European social entrepreneurs share breakthroughs for activating communities

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ceal-1A version of this article was first published on Positive News here

The CEAL network came together this weekend in Brussels to share knowledge, experience and ideas exploring how to stimulate entrepreneurial initiatives in communities across the continent. I was invited to join the team travelling from Frome in Somerset England who have made national news with such innovative initiatives as the nation’s first share shop; a community fridge all created by Edventure, a school for social entrepreneurship.

Other groups converged from five other European countries: Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Basque Country. The network has evolved out of a model inspired by the Brazilian community transformation process ‘Oasis Game’ – “a community mobilization tool developed by Instituto Elos to materialize collective dreams.” Beatrix Bliss “What we’ve learnt from the Brazilians is to see abundance in scarcity, and that by working together we can create something spectacular, from nothing. Through the process of building a community space together, we simultaneously build community.”

All the teams brought with them inspiring stories of community enrichment. While mainstream economists and politicians relentlessly fixate on scarcity and austerity these groups are blowing against the prevailing winds, finding abundance in seemingly scarce communities. Operating from the starting point that we can actively shape our own neighbourhoods to create opportunities, stimulate minds, bodies and spirits and enable thriving sustainable communities.  

Mara Verduin, from Holland said: “it is about going into communities with sincere curiosity so that real relationships can form. These are projects from the heart and people generally want to work together to add value to their lives. People sense when a project is authentic and want to get involved”

A series of fascinating talks in the morning challenged many fundamental assumptions about how we live. Jonathan Dawson, from Schumacher College UK said that “the current education system is not fit for purpose” and is “approaching a paradigm shift – it is no longer about a one person standing in the front speaking.” The gathering seemed to embody a new model of learning that comes from connecting as a network and trying new things together enabling new knowledge to emerge collaboratively from groups of learners. Jonathan again: “Teachers transmitting is an absurd model of learning. Each of our subjective experience is not just valid but crucial to the emerging social transformation.”

ceal-2The entrepreneurial ideas being shared were not about generating conventional personal wealth or increasing GDP. The efforts are to: meet needs not being met by the mainstream economy; create change; connect with hard to reach groups; pull disparate people together and collaboratively improve each others lives. Starting any kind of new community initiative requires a step into the unknown. Johannes Moeller from Edventure said “it is the personal step into the local challenge that is at the heart of a community transformation.”

In the face of a global, capitalist system that stands accused of dismantling communities, homogenizing high streets and lifestyles, pulling people apart and creating alienation it takes grit and determination to do something different. It was hugely inspiring for participants to share what they had learnt in afternoon workshops and connect with others whom whilst tackling a range of different challenges – economic, social and environmental, share the enlivening common purpose of co-creating, self-willed solutions.

As a group from the United Kingdom is was poignant to smoothly cross multiple borders to get to our destination and benefit from an EU-funded scheme. On one level, this initiative demonstrates that any community can activate itself simply by applying intelligence, energy and collaboration to local problems. On another, we had all benefited from a federal, multinational process.

The Europeans at this festival warmly embraced each other and national identities were only relevant from a linguistic perspective and at times friendly banter. Far more important to those present was the urgent task facing our generation – to effectively co-create viable alternatives in the face of the catastrophic collapse of the global ecosystem alongside a failing exploitative economy. Practically, we must start where we are and focus locally but to actually have a chance of creating the scale of change needed in a relevant time-frame we need to connect internationally.

At a time when the very foundations of the European Union are being interrogated this gathering demonstrated the best of international collaboration. It is clear that lessons learnt in one national context may be useful in another. More than that, at a time when new ideas are urgently needed to catalyse radical social change we can move faster in the right direction by linking internationally and moving forward together. The benefits of a highly inter-connected Europe were obvious and the diversity of participants was crucial.

Katrin Van den Troost, from Act 4 Change:

“The most important thing about coming together is trying to build new ways of working together. The diversity of people provides so many new ideas. We fill up the gaps in our own projects with others ideas. The trust that is built is amazing. We inspire each other and go away feeling more confident that a better world is possible. It is happening and we need to trust that we are the people to do it.”

The gathering was also a celebration of the work completed to-date. On Saturday live music and DJs whipped us into a frenzy of foot stomping and riotous dancing and laughing. As we reassembled the following day there were a few fuzzy heads but this didn’t stand in the way of a speakers corner and opportunity to gather input for new projects. By the time of the closing Brazilian samba dance and goodbye embraces, a familiar stubborn purposefulness had come over the group. It is clear that we are the people we have been waiting for… and our work is just beginning.

Get involved here – ceal.eu

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