Time for enjoyment – two activists discuss self-organisation and facilitation

Aino Rekola from the Taukotila project run by the Cooperative Hertsikan Pumppu and Janne Kareinen from Artova discuss self-organisation, its requirements and opportunities with facilitation by Maija Faehnle.

The Taukotila project was a community space pilot, which took place at Herttoniemi metro station in Helsinki in 2016. It was organised by Cooperative Hertsikan Pumppu in collaboration with a local cafeteria entrepreneur. An unused space was turned into a place for local activities, including different events and exhibitions. The cooperative has previously been involved in making public space pilots in collaboration with the local library and the local food circle.

Artova is the neighbourhood association for the Arabianranta-Toukola-Vanhakaupunki area in Helsinki. Artova has been involved in renewing the operating principles and models of neighbourhood activism since 2008. The association wants to empower people to take action in their own surroundings, to organise events and to feel genuine ownership of the city. For this purpose, the Artova actors have created a specific tool called ArtovaMalli, a model for self-motivated and self-organising action.

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Maija: How do you perceive self-organisation? How would you define it?

Janne: I see – and this is what the ArtovaModel has shown me – that it is voluntary and self-motivated action. In self-organisation it is not necessarily expected that someone is giving permission for you to launch the action. Instead people just decide to launch it.

Aino: Reflecting on the experiences gained from the Taukotila project, it is important that people themselves create the agenda for their action. This is often lacking in the activities and initiatives led by some external actors.

Maija: What important requirements for success have you found in respect of Artova or Taukotila? Or what has been important?

Janne: Trust and motivation are probably the two essential requirements. Knowledge and skills actually play a rather small role. Strategy is important also, but not necessary.

Aino: If knowledge and skills are not so important Janne, what kinds of characteristics do you think are required of the people taking part in this kind of activism?

Janne: Defining a common goal helps to build mutual trust in a heterogeneous group. In the diverse groups established in Artova, it is usually the case that not everyone knows each other or that they share common views on the action in question. We have developed a facilitation method called Artova-session to help us define the aim of the action and make an action plan.

Aino: And that is in fact strategy.

Janne: Yes, which generates trust. I think that another essential requirement for generating trust is that people get to know each other and that they are able to define the common aim shared by the group members.

Aino: Still, I think that ‘know-how’ also plays a role. Certain people become involved in each project. They are generally the people who are motivated to work for the project. Their knowledge and skills generates a certain level of commitment.

Janne: Well, I see it a little differently.  If the action is genuinely local, locally motivated or based on people’s needs, then ‘know-how’ and how it is defined, have no meaning. In self-motivated activism, people decide for themselves the quality of the action and use the skills that they have. If they need more knowledge or specific skills, they just have to acquire them. It is their very own agency and the path to the next activity which are essential. Without them, nothing will happen.

Aino: I agree that certain kinds of expertise or skill are not absolute requirements here. But can you trust your own knowledge and skills in the hope that the group is able to build an action that is characteristic of its members? I believe that confidence and self-knowledge have a significant role to play in empowerment.

Janne: One´s own agency and empowerment begin after small successes. An essential component of the ArtovaModel is that people enjoy the action and that they are participating for themselves, not for someone else.

Aino: Motivation also relates to the question of time. Every now and then someone who is interested in the activities of Cooperative Hertsikan Pumppu says that it ‘sounds so interesting, but unfortunately, I have no time’. Have you experienced this?

Janne: I see that, on the one hand, it is a question of choice: are you willing to use your time in this way? On the other, if you enjoy the action, working voluntarily will give you so much joy and meaning that it makes you very effective in your actions. The increased pleasure generated will likely also benefit the other spheres of your life.

Aino: Is it related to the notion of trust in that you respect each other’s limits and the right to define these limits for action individually?

Janne: Yes. Though roles and scheduling are also required for success. By roles here I mean that we have a continuous and open discussion with everybody. We discuss what topics interest them, how much time they are ready to provide and what this means for the action as a whole.

Aino: Taukotila was a success as an experiment and the project reflected our cooperative. Yet there were points in time when we could have acted differently. These points can be crystallised into questions of trust, motivation, strategic planning and roles. When the pace got faster, our roles in the project no longer functioned as they should have. This is something which started to erode trust. One of the stumbling blocks was that we did not make a written agreement on the responsibilities of the Cooperative and the partner entrepreneur. The roles had been assigned to some degree but the pace was so fast that it would have required a continuous and open re-evaluation.

Janne: Agreements and negotiations on partnerships are interesting from the resource point of view. For some reason, Artova has never asked for help, but instead negotiated with other actors by inviting them to collaborate on an equal basis.

Aino: What about emotions? In working life, emotions seldom blend with action but in voluntary activities it can be different. Is this the case in your experience?

Janne: Yes, very much so. Some groups in Artova have dissolved because a group member has had very strong or negative emotions. We decided that groups should either dissolve, reorganise without that person, or continue. If the willingness to do things together is strong enough, the group can tackle challenges like this. Emotions are closely connected to all voluntary action and I think also that perhaps this is its greatest reward.

Aino: I think so too! Action also lives and breathes the personal commitment that everyone is ready to make. This is clearly a resource and also a precondition for the project to really take off. But at the same time, emotions can be a hindrance and a deathblow for any project.

Maija: How does all this relate to the time span for action in your mind? How might self-organising activism end up becoming a traditional non-governmental organisation?

Janne: The time span is long enough if the actors have a passion for activism. I would not define an exact time span but would rather tell them simply to stop when being active is no longer interesting. The question of how groups renew themselves is an interesting one. How does action remain interesting for the actors? I think the most valuable outcome of Artova is that we have managed to create an ambience that makes people in the area think that they can be actors without organisations or institutions. That they can start and accomplish things – the things that are interesting to them. And that others can be invited to participate in this action, but also that the action can come to an end. It is necessarily finite.

Aino: Have you identified a turning point in the life cycle of self-organising action?

Janne:  When things are done by only a couple of people and when things are done out of habit, as often happens in organisations, the meaning of action, of ‘doing things’ is lost. Actors become exhausted and bitter. This is the moment when ‘new blood’ is required to do things but the new people are not given any power, only responsibilities. It can never work well like this.

Maija: How would an understanding of the nature of self-organisation help in involving people?

Aino: I think that self-organising action builds networks and builds meaningful themes in each area. Self-organising action is like a sprout that a certain kind of fertilising soil helps to grow. How about if we started to interpret these sprouts and the constituents of fertility instead of involving people in participation? This is essentially about defining a local agenda: the ideas that sprout from the local soil would, in practice, be the local agenda. People´s networks cultivate the sprouts.

Janne: It could be called a local network.

Aino: In the contemporary system not everyone´s voice is heard or given space. Which voices and how many ideas would not be heard if we offered a breeding ground for self-organising action and networking?

Janne: I would say that more would be heard. I like to think that in civic activism we start with issues that are interesting to people. After that we begin to see who else is here and how to get them involved.

Aino: Self-organising action could contribute to processes in which the city administration invites people to participate but only through a change in thinking.

Janne: The biggest change is rethinking the concept of participation: it is crucial that people are not only involved in a given framework but rather that they are given space to frame their own agenda.

Aino: Exactly. If the city provided the space and freedom for activities generated by people themselves, and for the democratic pluralism embraced by this, people could more easily become involved without being actively involved. The initiatives could be interpreted and even challenged by the city administration. One interesting question following on from this is, how would this influence people’s power relations? Could it perhaps lead to a more just distribution of power?

Questions: editors and interviewees

Translation: Riikka Borg and editors