'Anders Utrecht’: A Collaboration for Bottom-up Change
The ‘Anders Utrecht’ project, funded by Utrecht University’s Transforming Cities hub, is developing a network that brings together initiatives working towards sustainability and social change in the Utrecht region. These initiatives range from citizen movements to neighbourhood initiatives, from alternative food-system initiatives such as Taste Before You Waste Utrecht and VOKO Utrecht to initiatives that support undocumented refugees, like Villa Vrede.
Through this collaborative network, Anders Utrecht helps close the gap between theory and practice: the contributing scholars want to study the solutions these initiatives offer, support their visibility, and stimulate cooperation: ‘we want to go co-produce knowledge, learn from each other, and contribute to the efforts for social transformation.’
A team of interdisciplinary researchers is engaged with the development of this local network. Together, they are working towards the collaborative production of knowledge with local grassroots organisations. ‘It is an engagement for bottom-up change,’ says project initiator Ozan Alakavuklar. ‘These organisations are already doing this according to the needs of their own communities. We support them with issues they lack the time or resources for – such as collective strategy development, organisational change, and brainstorming sessions.’
‘We launched the project in November 2020,’ project coordinator Belle Tonk adds. ‘In February this year we had a first meeting with ten participating initiatives. Our website maps out all the participating organisations, which helps increase their visibility and illustrates how they form a larger network.’
What is so ‘different’ about ‘Anders Utrecht’?
‘Market forces are generally seen as the basis for transformation,’ says Alakavuklar. ‘But meaningful social change really develops from the ground up. We believe that these grassroots and community organisations are organised differently and can offer us new pathways to sustainability; new thinking about how we can organise our society differently, how we can rethink economy; new ideas about how to foster more sustainable alternatives. This is where the ‘anders’ (different) comes from. The organisations we work with form a vital link between communities and society.’
‘These organisations include domains of social inclusion, alternative food networks, and art and culture initiatives for social change. As researchers, we are interested in the alternative models they offer. But we don’t approach them as ‘study objects’: we collaborate with them as equal partners. We don’t see ourselves as the experts who would pass knowledge on to them.
We are interested in long-term collaboration. Our network will certainly offer students the opportunity to research social change and alternative organisational structures through collaborative fieldwork. But we also want to have an ongoing collaboration between the university and the activist groups that are too often neglected as important agents of change or approached ‘instrumentally’ – the tendency to approach organisations for data and then leave their field. We want to produce knowledge collaboratively, learn from each other, and contribute to their efforts for social transformation.’
We believe that these grassroots and community organisations are organised differently and can offer us new pathways to sustainability, new ideas about how to foster more sustainable alternatives.
'We are also lobbying for these organisations. We want to bring their voices into our departments, open up discussions, and make space for these kinds of organisations that are too often neglected.
Let me give you a few examples of the initiatives. One of the members of the Anders Utrecht network is VOKO Utrecht, a cooperative organisation managed by its members that emphasises a sustainable food chain. For a fair price they order food from local farmers and vegetable gardens, through their online platform. Every member is also a volunteer, so together they arrange to bring the food to a central point in the city, where it is collected. Following the pandemic, the need for local food initiatives has risen dramatically – and they offer an inspiring and cooperative solution.
Another example is Villa Vrede, an organisation that helps undocumented migrants. This group is especially vulnerable and unsafe having fled their countries to arrive here without clear prospects. Nobody knows for how long they can stay or whether they have to go back, but this organisation and its network provide a day shelter: a kind of social centre where they can gain important skills and learn the language.
These organisations are at the forefront of seeking creative organisational solutions to key societal challenges.'
How can academic research contribute to this?
Belle Tonk: ‘Many of these grassroots initiatives are overwhelmed by their day-to-day operations. They are often quite overworked. If they want to think long-term or strategise, we can be partners in that conversation. And we can offer support in tackling issues they do not have the time or resources to delve into.’
Ozan Alakavuklar: ‘Exactly. Sometimes we can even offer labour as responsible citizens. One member of our team, Yousra Rahmouni Elidrissi for instance does voluntary work for Villa Vrede. Besides, we are also part of broader scholarly and activist networks. We can act as facilitators or intermediaries for practical knowledge. For example, our link with the Commons Network and the Degrowth movement can help similar national and international organisations connect, share experiences, learn from each other, and contribute to advocacy.
'We really want to work on equal terms'
But it is important to emphasize that these organisations are doing all the hard work and innovation. We can only support them and go along with their journey. We want to collaborate on equal terms, given that they produce important knowledge through their practices.’
Belle Tonk confirms this: ‘The network’s first general meeting was meant for the organisations to get to know each other, because they operate across different sectors. We could see right away that they were exchanging ideas and forming new collaborations. Wendie from sharing cooperative De Weggeefwinkel used the meeting to present their initiative “het Klinikastje” – a cabinet full of free hygiene products, like sanitary pads and face masks. She emphasised that this concept could easily be implemented all around Utrecht, which is badly needed, because these essential products are still too expensive for some people.
Another interesting example was the collaboration between Amelisweerd Niet Geasfalteerd and Taste Before You Waste. The group trying to stop the expansion of the highway near Utrecht made clear that they needed basic support in terms of food. Taste Before You Waste collects surplus food from restaurants, and could therefore easily provide this during demonstrations.
The ‘Anders Utrecht’ label allows multiple sectors to be involved in the network. And we hope to facilitate more collaboration with more organisations as the network expands over time.’
‘We have passed the first major hurdle. We are now collaborating with twelve organisations,’ Ozan Alakavuklar responds. ‘We would love to hear from other similar organisations that would like to be part of Anders Utrecht, want to collaborate with other activist organisations or want to contribute to our activities. We hope to bring them together.
And we are very excited to share their stories with a wider audience by making podcasts that discuss broader themes like diversity, or alternative food networks, and how this may contribute to food sustainability. Or to discuss how art and culture may contribute to sustainability in the city. All these efforts will demonstrate how sustainability transformation and social change takes place through bottom-up practices in and around Utrecht.'
The Utrecht University team of researchers involved in this project: Ozan Alakavuklar, Belle Tonk, Yousra Rahmouni Elidrissi, Patrizia Zanoni (Utrecht University School of Governance), Giuseppe Feola (Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development) and Dan Hassler-Forest (Media and Culture Studies).