Ben Brangwyn (co-founder of Transition Network) recently returned from the German National Transition (Un)Konferenz. Here’s his write up. Good to see Transition alive and kicking (and dancing) over there in Deutschland.
Back in June, Gerd Wessling, the startup guy for Transition in Germany asked for someone from Transition Network to participate in their (Un)Konferenz in Kassel in Germany. He wanted:
- German transitioners to understand they were part of a bigger network and to feel properly valued because someone from TN turned up for the whole event
- Support from TN to help Switzerland and Austria potentially start up their own hubs separately from the German Hub
- TN to do an interesting keynote
The budget was really tight, and the fares are usually high to get from the UK to the middle of Germany, but I found a couple of tickets that meant the whole trip wasn’t much more than £100 for travel – it meant I had to stop off overnight in Brussels with Filipa (one of the Transition Network team), but that was a bonus.
It’s also worth noting that Transition Network was able to contribute to this event with over £1000 of funding, enabling it to be held at a truly gorgeous venue.
Outward travel went smoothly with a midnight trek through Brussels to Filipa’s and a crazy early rise the next morning to catch the train to Kassel. Which involved an impromptu trumpet and umpa-umpa sing-along session in my carriage. Which lasted ages and ages. And ages. It was so stereotypically German, I was half expecting a lederhosen clad troupe to kneeslap their way down the carriage.
A three hour trek guided by entertainingly highly gendered signposts through the woods took me to the venue – which was absolutely gorgeous. Germany is far more wooded than the UK (32% forested vs 12% in the UK), and that makes for some amazing views and pathways.
The event itself was entitled an (Un)Konferenz, which was a kind of a “being” event rather than a “doing” and they try to alternate each year between the two. It was for “German-speaking” transitioners rather than just for Deutschland, and there were over 100 transitioners there from Germany and Austria and beyond.
Having stopped studying and speaking German about 35 years ago, the programme was full of impenetrable sessions, such as “Einführung in das Thema Regionalgeld am Beispiel der BürgerBlüte in Kassel”. Others, such as “Workshop – Transition Streets” were a little easier to understand. At least the title was, but not the sessions themselves. These were all conducted in German (apart from a keynote session by some guy from Totnes) and therefore stretched my linguistic capabilities to the limit. Bizarrely, as a long dormant part of my brain started coming back to life, I began to have very weird dreams about being back in institutional education.
On the first afternoon, I attended the “National Hub development” workshop and, due to linguistic shortcomings, my contribution was a quantitative study of the contributions to the discussions by both genders – interesting findings given the recent discussions on the Transition Network site of “Is Gender an Issue in Transition?”. In the end, over a 2 hour period, on average the men said something 22 times and the women 21 times, which I thought was pretty damn even. However, there was a very striking imbalance was in asking questions. On average a woman asked a question once every 30 minutes, while the men ask only one question every two hours!
Overall, because there were 8 men and 5 women, the male contributions outweighed the females in almost exactly that proportion. Bear in mind that this wasn’t a qualitative study – for all I know the men could have been spouting absolute “schwachsinn” and the women channeling deep wisdoms. I mentioned this to quite a few people and they were fascinated by it – apart from just one bloke who objected strongly that I had made “gendered communications” the focus of my attention. I hoped his objection was because he was so highly advanced in gender awareness rather than the other way around.
At the end of this, they formed the National Hub working group for Germany. They had very little time to do it, so the facilitator Matthias Wanner (a Transition Trainer) improvised. He set up a constellation of the group and asked people one by one to gradually move where their body wanted to take them. As these slow movements played out, each person found a place in, or in relation to, the core group and it was settled within about 4 minutes. Very impressive and everyone was delighted with the results.
In the main hall Transition “Initiativen” had the opportunity of showcasing their activities. Some of these looked amazing with loads of projects. Witzenhausen – Stadt im Wandel” had a very impressive “vision” picture, Göttingen’s CSA and list of projects was very impressive, a joint initiative between two close communities “Wibbecke and Erbsen” had a chronology that included an early showing of In Transition 1.0. Click the thumbnails to see the big pics, and use the mousewheel or slidebar to enlarge them in Googleview to see the real details.
There were plenty of other initiatives on show there, all rather proud of their achievements, all finding themselves a bit stretched and all hoping to expand their impact over time.
There are over 150 Transition Initiatives in Germany/Austria/Switzerland. Their national hub started up in 2009 and looks like Austria may be strong enough to split off in 2015. They’ve done a lot of translation work and the latest is “Einfach. Jetzt. Machen!” – which I imagine you can figure out even if you’re German is a lot ropier than mine – and Rob was over in Germany for the launch in July this year. The German Transition website is here: http://www.transition-initiativen.de.
There were a couple of movies that night shown by “Bravehearts”, introduced by an old pal Frieder Krups (married to Deborah Heifetz of the Israeli Hub), and they seemed to be very well received (though being in German without subtitles meant they went over my head a bit).
