Irena Borovina is one of the founders of Udruga Vestigium, a grassroots/guerilla community centre run out of a commercial space on the ground floor of a block of apartment buildings in Zagreb. Over the years, the project’s growing success has led her to become a member of the Croatian hub of the Transition Network and to advise other communities on how to start their own initiatives. We invited her to co-host a lab on changemaking for communities and territorial development at the European Conference in Hildesheim, and we talked on video call a few weeks later.
How are you, Irena?
Well, I’ve been busy from the early morning with kids, we have this project supporting mothers with babies and toddlers who are not in kindergarten. We have this thing twice a week, so I was running from them to my own kids…
So, you are one of six women running a community centre in a suburb of Zagreb. While preparing this interview, I looked at your neighbourhood on the map, and it seemed very urban, but one of my colleagues told me that because of the lack of infrastructures, you actually consider yourselves more in a village type of situation.
It is not a village. It is urban. It is not even really a suburb, it is part of the city, but we are trying to build a community where we feel like a village, where we are more connected!
So feeling like a village is actually more of a goal?
Yes! As a matter of fact, there are 12.000 people living in our neighbourhood. It’s called Vrbani. And a lot of small villages with, I don’t know, 500 or 5000 people, they have this infrastructure, but somebody forgot to do this for our neighbourhood and other neighbourhoods in the…
Your neighbourhood is worse off than a village! [Laughs.] Can you describe a little bit the environment, the atmosphere, the architecture… Did you grow up there?
No, I was raised closer to the centre of the city, but my great-grandmother, who looked after me, had this garden at the end of the street. So we were doing urban gardening, almost in the centre of the city, when I was a little kid. Then we moved to a rural area and lived in a village for eight years. Later, I came back to the city and got married to someone from this neighbourhood. At first, when I started living here, I did not notice how much we were missing, because I was still going to my doctor in my old neighbourhood, and so on. But when I had kids, I realized that there was nothing here. I could either stay at home, or visit one friend who lived nearby. There was no health centre, no community centre, no cultural centre, no library, nothing. We had a McDonald’s, so a lot of mothers with babies went to have coffee there, and that was their social life. If you don’t have a car it is a little bit difficult to go to another neighbourhood…
Public transportation is not good?
Well, we have tramways, but they are not so adapted to baby strollers.
What is the environment like in terms of architecture?
Well… can you see? [Turns webcam to the window].
So, blocks of apartments buildings… Are they from the 1950s or 60s?
No, no! This neighbourhood was built in the 1980s. Actually only half of it is from the 80s, the other half was built just 7 years ago! Our neighbourhood has grown from 5000 to 12000 residents overnight, and nobody gave a thought to infrastructures, and they still don’t think about them!
No extra services were added in the second phase of construction?
Nobody even discussed that. They built this big shopping centre, but they messed up again and forgot to build a health care centre and cultural activities.
How did your reaction to this come about?
I had this need that was not satisfied. And so did my friends with babies, and my friends without babies. We were talking about how cool it would be to have this place where we could socialize and have children crawling under our legs and… I don’t know, teach each other natural cosmetics, cook together, invite people, include people that we didn’t know into this society of ours. So when I got pregnant for the second time, I decided, this is it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. My friends said okay. I had to do most of the things, but they were a great support, and my husband was too. So we sold some stocks that we had, and I said, I am not going back to work. I don’t need to go to the hairdresser, I don’t need to buy a dress or shoes, I don’t need anything. I am going to stay with my kid until he is three years old, and I am going to create a place where I can work and where I will do all the things I’ve been talking about with my friends, all the things we need.
So you quit your job?
Not at that time. I asked for an unpaid leave. It’s allowed in our country until your baby is three years old. I was working in this government, um…like a water department. It was a safe place where I could work until I died. After those 3 years, I said, I want to work in this place I created. Everybody told me, you are crazy, why are you leaving this safe job where you don’t have to do anything? I said I wanted to do something else, to be like… more me! [Laughs.]
Am I right in saying that you still have no support from the city for your project?
