Transition in Action 2 was a success: young people from five EU countries came to an eco farm in Kunszállás, Southern Hungary, where they made their mark on the homestead, the surrounding town, and maybe most importantly: on themselves. We asked an organiser, Tracey Wheatley from Transition Hungary, how it all came together, and what can we take away from it.
“Transition in general is trying to recreate a community along sustainable lines, where people are happier and work together better. The reason we named this project “Transition in Action” is because you don’t spend a lot of time talking here. It’s an experience, a temporary community of similarly minded people who are committed to working together to make something happen for the larger community around them, in which they are guests for a week or two. The Erasmus Youth Exchange seemed like a good opportunity to fund a project like this, the idea being that young people who come here help to create something that stays in the local community after they leave, rather than being 'merely' a training. “
Transition in Action 2: The Concept
“One of our workmates, Dóri, who’s been involved in Transition for a long time now as a member of Transition Kecskemét, moved to a quite remote smallholding earlier this year. This little farm has lots of buildings and several fields, so we were planning to use it as a gathering space for Transition Network members and events. We try to create sustainable infrastructure there. In that part of the country, cob is a very common building material, so we can repair and rebuild the infrastructure under the guidance of cob experts. We fixed cracks in the walls, we placed mosaics, we repaired the well. Dóri then can utilize these developments for her local initiatives and self-sustaining farming, plus the nationwide Transition Network acquires a new social space thanks to this project. GrundKert, the Budapest urban gardening group which participates in the Network has already held a weekend-long planning workshop there, just weeks after Transition In Action 2. has finished. This is something they would not find easily in the capital: an appropriate location for such an event.
Some of the things we made won't stay at Dóri’s for good, however. We have built a portable solar water heating system that can be taken anywhere it’s needed. Also, the “dishwashing system” we set up, which is basically “sinks-on-wheels”, can be used at any event on any location, where the organizers don’t want to use plastic stuff and need to wash the dishes.
A Space of Cooperation
As participants arrived, we tried to be open about the preparation. Like most bigger projects we have undertaken, there were setbacks - people's health, family issues crop up, and there is not always capacity to compensate. Nóri, one of our team members was up front about this to the participants, as everyone gathered for introductions:
“This was our idea, this is why we are doing it, out of this, this is how much we’ve managed to do so far. There was some stuff that hasn’t been completed. And these are the things we need to solve together.”
This established a sense of ownership for the project, very early on:
“This is ours. We need to make it work.”
The participants could realize this way, that this is an ongoing story, which they can join now, and they will have very important influence on how this story goes on, and, eventually, how will it end. For the first two days, we went around the area, kind of mapping the local resources of the actual space, and doing a wider mapping of the possibilities of the local town. We decided, together with the participants, how to organize the working groups - we prioritized rotation, so that everyone could take part in as many different kinds of workshops as possible.
On Dóri’s farm, you could take part in a really wide range of workshops. One key skills was learning how to use cob, either by working on the walls or doing mosaics, or by building the community sized rocket stove with heated bench together with Nóri. Nóri was keen for participants to see the whole process of cobbing; from transporting the recycled base materials sourced from a demolished local farm buildding, to soaking and stamping the cob in a mudbath, all the way through to the technical details of the inner rocket flues and the final decorative cobbed designs.
Another trainer, Balázs, was working with wood, upcycling old farm furniture, and building a much needed and very decorative farm gate. There was a chance to try out all sort of tools and woodwork techniques during small projects too, like building a bug hotel or insulating a window. Tools were pretty challenging; not everyone was born with a chainsaw in their hand, or knows a chisel from a plane, so this was a chance to experiment and be supported and guided towards new skills.
On week two, three new trainers arrived so people could continue the cobbing work, or try something new - participating in metal upcycling - welding, using flex, creating useful items from scrap metal. Cyclonomia, a Budapest-based bike-tech cooperative brought in special know-how, creating a rope-and-wheel water pump, based on a design often used in the Global South. An England-based rocket-stove engineer also brought his expertise and innovative way of working. This project proved demanding, physically and emotionally, partly due to the extreme weights involved and the “one try or we"ve lost it" factor. A 100kg block had to be lowered more than 20 metres using all the strength available in the participants, a task that proved euphoric in the end, and definately provided that special “Yes, we did it!" feeling.