I did the keynote the next afternoon, and I talked about the Transition Network strategy, focusing in particular on a) different levels of scale and b) the “How We Will Work” elements. I did it in “interview” mode, with Gesa (from the German Hub and the Transition Research Network) asking the questions and getting me back on track if I wandered down some blind alley. Apparently it went down pretty well – here’s what Gesa wrote to me:
“I have got only positive feedback about your talk from a bunch of people I asked about it. Your talk about the strategy did fit perfectly into the current situation of forming the Network in Germany […] it was great to have you here talking about the “core-strategy” of Transition Movement and spreading ideas and insights personally. That’s really a great benefit of being part of the TT Network and we will have quite a lot to “digest” and work on.”
Despite it being the session after a big lunch, no one fell asleep and the small clutch of people who said they’d need a whispered translation service actually left the translator on his own and listened carefully at the front – I was trying to speak slowly and simply and it seemed to have worked.
Later on Saturday, there was a performance which could be entitled “Play, Interrupted”. A progressive theatre troupe performed a short 5-part piece depicting a Transition group arranging an event. The first time they run through these 5 parts, everything goes wrong, everyone has unrevealed agenda, no one asks how anyone else is really doing, and the whole thing ends in complete disaster. Next, they replay each scene, and the audience is invited to shout “Stop” (which is the same auf Deutsch) at a point where they think an intervention might improve proceedings. The “shouter” is then invited to replace one of the actors and play out the role in adlib fashion to see if they can extricate the situation into a much more well functioning dynamic. That piece plays out (and the other actors do make the “shouter” stretch a bit to get their desired change) and then the audience discusses it. Even with the language difficulties I found it fascinating and very very engaging. I think it might work well at a conference or roadshow in most transition settings as it seems to engage long term activists as well as newbies. There was loads of laughter too.
In fact, my overall impression of the event is about laughter. The German (and Austrian) transitioners appear to laugh long and loud and often. It makes for a very appealing atmosphere and was matched by a sense of trust across the participants.
The participants were very accommodating of my linguistic shortcomings. Most of them spoke excellent English and I had many an interesting conversation during the excellent meals and timeouts.
That night was the party. At about 10.30pm, someone plugged in their laptop to the PA in the main hall and fired up some of their “dance” music. Initially, the lighting was like one of those American 60s prom teen dances – too much brightness and zero atmosphere. So I plugged my laptop into the projector and painted the inside of the building with one of those whoozy acid trip screensaver things which boosted the groove significantly. But the music – Gott im Himmel! They still play Kraftwerk! You remember dancing to Kraftwerk? It ain’t easy, but the Germans have got it all worked out. They jerk around like they’re being tasered and strike some truly inspirationally spaced-out poses! Then they bizarrely played all the b-sides to the Duran Duran hits and other new romantic obscurities. Then they dug out several hypnotic tracks of freaky “Bavarian reggae”. Apparently it’s an “erworbener Geschmack” – although what horrors you’d have to be subjected to before you acquired that taste were never discussed. I actually really enjoyed (most of) it.
I’ve just remembered the highlight of that night. The guy who runs the theatre group was a gifted beatboxer. I mean he was kickin’ ass – when he was on the mike we were all hopping around madly like grasshoppers on acid.
Then another transitioner started duet-beatboxing with him and amped up the whole thing another notch! Amazing!
Sunday was quieter. A few people had stayed up till 4 in the morning around a fire, and they looked a little ragged around the edges.
In a quiet moment, I mused on some of the similarities and differences between this and conferences we’ve held in the UK. The amount of laughter was familiar, as was the level of trust between participants. So too was the range of different types of sessions and the innovations I witnessed and successes and struggles of the Transition Initiatives. In terms of differences, the music was a bit weird, but there was something else… Seems like men in Germany express their individuality with their hair more than in the UK. In a hall full of people, there will be dozens of different hairstyles. There are hippy hairy ones, number one buzzcuts, mullets, reverse mullets, remnants of mohawks, one cross between Max Wall and Marc Bolan, some dreads, and one or two “normals”. By Sunday, these hairstyles had become even more emphatic – the diversity on show was spectacular! The other big difference was that there were more kids. Big, medium, tiny – they all seemed to join in and play and have a good time. I liked that a lot about the event, and it looks like a very healthy balance between young and old. Kind of keeps my mind on why we’re doing this work too…
After Sunday lunch, we all cleared up and cleared out. There was much hugging and again, much laughter. There was many a “bis nächstes Jahr” and waving of hands.
As I hopped into the car with Gerd Wessling (I was staying at his place in Bielefeld that night before heading off on my two-day journey back to the UK), I felt enriched and impressed by the organisation and depth of the event. Big thanks to them for the invitation and opportunity. But if I ever do it again, I’m definitely going to spend a few months brushing up on my German beforehand.
And as we all know, no Transition Conference or (Un)Konferenz can be considered complete without a Kuchen. And here it is!
I’ll end with a lovely little poem recited to me by one of the most delightful men I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (Svadesha from Witzenhausen Im Wandel). The apparent prompt for this recitation was me using the term “frames”, as in George Lakoff (which I’m sure you’ll hear much more about over the coming months from Transition Network):
Oh could I cease my foolish games
And like a breeze fly out of frames
Lose my mind in oceans blue
Oh could this drop melt into you
I found these words strangely relaxing, and will enjoy musing on their meaning as winter closes in here in the Northern hemisphere.