Dear Dounia and Nikki,
We have been friends for 9 years now. Hurrah! I was thinking how funny it is that throughout the years we have never stopped sharing tips on how to stay centered in ourselves, how to find our own way to express ourselves and exist in this society. My PhD is part of this search. It feels so, so personal. I am learning about others and realizing that I keep reflecting on mirrors of myself.
I want to tell you about Stiven. The first time I met Stiven, he had arrived late for a meeting. He brought to the room a wave of energy. He was wearing a black tank top, grey jeans, and an elastic band around his forehead that kept his thick black hair up. His eyes were also dark, but overall he felt oh so light. I felt his presence immediately. He approached three people with the cool handshakes where you first do a lateral high-five, then hold on to each other’s fingers as you bring the other close for a hug. He had a big smile and gave generous nods all around. Of the twenty or so people in the room, I knew three; he definitely knew everybody.
After that day, I kept meeting Stiven everywhere: he joined our parties, we joined the events he was organizing, we randomly met at the park… Somehow he became an acquaintance – the type of acquaintance who hugs you as a friend. So last Friday, I invited Stiven over for breakfast. It was a beautiful day, with light bathing all the corners of the apartment.
I make coffee and we start chatting on the floor of the living room. Stiven looks at me as if I was a sort of exotic creature, and maybe I look at him the same way too. He interviews me over coffee. (Somehow, every time I plan to interview somebody, they interview me first.) Where do you live? Where do you come from? Where do you go?
After I successfully explained that I live here, in the sense that I don’t live anywhere else at the moment, and I am not sure where I will be next, Stiven concludes ‘ok so you are a nomad’. I am not sure that’s how I would define myself, but I feel glad Stiven feels he can place me in some sort of category.
Stiven feels very tall. He makes me think of Huckleberry Fin, and I would not be at all surprised to see him on a raft paddling his way down a river. Instead, half an hour into our chat I learn that a few years ago Stiven became an entrepreneur. He started managing a small stand selling some sort of pizza in a cone. The business grew quickly – from one small stand, he started managing five stands all around Medellin. And then what happened? Stiven says at some point he just could not do it anymore.
‘I realized that it was not coherent with how I wanted to live. I was working with: chicken, sausage, transgenic tomatoes, transgenic corn, artificial teas, cheese, sauces, gluten, disposable cups. It’s huge contamination and it’s about exploiting the environment and making the consumer sick, just to earn money. I felt dirty all the time; I could smell the food through my skin.
I talk about my ideals very well, but what about the action? I could not do it anymore.’
Today Stiven is working on launching a project that keeps him super jumpy. He is connecting farmers directly with consumers through organic food baskets that would be sold through networks. He explains in details why he believes that a social project needs to have an economic model. ‘We need to move to an economy of solidarity. It feels so hard to do with our economic model but: ‘la utopia, hay que caminarla.’ I have no idea how to translate this sentence, but it stuck with me. Something like ‘we need to walk with our utopia’.
‘If we don’t have a sustainable economic system’ he says ‘we are always going to be dependent on others.’ This is something that a lot of people that I am working with have very clear in mind.
Carla, the friend in common between Stiven and I, shared with me an anecdote to clarify that dependence. She explained that after about a year and a half of working with no funding her organization, Deditos Verdes (Spanish for ‘green little fingers’), obtained funds from the participatory budget made available by the city (the ‘Presupuesto participativo’, which everybody calls the ‘PP’). They received 5 million pesos for an urban agriculture project. They had never seen all that money at once, plus they were told they had to spend it in 3 months (!). They did not know what to do. After long discussions, they decided to make a long-term investment by buying material they would need for their urban gardening projects. Once they bought the material they realized they did not know where to store it. Finally they asked a friend to store the material in his backyard. Few months later all the material was stolen.
Tired of being dependent from the state, Deditos Verdes has been transitioning to a social entrepreneurship model. As part of this transition, the organization started to be contracted by the non-profit branch of a big bank. Carla comments that the experience of collaborating with the Foundation has been very positive. While she was expecting for the institution to be ‘very corporate’, she found the employees she worked with to be ‘very human and approachable’. But you can see she is still not sure about working with them. ‘Some private sector funding comes with fewer requirements than public funding. I want to be able to support myself with Deditos Verdes. But I also want to work directly for the improvement of communities, and not for the employees of a bank.’
Stiven believes that we can find a way to support ourselves and live good, ethical lives. But we need to change our lifestyle. We need to be ok with the enough. His eyes shine when he tells me about the peace festival he helped organize last month with Movimiento Tierra en Resistencia, a coalition of various organizations in Castilla, a neighbourhood in the north of Medellin. The youth movement organized a two days festival in a public park which brought together 500+ people. It included workshops, a concert, a bonfire and a camping sleepover in the park. I was there with the RecrearMagnify crew and it was goose bumps epic. We walked with intimidating torches of fires across the park: a symbolic reminder that fire can be used for peace, not only for war.
‘This was a historical event and a great example of how solidarity works. Of course we had expenses, but we reached out to all of the groups we work with and everybody brought something to the table. One group brought snacks, one equipment, the local government made ambulances and security available. That is how it all came together’.
Personally, I thought that Stiven oversimplified the process, which was SOO much work, for so many people! Stiven and I met precisely at one of the organizing meetings for the event: a committee of 20+ young people sitting together to plan for 5 hours straight. The group met weekly for 3 months to organize the festival!
In between all the conversations I am having for my research, I am learning that to change the way we approach our economy, we can’t always monetize time, we can’t monetize our energy, and we definitely cannot define what is successful and what is not based on how much we earn. Instead, could we just let ourselves be driven by other logics?
And yet everywhere we are told that success is measured as a financial return on investments, and this makes youth organizations feel a bit bipolar. Or so says Liliana, leader of Encuentro de Voces, in an all-in-one-breath passionately untranslatable rant:
‘Sometimes we get funding from the municipality. They give us deadlines, strict timelines, reporting so absurd that we are forced to do it with mediocrity. This is the one side. On the other side we sell ourselves. In our free time we resist, and then I sell my project to Shell or Coca Cola. Well, it’s because we need resources… but then when in the afternoon I go to the local store and I am chatting around I talk my talk and go on with my social and political rant…’
‘That seems way too bipolar to me.’
Liliana is a storyteller. Every last Saturday of the month, for six years now, Liliana organizes ‘Encuentro de Voces’ (Spanish for meeting of voices), a meeting in the park where all sort of people come to share their stories. For Liliana, it’s about creating a space to share a moment together. Encuentro de Voces is a lot more than a moment. I attended one of the gatherings to find myself mesmerized by people of all ages narrating stories that took me everywhere, to parallel realities and beyond – for four short hours straight.
Medellin is teaching me that success is about action, connection, and symbolic encounters. Fragile, unsustainable, immortal moments of union. It is about realities that are constantly constructing themselves, in moments that can’t be counted, and definitely can’t be sold.
It might sound really hard. Utopic even. Or maybe it is a path that needs to be walked step by step, with trust. I think Stiven has a point when he says that ‘la utopia, hay que caminarla’.
Sending you all my love,