In this blog Ruth Cross co-founder of Eroles Project shares her experience of attempting to sense the ‘Social Field’ of a civic space with two groups of political activists, academics, politicians, teachers, writers, arts graduates, coaches and facilitators, from various European countries. She explains how, by becoming more receptive to ourselves, each other and our surroundings, a clearer understanding can be gained of what is really happening in our everyday political lives. This awareness offers a more reliable place to discern what actions are needed and the ability to notice what repercussions our actions have.
“When cities and neighbourhoods have thriving civic spaces, residents have a strong sense of community; conversely, when such spaces are lacking, people may feel less connected to each other.” * *Projects for Public Spaces
During the residencies we became interested in civic spaces as an opportunity to enact and practice democracy. These common areas in all towns and cities, although in many countries declining rapidly through privatisation, provide a space for cultural traditions, demonstrations and protests, inhabiting and relaxing, celebrations, social and economic exchange, guerilla gardening and engaging with public art. Activities where we as citizens can come together to meet, exchange and shape the fabric of our political lives (Our arrival to Politicking).
A question overlooked by people in democratic society whether they are aware of it or not, is who has responsibility for ensuring that the activities in civic spaces welcome all voices? We believe as citizens we all are. This question becomes more complex within POPOS’s, Privately Owned Public Open Spaces, and in situations where the closure of civic spaces is threatened, where then does the responsibility lie for keeping these spaces open for civic life?
Democracy and political freedom
Based on a discussion lead by residency participant Patricia Shaw, sharing her in depth reading of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, we came to understand democracy in the public realm as a collective willingness to accept our own and others plurality. We are different, and that is ok. Arendt suggests we experience political freedom in the moments we act amongst our peers, where ‘peers’ are the uniquely differing yet related others in which our own uniqueness is possible. Action takes up the freedom we always potentially have to respond spontaneously in word and deed to events that are happening and to accept in this way responsibility for our participation.
Why is this important on a personal and political level?
For many of us in private we feel comfortable to ‘be ourselves’ with others. In public spaces however, particularly in states and cultures where democracy is crumbling or never existed, censorship and control create a fear of difference, which conditions ‘normalised’ behaviours. Thus reducing the freedom we feel that we have to interact and express ourselves as “we are”.
Many of us are influenced by the increasing demagoguery (leaders in a democracy who gain popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, ‘whipping up the passions of the crowd’ and shutting down reasoned deliberation). We find it difficult to distinguish between what is true and the swaying of mass opinion, and in our civic lives many of us don’t have the skills to express when we feel dissonance when we encounter a behaviour or action that we feel is unjust. Learning to be acute with our discernment can be challenging in current ‘post-truth’ era. It is these times of seeming democracy that require us to be sharper and more awake to keep our civic spaces, our civic freedom, our minds, from closing down and lazily slipping into numbness, othering and blame.
Oppression is easy to identify when political leaders tweet anti-Muslim videos, potentially inciting the graffiti I see when I look out my window in Madrid – No Islam (with thankfully a more recent addition – iphobia). But when it takes subtler forms, it is less easy to notice when a diversity of opinions, experience and behaviours are being closed down.
Staying open to whether diversity of experience is welcomed or not within our workplace, community gardens and town halls requires us to be attentive. If our neighbourhoods are accepting of difference, it is harder for the state, political systems, corporations or any other form of control to corrupt and corrode community cohesion.
A constant practice
With a background in choreography and a freelance career working creatively with changemakers and activists I have been interested in these questions for some time. A few years ago I came across Social Presencing Theatre a methodology, developed by Arawana Hayashi. It combines many of my favorite things in one practice; body-awareness, movement, experiential learning, Shambhala teachings, individual, organisational and social change. It’s being used in business, government, and civil society settings, in Brazil, Indonesia, China, India, Europe and the United States.As well as a theory of practice, Social Presencing Theatre is a series of exercises which reveal patterns and relationships in a system to make visible both current reality, and the deeper – often invisible – leverage points for creating profound change.
Village in the Village
Village is a 20-minute exercise where participants move through a designated space choosing spontaneously to run, walk, lie, turn, stand, greet. Its aim is to expand awareness of patterns, by reducing language and limiting movement, in order to learn something about human relating within systems. Village, and Social Presencing Theatre in general, is not usually done in civic spaces, but as an attempt to practice the theory we had been discussing in the privacy of our Eroles Project residency, took it to the local town square in Tremp.
