Anders Utrecht

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Doing Anders – Driving transformation from the interstices inside and in-between university and civil society

In July, I left my project assistant position at the Anders Utrecht network. For the past eight months, I’ve worked with Utrecht University scholars and students, but most of my engagement has been with grassroots, civil society and community organizers in the city of Utrecht. My tasks as a project assistant involved mostly organizational matters and communications. Practically this means: Keeping in touch with network members through emails and face to face meetings, updating the website, organizing workshops, meeting with new members, writing articles for the website, writing newsletters, creating new connections between organizations and/or students, writing many emails, meetings with the team, thinking about and inquiring how Anders Utrecht can be a better support for organisations by checking-in on organisational struggles and needs, promoting events and helping out in organisations myself, such as doing weekly pickups for Taste Before You Waste.

For me this past year has been an exploration into that, which lies beyond the surface, which is subversive, that which is “anders”. Working with community organisations gave me a glimpse into an alternative world that is yet to be realized and simultaneously exists against, inside and beyond the existing one. Upon my initial arrival in Utrecht as a UU student at the PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics) program four years ago, the very first thing I saw (in fact, the very first thing that anyone arriving at Utrecht Centraal sees) was Hoog Catharijne – the futuristic mall filled with shiny, brand-new consumer goods is emblematic of consumer capitalism. The mall as such is a symbol for unsustainable consumption practices driven by the growth-imperative in a capitalist-dominated political-economic system. Its existence is predicated upon relations of extraction, expropriation and exploitation: capitalist political economy relies on externalizing harmful effects of production, treating nature as something separate from us that can be exploited, enclosure of the commons and exploitation of people – often outside the city centre and more often than not far away from the Netherlands.

Despite being considerably wealthy, Utrecht – like many other cities – is facing a housing crisis, homelessness, household debt, energy and food poverty, pollution – the list goes on. There is a contradiction in the glamorous consumption temples and quaint little houses on the Oudegracht and the precarity hidden underneath. Capitalist relations shape the (in)visibility of social and material structures in the city, for instance through the private housing market. The landscape of the city itself exemplifies this contradiction of what is (in)visible: homeless, racialized and impoverished people being invisibilized and pushed to the margins of society and city. Spatiality is structured by political economic relations: visible are conditions of excess, limitless growth and progress; underneath are invisibilized conditions of precarity, inequality and struggle.

What lies beyond?

It is community, grassroots and civil society organizations. In my work as an activist and as an Anders Utrecht member, I have encountered many of the inspiring groups of people who get together and do the work for a just and sustainable city. This engagement has allowed me to discover Utrecht from a totally different side. When governing bodies fail to secure people’s access to homes, food and other basic necessities, when they actively deny their right to stay, or gamble with people’s lives by continuing to give fossil fuel subsidies and pushing unsustainable economic growth, people have to take matters into their own hands. Alternative and community-based organizations can grow out of a necessity to secure ones’ or others’ unmet needs, as well as out of choice, out of refusal to participate in coercive or destructive existing structures.

Utrecht’s community organizations are not just a sanitizing patch of charity for the ones in need. Beyond fulfilling unmet needs, they inspire and empower people and communities to become an active part in societal and ecological transformation, to collectively organize, raise awareness, politicize, mobilize and bring together people in democratic processes. Grassroots and community organizations are driving bottom-up transformation through experimenting with, and highlighting the viability of alternatives, creating spaces and moments of other-doing and enlarging our imagination of the possible. If, quoting Mark Fischer, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, we have to expand our imaginary. The transformative potential of alternative and community organizations lies in their power to highlight that another world is indeed possible.

Working within the Anders Utrecht network has made me feel connected to the city and its inhabitants in meaningful and new ways. Instead of describing how, I urge you to go find out for yourself and meet the folks engaged in transformative on the ground work: Go visit an exhibition at Casco Art Institute and view the commons through the lens of art, join an intercultural event at De Voorkamer, eat a dumpster-dived meal with Taste Before You Waste, volunteer at Villa Vrede, help gardening in Tuin Kansrijk and check out the Anders Utrecht map for much more!

What many of these diverse initiatives have in common is an other-doing: being and doing things “anders”. In one of our previous Anders Utrecht workshops we thematized strategies for bottom-up transformation. Within our group discussion we concluded that many initiatives approach transformation through building concrete alternatives beyond or next to existing structures. The sociologist Erik Olin Wright calls this approach “interstitial transformation”, locating change in the “interstices” or, how John Holloway puts it, in the “cracks” of capitalism. An example of this is the Weggeefwinkel, a local free shop that doesn’t ask its’ customers for either money or proof of indigence, that is volunteer-run and that provides basic goods outside of traditional market and state structures.  