But what was a brand new development this year, was that the workshops didn’t only happen in our space - we reached out and did things out in the village as well.
There was Leo, a Transilvanian Roma organic farmer, who is totally overloaded with work, so he was very happy to get some extra people-power, in exchange for a discount on vegetables we could use for cooking, which meant we got our food from local and organic sources, further enhancing the synergy between the town of Kunszállás and our team. Most of what we ate came literally from a single kilometre away maximum. Cooking was also done by the community itself, so participants could learn about that too. And it was all meat free. This was one aspect of the exchange that we got a lot of feedback on, many commenting that they had a great experience in the kitchen and had no idea until then how to create vegetarian meals.
There was a chance to have more low-key, focussed time too. Virág, a ceramist who lives across the road from Dóri offered to share her knowledge and work together with our team. Virág had participated in an Erasmus+ program before, and was happy to have the chance to give something back, this time as a trainer, and the participants enjoyed the quiet, creative time they spent with Virág and the clay. One project is ongoing and will be shared later on open source sites - mould plans for a ceramic mini rocket stove.
Dilemmas, Values, and a Strange Request
Earlier this year Dóri reached out and introduced herself and the project to the locals, like “Hi, I’m Dóri, I just moved here with my kids, I already know some of you, but we have this Youth Exchange in the summer, maybe 30-40 young people from different countries around Europe, what do you think about that?” She talked to the Community Watch, the mayor, the local cultural event organizers. Everyone greeted the idea, and actually, the Watch came up with a request: “If you have all these people here, we have this old Russian fire engine… how about they help us renovate it?”
It brought up interesting question. We, theoretically, were fine with helping them renovate this old fire engine, but what about the health issues with scrubbing paint? What about the hazardous waste coming from the process? The health aspects got solved, but not the waste aspects, putting participants in an uncomfortable situation, where they had to compromise their values for the sake of, well..., Dóri's long term relationship with the locals. Not everyone could stomach this situation, and it raised serious concerns about values and compromise.
Another similar dilemma involved a local factory farm. How can you, as a Transition practitioner, cooperate with a local family, whose livelihood is based on running a pig farm with conditions that are currently cruel to the animals?
These examples showed us that when we are working with local communities, we never ever face situations that are clear cut. It’s never black or white.
So…, what do you do?
Do you put the emphasis on the fact that you are now dealing with people living in walking distance from Dóri? If she can integrate smoothly, maybe later she can sway the local community towards the values of sustainability. Which means she has to put up with some imminent bad stuff to achieve a sort of Greater Good, down the road. But where exactly do you draw the line?
This showed us that working with community, you have to put the emphasis on the relationship, but in a way that you don’t compromise yourself. And it caused conflict! Some of our people thought it’s way too big of a compromise. They, the participants had heated discussions and this decided the course of action the program eventually followed.
“When a group comes together it goes through different stages as people get to know each other and recognise their place in the community. This can be more or less harmonious: at the beginning most people try to show their best side as they make friends and it’s only a little later that clashes and conflicts emerge, a difficult but necessary stage that allows the community to identify its own norms and stabilise itself.
“Our Transition Youth Exchange offered the opportunity to spend two weeks together, in a rural situation, sleeping in a tent, using solar powered hot water and compost toilets, while doing physical work and contributing to the housework and cooking. That is quite a strong filter. So, already whoever applies for this is not somebody looking for sitting in an air conditioned room in the center of the City, doing a Power Point Presentation based training.
As the organising team we tried to manage things in a participative way, bearing in mind the participant’s experience - from the 17 year old first out her country to a more travelled particpant on their umpteenth exchange. As far as we could, we kept some fluidity: the program’s boundaries and expectations were flexible and constantly negotiated, because the people wanted a chance to have an effect on the structure, have more input. However, some others felt challenged by the lack of hard rules.
