Narratives are important to energise and mobilise people to believe in a political transformation. The way we tell and co-create stories can overcome dominant forces and include people often excluded from today’s politics. Stories offer the means to think about who we are and what kind of a future we want, be it enabling the ecological transition or challenging the inevitability of inequality. This is why the European Municipalist Network’s second skillshare focused on Political Education and Mobilization: the Power of Storytelling.
Storytelling was one of the themes that emerged when we – municipalist activists, practitioners and thinkers from across Europe who form the EMN – came together in Berlin in October 2022. Commons Network, the EMN caretaker organisation who facilitated a workshop on skill sharing in Berlin, then went on to develop four themes into in-depth sessions. These were held in March and April 2023. The other topics were: building a democratic local economy; centralising care within the feministisation of politics; and creatively using the law, especially around rights and access to housing and buildings. [Link to the other 3 blogs here]
The storytelling skillshare session was organised by the movements Verdedig Noord Amsterdam, creatives and community organisers from northern areas of the Dutch capital and Zagreb je NAŠ!, who run the Croatian capital as part of a wider progressive coalition. They told how they had engaged their communities, including mobilising young people and engaging disenfranchised groups towards radical systems change.
Verdedig Noord Amsterdam
Verdedig Noord means Defend North Amsterdam in Dutch. This movement formed in early 2021, and is now part of a broader movement called Red Amsterdam Noord (Save North Amsterdam), which consists of 18 residents’ groups throughout the broader area of the city. One galvanising bond was the escalating housing crisis and rising gentrification. Their vital work includes art and activism, creating awareness among old and new northerners so that they can relate better to each other.
“The shortest description is that we are community organisers who engage in mutual direct action and collective creativity” said Juha van ‘t Zelfde, co-introducing the movement’s work with Terra Dakota Stein.
Terra explained: “Amsterdam North is a neighbourhood that is quickly developing. We are seeing our cities, our neighbourhoods quickly changing, being basically gentrified. A lot of new buildings being built; a lot of facilities disappearing due to rapid changes and also rapid and invasive, invasive policies. So that is the context of our communal struggle.”
Verdedig Noord was energised after a hip hop performance that railed against the gentrification that is destroying the area. Amsterdam North has a mosaic of cultures that are both diverse but also strongly bonded. This was one reason why from the outset, Verdedig Noord used media such as film and podcasts to tell these stories and broadcast them back to the community – not only to tell these stories but to own them. One way they did this was to mark the 100th birthday of Amsterdam North. They interviewed 10 residents, picked at random. Each was asked what they wished for the district.
Alongside amplifying the community’s stories, Terra and Juha talked about the importance of building community and making new shared stories. One example of making this happen is having a block party and getting the whole neighbourhood together.
For Verdedig Noord, this narrative-building is also important when it comes to pressuring the city authorities. They gave the example of a new social space, where the authorities have failed to do any meaningful consultations with residents. As Terra explains: “Not about us without us: meaning, if policymakers want to make policy or they want to develop areas, they need us. In order for them to write out plans, they need to invite us to the drawing board.”
“’Solidarity not charity’ also embodies our movement because we believe that as a community, we strengthen each other by helping each other out and that we don’t regard that as charity work, because we’re all equal in this”, Terra says.
The group believes in the power of sharing information, including with other grassroots organisations that have the same goals and same fight. This is why all their work is open source and they share everything online on their website and Instagram.
Zagreb je NAŠ! (Zagreb is Ours!)
In Croatian, Zagreb je NAŠ! translates as Zagreb is OURS! In 2021, the group merged with a wider green-left coalition entitled Možemo! (We Can!) that collectively won 23 out of the 47 seats in the city assembly, with Tomislav Tomašević the new mayor. This ended the rule of the corrupt and nepotistic mayor and party who had controlled the city for two decades. Now the city is run by a platform that includes environmentalists, LGBTQ+ rights activists and trade unions.
Matko Dujmovic explained that Zagreb je NAŠ is a collaborative political platform, where you do not have to be a party member to participate, but it’s also a party holding office since 2021. “It is a green-left environmentalist party focused on municipalism. If you want to participate or become a party member, you have to join your local group.” Administratively, Zagreb is split into 17 city districts, within which there are smaller boroughs. To take a full active role in the party, people have to participate actively in their district for at least six months and then be recommended by someone from the district, such as a coordinator.
Zagreb je NAŠ! has specifically focused on young people as part of their outreach, and are the most popular option with under 29-year-olds. However, this has not come without challenges: in the 2021 elections, they had one of the oldest lists of all parties. Even when young people got on the list, they would be too low down to get elected. Matko explains that that was partly due to Zagreb je NAŠ! rising in popularity faster than their outreach could keep up with; and partly because they lacked mechanisms for attracting young people. Conversely, the Christian Right is very successful at attracting young people, recruiting at Sunday Masses and other conservative and religious activities.
Despite lacking youth participation, Zagreb je NAŠ! were popular among young voters. One reason was outreach on social media: Twitter has boomed in the last three or four years, and the group has used TikTok, although not as successfully. “Next year, we have a super election year, with four elections in one year. And we’re planning on producing a lot more authentic and original content from the party and the movement itself” Matko says about future tactics.
Another reason is that the party foregrounded well-known activists and spoke about topics that interested young voters and impacted their lives. These ranged from environmentalism and human rights to affordable housing and resisting gentrification. Culture played a big part, too: in the last five years, Zagreb had lost three independent cinemas, with only one left. One of Zagreb je NAŠ!’s initiatives was to revitalise those old cinemas.
Reflecting on a point made by Verdedig Noord, Matko said: “You cannot represent youth without them. And that is often one of the most discouraging things… Youth like to be represented by themselves.” Even if young people were not running the local government, it is still possible to create structures like youth councils or working groups that specifically draw policy proposals from young people.
Finally, Matko says that being part of a bigger movement helped their success in Zagreb. “We rode the, let’s say the Green wave that happened in the European Union in the past five years. We got support from some like-minded leaders, Ada Colau from Barcelona En Comú publicly endorsed Tomislav Tomašević, which also helped him gain credibility and capital.”
We all want to be part of a wider story to make sense of our existence. This means when it comes to politics it is vital to include everyone in these political stories, to co-create and shape the narratives.