Patricia, an elegant woman in her 60’s, lying in the middle of square and walking on benches, introduced a surprisingly playful energy to the group. Later a woman from Tremp with a buggy and older kids, started running through the square following participants, and again the group imitated her. From then on there was more interest from Tremp citizens.
One participant’s feedback, “… very liberating, I always have an agenda in my head and therefore an absence of genuine observation, but now I was surprised by the amount I noticed, and how fun it was to just be present in a space.”
The patterns that emerged were defined by the big metal contemporary structures in the vast pedestrian zone. Shapes and rhythms formed. Patterns repeated.
How long do you have to know a space to contribute or enact in it? This was particularly pertinent for the second group who arrived in late August 2017 at the time of the Barcelona terror attacks. There was police presence on the way to the town. Thus, the energy of the group was more hesitant. Some felt a real a block about being in a public space. There was a larger fear of being seen as “strange”.
“I felt on edge because I didn’t understand what was allowed, and I didn’t want to offend the cultural norms.” This response is a great example of someone being attentive to their truth in relation to what is happening in the social field. This kind of awareness of oneself is essential in order to solve the inner dissonance that prevent us from making authentic and truthful decision of participation, ie, the decision not to participate just because everyone else is. Learning how to notice what fear, as well as other emotional responses, feels like in our bodies is an important part of reclaiming our power within public spaces.
Collective insights from this experience
Village increases our ability to pay attention. In 20 minutes we become a 4D model of an ecosystem in which we witness patterns of movement emerge, adapt and evolve. I find interesting the parallels between this 4D experience and how social movements grow and die. On a micro level, a pattern of movement, let’s say jumping off a bench, introduced in the town square and copied regularly by other participants, can be equated to the ripple effects that spread through our societies resulting in new cultural norms.
In this exercise through widening our awareness we are learning to understand the relationship between how we participate and the impact that has on the whole system. If our participation is alive, responsive, intune with our inner sensations whilst simultaneously being attentive to what is happening around us, we become more available in each moment, and better able to discern which actions, words and behaviours (our own and others) feel true and which ones don’t.
I have begun to use this as a tool for observing patterns of relating and co-creating cultures with migrants, refugees and local people in Regeneration Project Granada, Eroles’ new project in the south of Spain.
One Italian participant from The Apennines, expressed motivation to facilitate Village in earthquake impacted areas to sense the impact of the devastation in the body and to better understand the relationship between the ruined space and the potential of interacting anew, of creating new cultural responses.
In what other spaces can this practice be helpful? I believe that a way to find the answer might start with identifying the spaces in which we feel the most distance between our true selves and the place around us. Ultimately what we are talking about is ensuring public spaces are places for all voices and all bodies, regardless of race, ability, sexuality or religion. This self knowing process can contribute to the liberation of our spontaneous, creative selves from the repression and (self) censorship that tends to elicit within us and our bodies.
Casita de Colores is a beautiful expansive stone house in Eroles a tiny hamlet in Catalonia. It is where the Eroles Project was born, and it’s been the home of Eroles residencies over the last three summers. Change-makers from around the world have joined the residencies since 2015, exploring themes that feel relevant to our times. We gather together to reflect, exchange, and collaborate in designing projects, building networks and taking action.
During this month of writing blogs, as well as making a film and a podcast for Transition Network, we intend to share our experiences, approaches and learnings, hopefully sparking questions and important conversations. In this first blog, I will attempt to share some experiences with you from past residencies; with the hope that you will sense some sort of recognition when reading them, and create your own understanding of what it is that we do and why we do it.
What is the Eroles Project?
I could give several answers. It is a network of change-makers connected through a set of evolving principles, annual learning-for-action residencies, an online community platform and a library of resources. It is a threshold marked by a cobalt blue door. It is a small core team of organisers, a growing number of alumni and an advisory board. It is projects and workshops that root around the world. Mostly though, in whichever form, I feel it is an opportunity to inquire.
Radical FriendshipOne of the most significant outcomes of each residency is the ongoing friendships that are made. The conversations that happen at meal times, during breaks, cooking together, hanging out at the lake, in the (one and only) local pizza place, are the ones that seem to truly deepen the relationships within the group. After dinner, sitting in the garden with Jane and Lukas, participants from Deepening Citizenship, looking at the UNESCO-protected sky (yes it’s one of the clearest skies in Europe), and we’re all giggling out of fatigue, I know I am sitting with friends.