We described ourselves as a tribe after a while, and the Barrios (this is how we called the tent areas of the five different Country Groups based on the Climate Camp structure) organized hilarious rituals at the campfire at night. They developed a portable sound system: a mobile phone inside a big plastic cooking bowl, it was called the “Lavór Sound System”, because it turned out that the Bosnians and the Hungarians use the same word for that item, and it played the favorite hits of the countries represented by the Barrios.
As organisers, there is no doubt we walked a narrow line between exhiliration and exhaustion as we tried to respond to the needs of the group as best we could. We often felt quite overwhelmed, which clearly limited our ability to work through all situations as well as we would have liked to. We look back on some issues and cringe... However, it became clear that as a group we had 'gelled' really quickly: this little community was working, thriving even. What we had to ask ourselves is what factors were behind this spontaneous team harmony?
One key factor was clearly the high number of those who invested their time and energy selflessly to make the community work - those who came forth when a task needed solved or something needed tweeked. Creativity was also key - there was tons of it, and people shared it, from creating the wellness tent, to the tri-colour pasta, or the brave souls dealing with the infamous 'mens piss area'.
Another factor may be the organising teams experience: we’ve created so many convergences through the years, different types of people converging on different types of spaces, and this might be something we’ve become quite good at: creating a space and holding it, and make people feel okay with that, at least for a short time.
Maybe the setting played a positive role as well: a small farm, great shady trees, playful animals and curious kids. Sunshine, regular food and lots of coffee.. ehm and palinka - home-made brandy. Perhaps actually a little too much of that. Place-making had gone quite well. We noticed that when there was some tension, it was often where the facilities or infrastructure had not been properly thought out. We couldn’t for example eat together as there wasn’t one big table to share, a mistake that was interesting to ponder on when it became clear to us, and one that will help us learn for the future.
One more reason might be that there is not a lot at stake - this group is only temporary, which motivates everyone to make the most of it, before they all go back to their lives. This made it easier for people to accept what they didn’t like, in most cases quietly. For others it gave them a chance to shine, to be the group joker, the problem-solver, the carer.
And perhaps it may be that when the weather is good, the company is good and the work is good, people are just capable of doing amazing things together and being how deep inside they may really want to be; there is nothing more rewarding than wallowing in the positive feedback of 30 other wonderful people.
After the exchange somenone said later that it was a life-changing experience that they could actually do what they stand for, what they talk and think about, in action. When you experience this, anything less like that becomes kind of hypocritical: how could you participate in a Climate Change conference using plastic cups and eating packaged, imported food? - a question one of our participants let us know about in her feedback, as she faced this situation right after our program ended.
And that’s what came back from many people: they did not expect themselves to perform so well in that type of situation before they came to Kunszállás. They went back with either a reinforced idea about themselves, or thinking, “God, I didn’t know this existed, and this could really work for me”. It gives a lot to environmentally conscious people to try out in practice how can you run an event like this, for two weeks, with absolutely minimal ecological footprint and using only local resources, all the while you are putting in hard work.
Our program was very heavy with practical work, some complained that there wasn’t enough theory, others that their was too much talking, others that their wasn't enough. We can live with that and take it on board for the future. But I think we were able to show that if you live according to the principles of Transition, you can also live very happily. If that stays with these people, most being in their early twenties, all of whom will have to decide how will they live their lives - they will be culturally and emotionally embedded in the idea of transition. That is an outcome we are happy with. We can all go home and follow up on books and the Internet about the subject: now the intellectual input can be absorbed much much easier, having this significant practical mileage and the emotional-cultural input behind them.
I personally lived my youth where we were not yet aware of climate change, with different types of global challenges. This experience will, we hope, help the participants to choose to act and help in tackling the challenges of the current era and help us live more lightly on this planet.
And we're now thinking how we put what we learned into a more complex program - what other approaches can we take to transition and how we we make sure young people are much much more a part of this?
Thanks to all of the participants and the other transition folk who shared this experience with us, and for all the silly anecdotes we'll hang onto for a sneaky smile now and then. Don't anyone ask what 'bunny bunny' means...