by Aleksandra Štrbac
I have never been on a study visit before. I always wanted to go, because it always seemed to me as a fun way of learning. During my almost 20 years of activism in an association working with children and young people in BiH I had very little or no time at all to actually „see and feel“ the places i have visited, the people i have met and to actually experience the work done in other communities, the everyday drama and accomplishments of my colleges and partners and to soak their working and living environment, because there was so much to be done in terms of making our work happen, finding resources, planning, studying, organising, analysing, advocating, presenting, administrating and all the boring stuff that needed to be done. And it was always a priority for us, when we had those few opportunities, to offer these opportunities to our members and colleges who worked directly and daily with young people, as we thought that this way is the most beneficial for all. This time i had an opportunity to widen my perspectives. Even though I always loved to travel the long way, it confirmed this time as well: Take the slow option! You will get to see where people live and how roads, sky, landscapes and architecture change, it tells a lot about the people living there! And if you travel in a rented van, to rationalise expenses, you will learn so much about your fellow travelers.
Belgium is beautiful. Brown, gray, blue and dark red. Belgium is also the country that people from BiH mention when someone complains or wonders about how complicated our country is. Then they say: Oh, but there is also Belgium... and they are doing just fine!
Anyways, Belgium was selected for our study visit because they have a well organised system of youth work, full of good examples to learn from. I knew about it, but i was also looking forward to see it for myself. And it felt like the future that I hoped for. It is good to sometimes let yourself see what you would like to see. It gives a direction to the journey!
Our partners, that were actually our hosts in Belgium, the Youth Centre Récollets helped us in selecting the best practices, networks and institutions, logistical issues and taking care of all of us in the most friendly and warmest possible way. I could write about them forever and it would be only poetry!
There, at La Recollets, we could see the murals created in the youth centre and on the nearby river bank, with the name of Zdravo da ste and works of our artists, making my eyes tear a little proud tear and warming my heart. It all belonged there, and we made it together:
The human rights messages are needed everywhere we go nowadays!
Rather than following the agenda line of our visits, my mind is now hovering over some scenes and facts that have remained as residual effect: all youth centres coordinators are very passionate about their work and also give a strong personal mark to the general atmosphere in the youth centre, depending on their own personality, the activities in youth centres are pretty much the same as in our youth centre, places even smell the same! The support they are getting through the system is far beyond anything we could ever dream of, but at the same time, we are not behind with the activities organised. This is a confusing fact!
The colourful realities of youth centres somehow blended together, with all their activities and facilities and beneficiaries, young people, immigrants, musicians, artists, creators, art, learning, youth workers...
Simon’s words that he said while introducing us with the La Zone activities still linger in my ears: “We work with those who scare other people!” …followed by the story of how a police officer joined them as a volunteer, in a very alternative youth centre which grew out of a group of punk people long time ago, as he too scares other people, we laughed at this, but this is a very serious matter, as it shows what it means to be the home of the marginalised and what it means to be open for everybody!
Also, the stories from Lezarts Urbains have presented us the same scenario...working with marginalised, migrants and suburbia youth means to go there and be with them in creating something they live, being it hip-hop or poetry or whatever provides space and inspiration for creating culture together. This was something that I knew so well!
One thing was repeatedly in my mind and made me scroll trough my text books when I got home was the relation between culture and society development. It was triggered by the fact that youth work is funded trough funds for culture and youth, putting these ventures in developmental context rather than in funds for social work or CSO support. Thinking and reading about it once again i was faced with the old dilemma about culture and society, and once again it looped within the old “chicken or the egg” story. Now... I know that the egg is the first, but, to cut the long story short, I am still trying to figure out which of these two is the egg.
Another picture that keeps popping up in my mind was Kalina, going around and repeating like a mantra “They all started without money J!!! The feeling i get from this sentence brings in mind the smile on the François’ face when telling us about the creation of the La Cite s’Invente project, and the chronology of its growth and educational potential. They walked the talk, to open new windows for people!
There are so many things that might be described here. Feelings, thoughts, discussions, ideas, pictures, contexts, flow...but on the end of the story, we would have to conclude that...you had to be there.
That’s why people go on study visits, because there are things that cannot be described, but must be experienced. Like that split of the eternal second in which Mario was counting the group at the dinner to make shore that everybody’s there, and on the dim light of Liege, he looked like he was giving blessings to each and every one of us, making shore that no one is left behind, while Giorgo was making red roses out of napkins. It felt safe.
I wish i had an opportunity to see this and more when i was 20, but at that time there was chaos in my country, so i missed it. But, there is another point in life of an activist and a community worker, when it is equally, if not more, important to undertake such ventures as study visits, and that is the time when you get really, really tired. When you lose the perspective of importance of your work because you have done it for decades and you are still struggling with the same problems, no radical change has happen, and you have realised that radical change will never happen. You lose the result that you wanted to achieve. These visits offer you realisation that can fill that horrible void. Results are less important as long as the process is ongoing. Somewhere, at least. And you cannot find everything on the internet, which becomes clear when you sit with people and talk. It’s all about people in becoming. It’s like lots and lots and lots of water tight in a small place, to generate power to lift and gently move a 1,5 tone of stone, or even more!
Community building is a tool-and-result process that keeps on happening, flourishing, creating new forms of interactions, new activities, new responses for the new challenges, learning, networking and it has no end. And also, your idea of a community changes, it becomes bigger and bigger. Community borders move. Actually, they disappear and dissolve in space!
I was travelling in my super comfortable sneakers, but I also packed a pair of decent shoes, because we were about to visit BIJ, and I wanted to respect the culture of this important institution in Brussels. However, there was another lesson waiting for us there, because we were welcomed by Thiery in his office slippers, proper slippers that you wear at home!!!! I still laugh at my own amazement about the clarity of that cosmic message! Because, this man of great experience was well prepared to give us all the useful information about how all the system of youth support works, introduce people to learn from about networking, to give us a warm welcome and a lunch! The lesson was that respect and culture of the place is not in the shoes, but in making your office a home and working to achieve a common vision. Which I already knew, so I haven’t put on my BIJ shoes anyway.