Creating these bonds across movements is what has ended up being one of the clearest keys to fostering action and sustaining engagement – understanding fully that one is not alone, through spending time with each other in different ways. These relationships, or radical friendships (as we refer to them), are the foundations upon which we have been able to create projects and take action after each residency, and put our learnings into concrete practice.
Eroles at United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21)As a result of the first residency in 2015 for example, the Eroles community collaborated with a Parisian squatter crew, creative climate activists from India, Bolivia and South Africa, and other European collectives, to build and host a convergence hub in Paris during COP21. In November and December 2015 over 100 people from a huge diversity of places and backgrounds lived in this space in Paris; exchanging stories of resistance, co-creating actions and living a possible future in the midst of disempowering climate negotiations. It was an amazing experience of self organisation. The Eroles community hosted an opening party for internationals and locals engaging with climate activism and ran public events on reimagining activism. We also hosted The UN Canteen, a performance game which invited audiences to ‘bring a vegetable to the theatre’, sit at a table of eight strangers and collaborate to cook dinner together. On entering, depending on the weight of their vegetable, audience members were assigned a power card relating to a UN delegate and the qualities and powers of the country they represented. It was a simulation of the complexity of power, resources and relationship to climate change between countries in the official conference in Le Bourget. Audience members had varying resources, food and time for cooking, some had access to the spice corner, some became lobbyists and tried to convince the delegates to add salami to their a vegetarian meal. Taking place over dinner time – with 40 plus hungry audience members – people got really into the game. One of the surprising things while debriefing was how many people reported feelings of compassion (many for the first time) towards those inside Le Bourget trying to reach consensus on viable and realistic climate agreements.
Eroles without BordersOur 2016 “A Camp as if People Matter” residency had the explicit focus of seeding a project with refugees and migrants which responded to migration in a positive way. After an intense three weeks together, along with some serendipity, the Regeneration Project: Granada, is now well underway to regenerate lives and land in the Alpujarras, Granada. The team who met during the residency have spent the year mapping the area and meeting with stakeholders to understand the context and what’s needed. They have set up an association with refugees and migrants who are now running permaculture, agroecology and social inclusion trainings in Granada, and over the next few years will be setting up ecological enterprises, cooperatives and sustainable livelihoods. The ultimate aim of this project is to contribute to re-populating a network of semi-abandoned villages with a new co-created governance, weaving traditional ways of doing things with a celebration of a plurality of cultures. Ruth Cross and Maria Llanos from the Eroles project have gained many insights and examples of ‘Emerging Politics’ from this summer’s residency to take back to the team in Granada.
Microsystem – MacrosystemAs each year goes by, it becomes clearer that every big theme we explore, be it Climate Justice or Democracy, is a different manifestation of the same root problems. In a complex system, issues such as power, privilege and the delusion of separation, reveal themselves in the social, political and ecological spheres. Although the participants each year hold slightly different questions—What is creative action? How are borders inhibiting us to meet each other as human to human? What does being an engaged citizen mean to me? The inquiry is still the same – at Eroles, we are trying to see what is blocking us from participation here, in these very residencies, by looking at how power and privilege is playing out in the group. From there we move out to how we each deal with power in the wider world, in order to notice our patterns in what we consent to by being passive or by the way we act. Only when we can meet these things in ourselves can we see how they play out more clearly in other contexts. With this learning we can practice how and when to step up, take a lead and take action in ways that consider the whole of the system; be that the Eroles residency group, a Transition Network project or an emerging political party.
“Thinking” TogetherWe experiment with using different levels of structure and decision-making models, various forms of knowing (play, intellectual, sensory, embodied, emotional) so as to create spaces that can engage and embrace diversity
Although it is important to create smooth processes in groups, we believe even deeper learning lies in understanding how to act in periods of discomfort, confusion or uncertainty. Reality is not always safe or comfortable.
Needing Solutions is a trapWe do not want to lull ourselves into a comfortable consensus that “we are the good people”. Where would this lead us? To a huge political divide, each side equally dogmatic and blaming the other. This constant “othering” replicates the systems we are trying to shift, in that we are still acting with the delusion that we have the solution. As sculptor and activist Jens Galschiot said in a Skype to Eroles just a few days ago, “the idea that you need to have a solution is a trap.” I am reminded of my agency, by which I mean to say that my choice not to consent, is a valid enough place to start acting from, going forward, wherever that may take me, without the need to come to some neat conclusion.