From the city there is a little support. We do these school gardening workshops, for example. In April, we plant our seeds, we print flyers about it, we gather mothers from the neighbourhood and we ask the teachers to please bring the children to the workshop. We do all this on our own costs. So we applied for support for this project in March, and we got the answer from the city in October. The season of gardening was already over, but we had done the workshops anyway because we believe in it. So they gave us about €1500 for something we’d done all year. It’s a small amount.
Is that one of the first public fundings you received?
No, we got funding for a bigger project two years ago, when we went to other neighbourhoods to teach them how to start their own initiatives. I was on a payroll of 30% of my daily work… not for our association, but to teach others how to start their projects. But that did not end well, because there were national elections in our country, and the new government decided to stop all those fundings and contracts, right in the middle of the project. So it is not a very healthy situation in our country. The funding was not only for us, we had 10 partners in this project. It was supposed to be about €20.000, but they stopped it at about half of that.
I’m asking because we first heard about your organisation as a very vibrant, dynamic, grassroots project, and I’m wondering how you were able to get traction without financial support. Is there any determining factor that allowed your project to grow into what it is now?
Well, now, six years later, our partners who work with us on some projects say it was probably a good thing that we did not use a space for non-profits, that we just rented a place for its market value. We pay a lot for the space, and we pay three times more for electricity and water, because it is a business space. They tell me: you had to do so many things just to cover your expenses! It was important for me to succeed, to obtain those things, because I needed them, and it turned out that people in my neighbourhood needed them too. They just didn’t know that they had the power to do something like that. So it was really about satisfying the needs of a lot of people in our neighbourhood. Now people from other neighbourhoods come and complain: Why don’t we have this? Why don’t you come and make something like this where we live? I tell them that they have to look at their neighbourhood and see the people that they live with, and think together about their needs. Only you can fix what is wrong in your neighbourhood. I can’t go there and do it, because it wouldn’t be as sincere, it wouldn’t be from the heart. It would just be work [laughs].
What you’re saying that you are a user with the same needs as the other users of your centre? Is that essential for you?
Can I ask you about the five other women you founded the project with? How is your group organised? Do you have a horizontal decision-making process?
Okay. Those girls were my friends from a previous job, so they were not living in my neighbourhood, but we had the same way of… ah, entertaining ourselves. We did not go to discos or fancy restaurants, we just wanted to hang out in one of our apartments, listen to music, cook together, read poetry… We wanted to find other people like us, but we did not know how to go about that. So back then we were thinking, we should start this crazy association thing. We were also talking about food, why are we eating buckwheat from Russia when originally it was always grown in our country, why are we eating tomatoes from Spain when they grow here? So it was like food, socializing, do-it-yourself, and it was the six of us, and as I told you I was the one with the energy and the time, because they were still working and I was at home with my baby. So I had time to do all the paperwork and start the project, but they joined in as they could. In the beginning it wasn’t so horizontal, everybody was not involved because they did not have time, but they gave me maximum support.
Today, are you still like the driving force?
Today, I am… ah… more like a watcher [laughs]. If people have some important question about an event, they will ask me, but we are practicing self-organization. 20 people have the key to the place and everybody is responsible for the space and for leaving it as they found it…
Do you share the rent?
No. But other organisations come to us and ask us to do an event together. They say ‘We don’t have a space, we don’t have as many followers’ and we say, why not? If it is similar to our story and to what we do… For instance we have vegans who organise a vegan supper, but they aren’t like ‘This is only for vegans’ or ‘No non-vegans allowed’. No, they are very cool guys, they invite meat eaters and show them the beauty of their food. So that’s the way we work. We don’t push anybody to do anything, we show them in a nice way how we can all be better… [Laughs]… That’s us.
How much do you involve the users of your centre, your neighbours? How did you invite them to come and participate, and how much space do you leave them to determine your program?
