The story of Give Something Back To Berlin started around two years ago, 2012. Or maybe started is not the right word here. It just kind of happened.
Living in Berlin since 2008 and Neukölln since 2010, it was impossible not to feel the city’s rapid change and the following discussion about gentrification. As a journalist I was covering the development of the creative scene, the (back then) booming start up scene and also the ”normal” Berlin politics with all its social problems and challenges being ”poor but sexy”. Evenings I was, like most expats, out drinking, dining and dancing with my cosmopolitan friends. The newspapers had daily reports on the post euro-crisis impact on young people’s lives all over Europe, often making them seek luck elsewhere and taking the opportunity that the EU offered them with free mobility. A few pages late: stories on post-crisis money looking for a safe harbour in property as well as reports on the frightening development of xenophobic and nationalistic ideas spreading over Europe, making people looking with suspicion on old or new neighbours.
Somehow all those things seem to be connected on a micro scale in our own Berlin neighbourhoods. The new influx of people and the gentrification debate seem to make worlds drift apart and there were even posters with ”Touristen raus! ”, ”Spaniards go home!” or ”Hipsters not welcome!”. Where Berlin for many people, at least on an idea level, is a utopia where people can come together to create new ideas, cultures and ways of living, it now seemed to be the opposite. People started working against each other, looking for people to blame rather than solutions for the new situation and the new Europe.
On a more individual level, after being in an environment among European and international migrants it was also obvious that a lot of newcomers could feel a bit lost and alienated in their new ”Heimat”. Some of them had lived in the city for years and was indeed planning to stay but still didn’t have so many natural connections into society and their own neighbourhoods. Other newcomers wanted to immediately get under the skin of their new city and country, after just a couple of weeks in the city. But how?
Seeing this group of new Berliners solely as a problem in so many ways did not make sense. How could young, well-educated, highly skilled people with experiences from all over the world be seen as a problem? And if, hypothetically, they actually were, wouldn’t they then also be a part of the solution?
Anders Ivarsson and I wrote a Facebook post addressing some of these themes to our Facebook friends. We also came with a small suggestion. The idea was extremely simple. On a small scale it was about suggesting us new Berliners to share some hours of our skills with a local initiative or a social organization. To give something back to the city we love and the neighbourhoods we were in the process of changing. At the same time it was a small attempt to make the ”old Berliners” know us better.
Berlin and its many creative scenes have a unique and strong culture of sharing and collaborating. As a way of urban integration we wanted to “export” some of that to our neighbourhoods to hopefully contribute to a more “positive” side of gentrification. On a larger scale it was about connecting different scenes in the city strengthening the overall social cohesion. Empowering the city and neighbourhoods through making different worlds meet and making them work together for social causes.
The Facebook post became a snowball of things we couldn’t have imagined. People shared the post and signed up like crazy for volunteering in a project that didn’t exist more than an idea and feeling of “let’s do this!”. Our inboxes were clogged with zillions of ideas what people could offer and do, journalists wanted to do interviews and city developers from other countries praised the idea as something that could be used in other cities and countries.
We got completely overwhelmed but understood that here was a surprisingly big will and a huge potential. Imagine the skills of all those new Berliners, their energy and their will boosting the neighbourhoods? We started to look for possibilities to colonise all this. Of course that’s when the real challenge started.
Both funders coming from Sweden, we soon understood that we came from a completely different culture of participation and mobilization of social engagement than in Germany (not to mention working with internet and social media!). In Sweden, people organizing themselves for or in the society (or even just learning together) is seen as the basis of democracy and citizenship, as well as culture production and innovation. There are many easily accessible ways to achieve and strengthen this. After having developed GSBTB for almost two years we can’t, so far, really say we have seen the same in Germany. At least not on the official level. There are maybe ways you can go, but we are not aware of them and they don’t seem to be accessible for non-ethnic Germans. Considering the fact that both founders speak German on a university level, and also have a fantastic German co-founder in the team this does however seem very unlikely. Even if our background actually is the reason, that would be a problem as well: maybe an even bigger one.
One year after our launch we’re still without public funding and most of this potential for social cohesion for the city is left unused. In one year we’ve had over 300 official signs ups for people volunteering for the around 40 tasks/projects that we’ve offered so far. That makes 3.3 opportunities per month having an average of 7.5 sign ups per spot – the rest of the potential goes unused, because of lack of money/time. Those numbers are also just the official website-sign ups, not counting in the unofficial synergy ones coming through friends of friends! And don’t even get us started with all the requests that we get from Berlin start ups and players from the creative scene wanting to work with us and create collaborations! The almost complete disinterest from the “official” Berlin therefore leaves us with several questions regarding how one sees new ideas and different ways of doing things here.
Every day we get amazing sign ups from people coming from all over the world. Most of them love Berlin and feel that the city has a historical moment and possibility to do many things different and better here. Here, there’s still the time, will and possibility to create a more sustainable kind of city and, therefore, way of living. The sign-ups are from people in a generation that is cosmopolitan, open and very easily mobilized online and that often have a big consciousness of social issues and politics. But no, all of us might not stay forever in Berlin, but Berlin will forever stay with us. Every good idea and value that we learn here will end up in other cities, countries, companies and scenes.
To find tools of mobilizing those people for a positive social change in the city should therefore be in the interest of many, in Berlin, Germany and beyond. Therefore one should also take into account that the ways of doing this might differ very much from the traditional methods. Our hope is that Give Something Back To Berlin can be a tool for contributing to that in Berlin. We have a lot of people waiting to get their hands dirty getting involved!