The nature of the public realm can be precisely that. A space that does not aim for people to agree with each other and reach conclusions, but to investigate, acknowledge, and appreciate the differences of our experiences, creating a space that more closely reflects the realities and pluralities of life and allows for something truly new to emerge. I want to live in a place where we are free to be me and also us.
Here are some concrete steps that can help bring some of these concepts into practice in your family, community, workplace or project:BEING ME AND ALSO US
- Create spaces to hear everyone’s voice within your team, family, project by starting the day or meetings with a ‘check-in’ to hear for a minute or two, one-by-one, how people are feeling.
- Invite someone you don’t know who lives on your street to go for a walk. See what comes up in your conversation. Share the things that concern and inspire you both about your area.
- On your own, with family or colleagues; go on a sensing journey in the public spaces in your city, town or neighbourhood. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, notice is happening? How are people inhabiting, moving through and using the public space?
- Before making decisions in your workplace or group, convene whole systems conversations where you get information on how this decision could impact all parts of the whole (people directly and indirectly involved, the environment, animals, the future…)
- During your next family, work or community meeting focus on the question: how and why I am participating and what motivates me to participate. After the meeting take a few minutes to write down what you noticed about your participation. Encourage others to do the same and take time to listen to each others notes.
- Spend time together caring for collective project, work or community spaces for example sharing cooking, washing-up, cleaning and making the space beautiful.
- Celebrate your family, team, project by sharing personal stories around a theme that feels relevant. ‘Tell me a personal story about… ’
- The last time you did something for the first time.
- When you disrupted the status quo.
- Moments of perseverance or courage.
The aim of this prize generated by Lush (the ethical high street cosmetics company), is to raise awareness of regeneration and its potential, and to explore how to best communicate the idea of regeneration. Regeneration Project: Granada received the 2017 intentional project award, alongside ten other projects receiving young, established and influential project awards.
The Spring Prize Event took place in Emerson College in Sussex, UK; a heartful place that provided a welcoming backdrop for this very inspiring and surprisingly unconventional event. Over two days the eleven winners from all over the world and the shortlisted projects from the UK had a chance to meet, exchange and learn from each other in a personal and informal atmosphere.
This was supported by innovative formats such as a basar, skillsharing times, workshops and open discussions, creating spaces for the different projects to meet and exchange experiences, knowledge and questions. Some topics approached in those sessions were for example how to communicate regenerative ideas, designing regenerative working environments, creating a platform that gives voice to marginalized communities…
On the first day, Ruth Cross one of the co founders of Eroles Project and team member of Regeneration Project: Granada led an embodied experience exercise where all participants could meet each other as ‘human to human’ and share in a non-verbal space. I noticed that after a little while some people sat down, assuming that something about this exercise was too much or somehow alienating for them, that they were escaping the intensity of the eye contact, or non-verbal encounters with others. Later on I talked to one of them; what he told me turned this moment into one of those moments that expands the box, confronting my personal beliefs and assumptions. He said that he could see that in our culture those kind of exercises were very much needed in order to get into our bodies and to become present. Yet, to him this seemed a bit strange as people in his culture had a naturally much more embodied way of meeting each other, and that where he comes from this exercise would not have been necessary.
He represented a project called the Timbaktu Collective, a project that works for sustainable development in drought areas in Andrah Pranesh in India, working with small farmers and especially focusing on the most marginalized, such as women, children, youth and dalits. They work collectively, cultivating common land. The thought of working hard the whole day for something that gives no private returns, without suspecting that your neighbour might be working less hard then you or getting more in return is probably quite a strange one for most people coming from western societies. I was deeply inspired by this trust in the collective, valuing your family and community before your individual needs. I imagine that this might be one of the major challenges that we will face with the Regeneration Project: Granada; the question of how to distribute ownership and yield. Especially as we aim to work with people from many different cultures, differing substantially in the relation between individual, family and society.
The ceremony itself was simple and heartful, the judges handing in the prize in the form of a green soap. Many project representants expressed that receiving this prize gave the people in their projects confidence that they were going in the right direction, that their work was worthwhile. The same is true for us; receiving this prize and being part of this network of wonderful and inspiring people gave me an enormous boost of trust, hope and energy to continue the work.
A massive thank you to Lush and Ethical Consumer for this beautiful event and the possibilities they provide with this prize, for creating a world where we give back more than we take!