It is completely up to them now. I am the one writing our news twice a week and publishing it on Facebook, and I am also there filming and taking photos when things are happening. How we first invited them… Our first event was in 2013. There is a square in our neighbourhood that is empty, ugly, grey. So when we were opening our work base, we invited our neighbours by printing some leaflets that said ‘Plant a flower, colour your ground’. That rhymes in our language. We invited people to bring flowers, paint, brushes, and to put some colour in that ugly grey square. That was a great event. We knew then that we had started something big, because we were wondering if it would be just the six of us painting and planting flowers, but suddenly there were 200 people.
Back then our space was pretty empty, but we always wrote on the window, ‘Come join us, we want to do something big, this place is for you, to come and express your wishes, to make them come true’. No one in our group was educated to run a cultural centre. I graduated from a school of economics, two of my friends are constructors, one is a lawyer, one is a journalist. We’re from all kinds of backgrounds, but working with the community was something that was in us. Something that we wanted to do. So people just trusted us. They believed us as soon as we started telling a story of changing the world by being the example. ‘Why wait for the politicians to do something?’ we asked. ‘This is a neighbourhood that doesn’t have anything and we can change it.’ And that’s what happened.
In the beginning, there were just activities that we really wanted to do. We wanted to have creative workshops and perhaps some yoga. And I thought, oh, I need vegetables, but we didn’t have a market. I called an older friend of mine who had contacts among farmers, and she recommended this one lady. I asked her, could you please bring me one basket of vegetables on Wednesday? And when I told my friends about it, they said ‘Why did you order just for yourself?’ Three of them wanted a basket on the same day. At the end of that year we had 20 people picking up their basket every week, and since this lady was not so organized, there was always something missing in the baskets. So we said, why don’t you just bring all your stuff and put it on this table, and we’ll pick out what we want. We didn’t realize it, but that was the start of our farmers’ market. Now 40 farmers come to our place three times a week. So a lot of stuff wasn’t planned, a lot of stuff just happened in that way.
I feel that you are relating culture to ecology, and that seems very important, especially in the context of thinking about culture in rural areas, but what I like is the simple way it came about, starting from your needs and your desires, not from a conscious decision to, say, create a link between cities and the countryside. So maybe that’s one of the ways you were able to keep up your energy, which is always difficult in that type of project.
Yes, it’s all because I needed it. [Laughs.] I’m very selfish about this stuff. One guy asked me how I do all those things, how I have time for them. I said, I’m not doing anything that I don’t need. If I didn’t have this market I would have to go to another part of the town to buy vegetables. Now I have it all here, two buildings away from mine and I am at the… how do you say the place where the river starts?
Yes. I’m the source. That’s the beauty of it. [Laughs.]
About your platform for similar projects… Is that in standby due to the cut in your funding?
No, it’s not in standby, because a lot of our partners were farmers that we already worked with, and initiatives that we helped start. There are five initiatives that we helped start and we continue to collaborate with all of them. One of them is Dunja from Savica. What we did is that we posted on Facebook: ‘If you want to do something like we did, please contact us. It’s important that you have three persons with you and that you really want to make a change in your neighbourhood.’
Is that how you started the platform?
That is how we started new initiatives. People were constantly asking us to come to their neighbourhood and do something like Vestigium there. So we started this project where we teach them how to do it. I met Dunja in the library of Savica. They have a health centre and a library there, but they don’t have a place to socialize, no cultural or social centre. I remember her rolling her eyes at the meeting, because there were all different kinds of people, and they all had their own agenda. This one wanted one thing, the others wanted something else and Dunja was like, we are never going to do anything. And I said wait, stop, you already have something together. What is it that you all need? They said, we want a place where you can do what you do in Vestigium. And I said, you don’t need a place like Vestigium, because we have absolutely nothing in our neighbourhood. But you have a library and you can meet here. When it’s nice you can garden outside, on that big platform between the buildings… There also is this great culture of street artists and mural artists in their neighbourhood. So we took all the things they wanted and we made a festival where we mixed them together. They didn’t think it was possible, like you can’t mix vegetables and street art… but you can. [Laughs.] So I was the one who had to come there and tell them, yes, you can do that, who wrote that it can’t be done? You can do whatever you want.
