“A Community Supported Farm from rural Ireland, an Ashram and eco-farm based in Denmark and an off grid ecovillage from Germany, all hosted by a radical eco-community in the south of Sweden famous for its tantric mind and body festivals….what could possibly go right??!! A lot, as it turned out.
The point of our intentional communities gathering together and visiting each other’s projects was to seek inspiration from our very differences- to explore how each of our diverse intentional communities runs our ESC volunteer programmes and to learn from the exchange; to compare how differing methods influence and aid our work; to share best practices and glean some useful alternative approaches to bring back for implementation in our own communities and also, crucially, to enhance solidarity between our projects and to gain inspiration for the future.
More specifically, as well as getting to know each others projects and forging useful links, we hoped to share practical resources such as training days, creative games, information packs, financial models and other useful materials and to create lasting connections that could be useful for all our ESC volunteers in the future, to enhance their ongoing volunteering experience.
Despite storm Sabine’s best efforts to derail the German group’s travel plans- they were delayed but not defeated!- the kick-off meeting in Ängsbacka started with a lot of energy:
as everyone arrived, we got to know each other and talked about how we integrate our volunteers into our organizations, what we have in common and our differences.
After being invited to join a community circle on the first morning, where we were very warmly received by the Ängsbacka community, we each gave presentations on our projects that evening, which was a useful opportunity for each of us to find out more about each other’s general work and activities before the meetings really got going.
Some diligent pre- planning meant that we had a structure for the meetings over the course of the week but we quickly decided to keep that outline as flexible as possible and adapted as we went along i.e. we prioritised certain topics according to daily progress, with plenty of open spaces included in the schedule towards the end of the week for harvesting conclusions and noting actions for next steps.
The pre planning had conjured topics that we all wished to discuss, initially through the lens of our host’s practices in Ängsbacka, but then widened out to include all of our approaches.
To our delight, our hosts had also inserted extra breaks in the day, on top of mealtimes, for the purpose of enjoying the traditional Swedish Fika (tea and coffee breaks with lots of treats and pastries) so food was a definite highlight of the week….and lots of informative chats also happened during these social breaks.
*As this was our first meeting, our discussions were quite free flowing and organic but then tightened up as we got to the core of our various approaches and started seeking answers to specific questions.
We recognised, for example, that Ängsbacka needs its ESC programme to be highly structured as they have so many volunteers throughout the year and a high turnover of same, both ESC volunteers and others who come in through their website and outreach, and who stay for an intensive but shorter period of time than at Cloughjordan Community Farm say, which hosts its eight volunteers (who specialise in some area of environmental or agricultural studies) for an entire year.
Cloughjordan’s programme is quite structured in some aspects- the Farm work is supervised every day by the Farmer- but its cultural and social programme is less so, and the Irish group were looking to the others for ideas on how to proactively develop this aspect further.
Ananda Gori Ashram hosts less ESC volunteers than any of the other projects, but the time period of the volunteers’ stay there varies and they therefore have to remain quite flexible with regard to what personal projects their programme can offer, but again were gleaning ideas on how to improve the volunteer experience.
We all varied in terms of how much we had developed our volunteers’ personal development or personal projects and how successful we had been in forging social links and connections between the volunteers and our wider communities. We also had differing approaches to volunteer interviews, information provision, introductions, induction days and training; also as to how the volunteers’ work was organised, how finances were arranged, how we planned for different stages of their experience and how we conducted evaluations, or addressed problems.
As the week went on, we were quite surprised to discover how many aspects of all the projects were relevant and applicable to the others and some direct comparisons were highly useful. The presence at some of the meetings of those who had gone through the volunteering process and/or of those who worked closely with volunteers as work leaders and coordinators added valuable insights to this process.
In our evaluation at the end of the week, we acknowledged that whilst the meetings had felt a little rambling, loose and sometimes even chaotic at the start of the week, by the end we had all gained so much more than anticipated from our interactions and exchanges.
Some of us had practically filled our notebooks with useful observations and practices we were keen to start implementing at home right away.
Upon reflection, there had in fact been a very full exchange of practices and information overall and it was clear that our groups were coming away from this process markedly the richer for the experience.
Our next meeting takes place in June in Germany, at Sieben Linden, where we shall get to see and experience the approaches and methodologies of that well known and well established community first hand, as we did in Ängsbacka. There, we intend to take this exchange process to the next stage: comparing how we have got on over the intervening months with implementing our specific learnings from this, our inaugural meeting, and sharing our visions for the future, given all the different approaches we have absorbed and learned from.
If our second encounter is anything like this first experience, we already know that we are going to be leaving Germany with full bellies, a lot of inspiration….. and a lot of work to do!
(*The practices we shared and the information we exchanged are outlined in some detail for your information, under specific headings on this page.)