Lynn van Leerzem shares some experiences from reaching out to new people in the ‘Celebrate Nature! A festival by and for Moerwijk’. Basically, what we did was: we (people of The Hague Transition group) used an international celebration (Fête de la Nature) as an excuse to ‘enthousiasmize’ (there should be a word for that in English) neighbours to start up nature activities in their streets.
This way, we supported 7 groups of neighbours to start up new community gardens or regular garden events with their streets. It took place in the neighbourhood Moerwijk, which is supposed to be the poorest neighbourhood of the Netherlands with lots of depression etc., but which also has a lot of community spirit and grass fields (= garden potential) between the social housing apartments.
One of the most beautiful outcomes, to my view, was the incredible diversity of people participating. We have a group of Turkish women organising garden events to get children and parents out of their houses; a group of 65+ people who started a regular garden game afternoon; several new gardens between social housing buildings that are created & taken care of by people from Dutch, Carribean, Turkish, Moroccan, Colombian and more different backgrounds. Beautiful also is, that now the ‘initiators’ of these activities meet on a regular basis to discuss how the follow up of the festival. Meaning the older initiators who for instance wonder how to engage the Turkish people in their building can ask advice of the Turkish initiators for advice.
Here are some elements that were important in our approach:
Celebration, culture and creating new stories about Moerwijk were central in our approach. F.i.:
- We used pictures, a short film and a book to celebrate how great the festival was. People who had been working a lot for their own activity could look back and realise they were part of a bigger picture. We organised follow up events in which we set a vibe of “we are the pioneers of the neighbourhood, what we did was amazing!”
- At the day of the festival, the individual activities were connected by a nature carnaval parade that we organised. The costumes and banners etc. were created in workshops by recycle-artists with neighbours. The parade was an amazing way to get people to their balconies to dance along or even to get down the street and dance/walk along. We heard many people say: “Huh? We never have culture and celebration in our neighbourhood, are these people from our own neighbourhood?”.
Personal contact. As the organising team we invested many many days in walking around the neighbourhood to just start chatting with people about the event. We had a sand graffiti mall that said “Celebrate Nature!” in Dutch, Arab and Turkish (the most common languages in Moerwijk) and while applying the sand graffiti many people would ask us: huh? What’s this? Even shyer people (in my experience Turkish women are for instance a bit more shy) would come and read as they recognised their own language. That way we got attention from the most diverse people. Once they said they wanted to participate, we would stay in close touch.
We focused in particular on people with little experience in organising things, we brainstormed with them and linked them up with people in the neighbourhood who could help them (gardening experts etc.). With many of them we became friends. I think it helped that we are rather extrovert, happy young people. That spreads.
The whole concept was about neighbours feeling ownership over what happened during the festival. In everything we did we wondered: how can we make ourselves as invisible as possible? E.g. we asked participants to prepare & host the launch of the book about the festival, when we were invited to give presentations about the project (by the city council and housing cooperations), we invited the participants to give the presentations with us. We never told people: you should make a garden. We just presented a framework (“it’s a festival about nature”) and asked people what they thought is important for Moerwijk and if they had any thoughts on what kind of activity they would like to organise.
Follow up. Once every two months we organised a follow up event (dinner with evaluation, a book launch, going to the theatre together, giving a presentation at the city council) with representatives of every group to celebrate and discuss follow up. This year we’re organising the festival again.
Budget/lots of time. We submitted our plan to the city council, that paid us for doing this work. That made it possible to invest as much time as was needed. The reason they paid us is because our project resonates with their objectives of stimulating civil society participation & social cohesion. And because for years we showed them as volunteers that we are good at what we’re doing.