Another transformation strategy commonly used by grassroots and community organizations is prefiguration. Prefiguration is the transformative strategy of enacting – or, prefiguring – the future we want, in the here and now. Concretely, this means embodying transformation in your everyday organisational practices, such as the practice of democratic, hierarchy-minimizing decision-making within groups. Another example are Repair Cafés which prefigure a world of decreased consumption, degrowth and circularity, through changing people’s relationships to their material belongings and sharing the necessary skills for such a different engagement. 

Community and grassroots organisations embody the world they create through spaces and moments of doing and being “anders”. But even existence in the interstices isn’t free from engagement or entanglement with capital and state. I do not mean to exaggerate the power of alternative and community organizations, nor to glorify the work they do. Being part of a volunteer-run organizations means doing a lot of unpaid labour. Providing services that have no market exchange-value means shimmying from one funding application to another to get by. Building a community centre on municipal land means being dependent on municipal politics. Working in and from the interstices also means constantly running into barriers of what is practically possible. There is not a lot of money in work that doesn’t grow the gross domestic product. Yet, the work by community organizations towards a sustainable and abundant city is desirable and arguably necessary for bottom-up transformation. So, what can a university project such as Anders Utrecht do in order to support local initiatives? How can we drive transformation from within the university?

In order to produce knowledge that drives social and ecological transformation and that is useful to the groups and communities engaged in on the ground work, researchers and students need to get out of the ‘ivory tower’ and immerse themselves in said organizations and structures. Projects like Anders Utrecht, or the Organising Social Impact Master’s program, are attempts at creating these connections between university and ‘societal stakeholders’. Concretely, this means not only studying an organization but volunteering and helping out with organisational tasks in a long-term engagement that aims at building lasting relationships, while reflecting upon one’s positionality as a (student) researcher.

Transdisciplinary (research) projects need to include ‘societal stakeholders’ not as research objects but as active participants in the research or project, working not for, but with them. Such an engagement ranges from collectively setting purpose and agenda of a project (as opposed to developing a project idea within the university and afterwards involving ‘societal stakeholders’), building on existing networks, coalitions and structures, to monetarily compensating those involved in the project. Any (research) project that attempts to build transdisciplinary relationships, needs to prioritize supporting those engaged in (transformative) on the ground work. This support extends beyond providing knowledge, skills or even labour, to channelling money into community organizations for collective use. Researchers have to avoid reinforcing exploitation through relying on free (volunteer) labour, and instead help to value ‘socially useful doing’, through making monetary compensation to the groups involved in the research or project a priority. This can be done for instance through planning to include societal stakeholders in the project team and in decision-making processes, or making the obtainment of sufficient funding a priority for any given project. In a nutshell, as activist academics and students, we have to be prefigurative in our own (research) practices to drive transformation.

Prefiguration extends beyond transdisciplinary projects into university politics and transformation of the university institution itself. Drawing on Erik Olin Wright’s terminology, such an approach is called symbiotic transformation, referring to the strategy of embodying non-reformist, emancipatory changes that challenge and overturn unjust power structures, within the institution of the university. The task of transforming universities is of course not only in the hands of academics and university employees, but a larger question for public policy and society. However, there is a lot of work to be done within universities, such as fighting discrimination in employment, for instance in assigning teaching, PhD and other paid positions, overturning precarious employment conditions, such as short-term contracts, enforcing accountability measures, building solid support structures for students and employees, increasing transparency in funding and participation in decision-making, decolonizing the curriculum, making university more accessible, and so forth.

Transformation of the university itself, lies at the core of an activist academy. There is a tension in being part of ‘the neoliberal university’ which reinforces classism, patriarchy and white supremacy, while trying to drive social ecological transformation outside the university. I have always felt a sense of irony in being part of a university that publicly advocates for sustainability and yet refuses to cut its ties to the fossil fuel industry. However, similarly to the existing economic diversity found in capitalist-dominated economic systems, the university is not homogenous in its relations: within the ‘neoliberal university’ exist spaces, moments, attempts of creating alternatives against and beyond. As feminist economic geographers Gibson-Graham point out, anti-capitalocentrist practice means shedding light on the existing economic diversity, and this holds for social, political and economic relations within the university as well. Interstitial transformation in the university functions through spaces of resistance and other-doing within. The potential of any transdisciplinary, or otherwise transformative project, such as Anders Utrecht, is to create growing space and momentum of alternative practices within the university. What I have learned this year from Utrecht’s grassroots and community initiatives is that prefigurative politics and change in the interstices, are effective strategies for transformation – in civil society, as well as in the university.