It all started with a Facebook Post.
There was yet another online debate raging about gentrification and the creative / expat community in Berlin. Nothing out of the ordinary – people shooting their mouths off virtually without any forethought, backup, or action to resolve any of the negativity that was being aired. There was – most significantly - no consideration of how anyone could take all the perceived negative aspects of the blooming expat community and turn the whole situation towards a new positive direction using the diverse creative skills and talents arriving daily for the benefit of the city and the pre-existing communities within. On the other side of the coin, beyond this particular Facebook discussion, people were moving to Berlin, curious - because that’s how you end up in Berlin - about their new adopted home town but not necessarily finding it easy to bridge the gap between themselves and the communities living around them. Many of them searching earnestly for a way to make that essential connection in their new neighbourhoods but being blocked by numerous factors.
Annamaria posted a quick suggestion – and that’s all it was: an idea, a little light bulb moment – that people could maybe offer to spend a couple of hours per month volunteering for a social organisation as a way to address all the concerns and needs of everyone. Immediately people began to read and respond to her post, wanting to get involved, assuming that there was already a project in place that they could work with. It was soon evident that there was no other structure or organisation in place where people could connect to make volunteering a possibility in this way.
This was all back in 2012. Cut to an autumn afternoon in Neukölln 2014, and Annamaria welcomes me into the current “Give Something Back To Berlin” (GSBTB from here) headquarters. Today we drink apfelschorle (a drink that comes in joint second in importance after coffee to your average Berlin resident alongside Club Maté) in the kitchen and discuss a comment that has grown into a life’s work, and a web of enthusiasm that only ever grows in size and momentum.
The whole concept of GSBTB is timed perfectly as we live in a time of - sometimes overwhelming - awareness, alongside an often shrinking sense of community, and global migration on a massive scale. It broaches the question of how to integrate and engage when you move somewhere, even if that might only be short term – a month, a year, or more; and how an individual can feel “at home” and involved within whatever time they have, rather than becoming a floating global nomad. Annamaria points out that it’s important that those expats among us look at the concept of consumerism beyond the usual definition, and begin to assess how we as individuals “consume” the cities we select to live in. Whether conscious or not, the expat is a citizen wherever they sleep, and as such, a player in whichever community they land.
There is now a core staff of four, plus a network of an estimated 300-400 people connecting, working, and creating via the GSBTB platform, with more people being absorbed into the number organically all the time. The platform works by providing an online forum split visually into two “departments”: expats offering their skills and talents, and organisations looking for volunteers. People and groups can very easily visit the website, understand the exchange going on, and participate as appropriate. As well as a point of direct connection, the organisation also acts as a catalyst of sorts, enabling and supporting social engagement concepts that are brought to them. It can take any form – one project for example involved GSBTB helping to bring together a choreographer, a psychologist, and a dancer. There’s really no limit to a project’s format other than people’s imagination and drive to come together to make something brilliant. On the face of it, it’s so obvious and simple that you would assume it had been done already, but this kind of set up takes considerable groundwork and man-hours on the back end to seamlessly connect everything. GSBTB’s team behind the scenes spend a lot of time making sure that the projects offered through the website are sufficiently diverse, in order to reach as many different communities – and actually create as many new communities and social interactions – as possible. The projects mostly started with the most apparent groups such as the city’s homeless and refugee communities, but have subsequently gone much further to potentially involve everyone even if they’re not aware of it through initiatives such as urban gardening.
And on the ground level, the results are incredible. Literally life changing. Projects are inspiring people with a new awareness, and producing a new type of social activist within the creative expat community that couldn’t necessarily otherwise find opportunities to use their skills to work with different social groups. The volunteers are also finding a new level of acceptance in ways they could only dream of before, plus people are being helped all over the city. Finally, this win-win situation is a plausible reality.
Next for us in the kitchen comes coffee - it’s been a long and interesting discussion around all the aspects and consequences of the project, “expatism” as it is and can be, migration and so many other thoughts in between, but now it’s time to look to the future. For GSBTB – ironically – it’ll soon be time for the project itself to take flight and find its own path within other cities around the world. There’s a great deal of interest from like-minded individuals outside of Berlin, and the platform is so flexible to the needs of the people that it would be selfish not to share. If you’d like to get involved, you can find existing or propose your own initiatives here: www.givesomethingbacktoberlin.com
Interview and pictures by Ruth Bartlett