You helped them give birth to their common project.
Yes, and that happened in four other neighbourhoods in the city. We are born and raised through kindergarten and school to be put in boxes, but we are not boxes. We are, we can be so much more… I have a friend who is an economist at the highest level of education, and she said, no, that won’t work. You can’t mix vegetables and children. And I said, but I need it. [Laughs.] I really need it. So I will try it. And yeah… it turns out that it is possible. Even if it isn’t in the books.
So that would be your advice to people or communities who want to start a project from scratch?
Iren: Yes. But first you have to find people who think like you. You have to have at least two of them so it’s the three of you. Three people is the minimum to start something. Then see what your needs are. Just write down just your selfish, personal needs in your neighbourhood. Probably 50% of your neighbours feel the same. And do some actions, do something about it, don’t just moan and sit in a bar and drink, like, 'Yeah… it would be better if…' That’s just talk.
Are there any pitfalls you had to learn to avoid, in order to keep going?
Yes. It is not allowed to plant flowers in our city, so a few times we were told, like, don’t do this anymore [Laughs].
You mean it’s against the law?
Irene: Yes. Only architects and these… green people can decide which plant should be planted where, and other people are not allowed to do that. But we still do it. We did get warnings. A guy came and told us, my God, it is so great, what you do, but you know, I could punish you for this. [Laughs.]
Now, about the future, are there any upcoming events or projects that you are excited about?
I am always excited. [Laughs.] Ah… for the last 6 months now, we’ve been dragon dreaming about a project, it is a special process…
It’s a process you can use when you are starting a new project. You aren’t rushing it, you aren’t thinking ‘This is a job that has to be done!’… No, it’s a dream that everyone has to be part of. I didn’t have that approach when I started the association, I was always like ‘Come on, we just have to do this!’, but now, I am learning. I am able to let go. So I invited 10 people who meet every Monday and we sit in a circle and dream about this project.
We want to start it next year. We plan to start a cooperative with farmers, but also citizens who support the farmers, and creative people who are close to our association. We want to start our own community garden in this one green area that is supposed to become a social centre someday, but where no one is even talking about working on it. So we want to go ahead and create a community garden, and have barbecues there, and socialize with people, and tell them, ‘This should be here since a long time, but of course the city has more important things to do, like build casinos and shopping centres’... We want to have regular meetings and start a community cooperative shop where the produce will be sold. If vegetables are left over, we will make soup from them. Everything will be used. People will be interested in buying from the shop because it will be their property, and farmers will be interested in selling their produce cheaper to us because we’ll be supporting them. And in the wider future, far away… In our country a lot of people are leaving now, every day full buses of young people are leaving to Europe, to Germany, mostly, because they don’t feel that they have a future in Croatia. So our mission in the future is to find a farmer in our rural area who has land and to help him, by advising him, by buying his products, by supporting him financially, to make his farm rise and be an example for others! Show them that it’s possible! That is one goal. And far, far away is an ecovillage that we will live in [laughs]. And we’ll have a place for seniors and kindergarten children to be together. We’ll pay special attention to the eldest and the youngest members of our community.
That’s a nice project to end on. I just have one question for people who want to start a project like yours. Were you able to have salaries for any of the people working in your group? Was that ever possible and how long did it take?
For six years, I’ve been working as a volunteer. For the second part of last year, I had a salary for 30% of my time. And now, from this month on, I am on the payroll again. We got this institutional support from our National Trust for Civil Development, they’re giving us support for me to coordinate the project and apply to EU programs.
How were you able to make it for 6 years as a volunteer?
I was at home with my kids, and I was also babysitting another kid. That was my source of money I was living from. I do not need to be paid for all the other things, the stuff I love, the stuff I need. I don’t need to go to other neighbourhoods to buy vegetables, to be part of some workshop, to socialize [laughs]. It is all happening right here, five minutes from my apartment.
About Udruga Vestigium:
Irena posts weekly news from the center on Facebook: @udrugavestigium
About the Transition Network and REconomy project:
About the Dragon Dreaming process: