CeRe, the Resource Centre for public participation in Bucharest says,
to have a better Romania, the governance must be closer to the citizens and their needs. And because “all politics is local”, we need empowered citizens and strong NGOs to get involved, to get mobilized, to write petitions, to participate at public meetings, to contribute to the policy making or even to protest in the streets.
I was fortunate to meet on Tuesday with CeRe staff and to see some of their community projects in action. CeRe employs an interesting and highly effective community organizing methodology. Although it is based on the specific situations of Bucharest today, its work is a model for community action anywhere.
A relatively small project, but one that makes a big difference in people’s lives, illustrates CeRe’s process well. Portions of a neighborhood were separated by a dangerous alleyway, with broken pavement, trash, poor lighting, and unpredictable traffic. Children had to traverse this to get to school.
In an initial phase, community organizers from CeRe went door-to-door in the neighborhood. Some citizens identified one or more problems in addition to the alley, others none at all. A consensus emerged that repair of the alley was a high priority that appeared amenable to solution.
Citizens organized to specify the problem, to propose concrete solutions, and pressure city officials for action. CeRe advised and facilitated, but was deliberately not the primary actor. The goal was to address the immediate problem, but more importantly, to nurture long-term participation in civic processes.
Eventually, the alley was cleaned and paved. Bollards were installed to restrict traffic, lighting was added, and what turned out to be a final obstacle, two trash bins were added. You can see the alley as it exists today in the photo. It’s a safe place to play or to move between sections of the neighborhood.
In another project, citizens designated Favorit, an abandoned cinema, as a blighted site that could become a neighborhood cultural center. They have secured the abandoned building and devised plans for redevelopment. The local council has allocated money for the center and is working with the neighborhood to make it a reality. In this case, the cultural center is still a vision, one that requires continued discussion within the community and with officials to specify its shape and goals.
One of the most impressive projects I saw was a playground, which obviously meets major needs for people of all ages. Citizen action demonstrated both those needs and how a broken down park could be used. Young people marked equipment there with green ribbons for good condition, yellow for needs repair, and red for needs disposal.
The community managed to get city officials to visit the site in person. Children played a role: They jumped up and down, creating dust, thus making evident the need for a cleaner, safer playground surface.
CeRe has come to recognize that learning is a key aspect of what they do. Although they didn’t conceive it as inquiry-based learning, they (and I) now consider it to be an excellent example of that. The process involves the initial ask (a cere) by the door knockers and then the citizens, the investigation of the community issues (a investiga), the creation of potential solutions (a crea), discussions in the community and with city officials (a discuta), and reflection on the results and the process (a reflectă).
The process isn’t linear, and often entails stepping back, moving sideways, or redirecting energies to achieve the goals. Along the way, citizens learn not only about the specific problem, but also about working together, listening to each other, making decisions together, being a team, compromising, negotiating, discussing issues productively, and understanding the laws and municipal government.