip and a bus strike, I finally arrived in Thessaloniki and was ready to hear the stories and to explore the city!
During our first long walk with Argyro we started getting to know each other; we talked about our organizations and ourselves. It is amazing how many things we share and have in common, like why we started working in this field, how much we enjoy it, how many things we discovered while working with cross-sectoral projects.
Next, in our discussion, was our local context. How can we discover the shared goals and needs of our local networks/communities? How can we stay connected locally so we can connect internationally? Can we organise ourselves? Argyro talked about how we can use ‘Art of Hosting’, an approach to leadership that harnesses the collective wisdom and self-organizing capacity of groups, to bring local active actors together in Thessaloniki. Our conversation led us to ask ourselves why don’t we bring together people it both cities, Thessaloniki and Athens? Something was born there and for the last weeks we have started working on this and waiting to see where this idea will take us!
The second day, it was the ‘explore the local community’ day!
In the morning we took another long walk starting from the 19th high school of Thessaloniki where a local group Topio worked with kids to help them to express their ideas. The kids shared their thoughts on how they want to connect their school to the neighborhood and specifically to the nearby park while co-creating their urban environment. They made an amazing dragon mural at the courtyard of the school. In the dragon’s body they left the old graffiti that was there before thus including the story of the building’s walls. The theater in the park nearby the school was also covered in colorful graffiti. The kids re-claimed the urban space around their school and to achieve this they brought together the whole neighborhood.
Then it was time for us to head to the sea cost and to the town-hall. Argyro gave me a tour around the building while explaining the story of the municipality in the last 5 years and how they started to open-up, engage and re-connect the community. We particularly talked about the municipality’s participation in the 100 Resilient Cities programme and the opportunities that this gives both to the local administration and to the grassroots groups. Community needs and new ways of collaborations are being revealed for a more sustainable and resilient community, socially, culturally, environmentally etc.
The third day and one of the most fun and revealing moment of this journey happened! I met Aggelos and Veta at Trilofo (three hills), a small village 15 min outside of the city! 10 years ago Veta started there an alternative kindergarten ‘School of Nature’ and Aggelos, at the same time, has been developing along with others ‘The School of Colours and Nature’ in a small village at Rethymno, Crete. They didn’t know each other but luckily they found each other and now they develope small miracles together!
Along with Giannis (who unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to meet) they have now started an NGO called ‘The Big Bang School’ and they are working on ‘new innovative ways of re-designing education to upgrade humanity’. They work with teachers’ education programmes, educational web TV and so much more..! We talked a lot about what education means for them, their future ideas and their need to connect with similar initiatives mostly at international level. They showed me around their school, their handmade story-telling house, their BBQ, the school’s animals, the parents DIY after-school labs and a little girl named Maria showed me how to do the most kick a** swing tricks I have ever seen!
What did I learn and what do I take back with me?
Well, the swing tricks for sure!!
But beyond that… The time I’ve spend outside my context, taking time to hear stories and explore new ways of approaching the same idea. What idea? In CitizensLab we talk about ‘social change’ and it feels like we know the ‘why’ around the things we are doing/developing. But what I understood in this trip was that we are missing the ‘how’ and the ‘who’.
We also talk about the need of connections and a strong network to accomplish our goal but what we actually need is time to connect with each other, to sit – with a clear mind – at the same table, listen and then give ourselves more time to reflect.
Giving time to myself to do this, I regain the inspiration, I was able to connect more dots and came up with more creative ideas that I could possible imagine.
It was a bit difficult for my colleagues back home to follow my (explosive) thoughts but we are getting there! We have already booked an internal COMM’ON trip, away from the office, to give ourselves the time to connect and enjoy our work together!
Marou Chatzopoulou has studied Fine Arts & Theory of Urban Space. She is the co-founder of COMM’ON, an Athens based non-profit organization that is working as a ‘backbone’ organisation for innovative and sustainable societal collaborations in the city and in smaller communities.