"Activism is 80% frustration and 20% success" - Robert Gacek, Action City
From 19th to 22nd September 2023 in Wroclaw, Poland, the EUARENAS project organised a ‘Conference on The Radical Side of Partcipation’. Activists, researchers, city representatives and, most importantly, citizens, united in the space of Barbara to explore the manifold experiences and findings related to the many forms of participation that define our world.
Wroclaw’s Participation Legacy
Prior to the event, the EUARENAS project partners took a journey through Wroclaw, a city that wears its legacy of participation on its sleeve. We visited cultural projects under the Wroclaw 2016 European Capital of Culture programme, such as the Colourful Backyards of Nadodrze, engaged with local NGO MiserArt and learned about the "Orange Alternative" as told through the city’s dwarf statues.
The MiserArt Model: Redefining dignity and community
Located in Wrocław's Nadodrze district, MiserArt has been a symbol of hope and innovation since 2014. More than an NGO, it's a sanctuary where the homeless, artisans and craftsmen bridge their worlds, sharing knowledge and skills. Within its diverse ecosystem, MiserArt houses the street ambulance, and an array of studios dedicated to bread-making, crafting garden tables and galleries. MiserArt isn't just an entity; it's a vision. It challenges the traditional mould of aid, stressing the importance of quality over quantity. It interweaves dignity with art and nurtures independence within the folds of a supportive community.
Navigating Models of Participation Across Europe
The conference extended its reach beyond Wroclaw, diving into various participation models across Europe. Some notable mentions include the Citizen Assembly 2020 and the Cultural Congress 2016 in Wroclaw, Participatory Budgeting in Helsinki, Neighbourhood Council in Reggio Emilia, and the Social Hackathon in Voru.
Throughout various workshops, participants donned various hats, leveraging their unique backgrounds, to critically analyse the impacts of our pilots, effectiveness and potential pitfalls of various participation instruments, and our joint visions for the future.
Democracy is Messy But Necessary
“Democracy is a victim of its own success” – Leszek Koczanowicz, SWPS University
Populisms like Brexit found success by capitalising on the perception that European democracy is inherently messy. While it is true that the intricate workings of democracy can appear chaotic in detail, this very messiness is a sign of its success in accommodating diverse voices. Democracy's stability and economic growth are testaments to its effectiveness, and its complex nature is essential in addressing evolving societal needs. Brexit and similar movements express frustration with this complexity, often neglecting democracy's vital role in society.
Participation on The Margin of Modern Society
The discussions broadened horizons beyond Europe, shedding light on the intricacies of participation in the "global South." Marginalised groups, often lacking resources and education, depend on NGOs for representation in the democratic labyrinth. Yet, NGOs in places like Kenya and Tanzania grapple with governmental repression. Coalition formation becomes crucial to amplify their cause. Participation there starts at the very basic: to inform people of their basic rights, their rights to criticise and demand for more, and their roles as citizens.
Definitions of participation and governance differ between Europe and developing countries, and it's essential to understand each in its respective context without imposing European perspectives.
Participatory Budgeting: from Radical Idea to Everyday Tool
A long-term perspective was taken on participatory budgeting, initially a radical idea to involve citizens in urban decision-making that has since proliferated and is now a standard approach in many cities of the world. Positive and negative experiences from Poland, South Korea and Finland, among other countries, were discussed, leaving the audience with the impression that while participatory budgeting failed to bring about major change in urban decision-making, it still has resulted in bringing (at least some parts of) the population closer to city administrations.