2008-03:JUKSS-Reflection 2008/2009

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Selbst-Orga, Offene Orga: Some Impressions from JUKSS in Germany

Iverot A JUKSS is short for Jugend-Umwelt-KongreSS, in english Youth Environment Congress, and is a yearly arranged gathering attended by a wide and diverse range of people: It's actually a bit tricky to find a definition that does justice to it[1]. It originally started out as a youth gathering of the green movement (which in Germany still has a strong un-institutionalized wing), but has developed to be a general 'alternative' event, trancending and fusing groupings of different subcultures, scenes, ages, political ideologies, causes, interests and backgrounds into a colorful mishmash.

I went there last time[2], and i got a lot of inspiration and ideas from it, about organization of events (as well as other kinds of activities), and this is what i will mainly focus on in this text. I will not try to cover all the aspects of the event or it's organisation (impossible?), just my own observations and thoughts, although i'll try to make it coherent and comprehensible, and also as practical as possible. My goal is to contribute to learning and critical discussion of organizing (in english: creating connection and making things happen) methods.

One thing i lack insight in is the invisible work behind the event, and the methods used in the preparation organizing. Out of sheer interest, i might later do an interview or sumthin to find out more, but for now i can only present what i experienced myself.

One thing very central in JUKSS is the strive towards open and horisontal structures: This seems to have been a focus of efforts and experimenting for a while in (at least this part of) the grassroots activist movement, although i don't have a comprehensive view of the discussion. My impression there on the spot was that it worked quite well, and that there were lots of positive lessons that could be implemented elsewhere. So, what made it special?

Of course, already the strive towards this as a goal in itself will create a certain atmosphere: One can assume this in all activity motivated by ideals - and in the case that the activity isn't working out 100 %, often the idealistic commitment of the participants steps in to bridge the gaps between ideal and reality. For bad and for good: in the worst case it leads to burnt-out 'activists' constantly pushing to keep something together that else wouldn't ever work. But the factor of idealism is always there, in all arrangements we make in this imperfect world.

The arrangers themselves place great weight on communication, and for good reasons: Communication is always key (At least in my opinion. Therefore i focus quite much on it in this text). For horisontal (i.e. non-hierarchical) organisation, you need horisontal communication. For open organisation, you need open communication. For self-determined organisation, you need self-determined communication.

Self-determination, by the way, was a third central aspect in JUKSS: No-one was obliged or expected to do anything. Or more specifically, there was nothing that EVERYONE was obliged or expected to do: There was also no-one involved in EVERYTHING: No general meetings, no central committees[3]. It was all very decentralized indeed.

All the practical work was done by separate working groups (in german Mitmachgruppen, Participation Groups - or creatively translated "Co-doing groups"), made up of people who wrote their name on the groups' participant lists hanging on the wall in the main aula (there was a few dozen groups, plus a cleaning group for every space, and i swear almost every one filled up in the first 2 days! -However, i later found out that the cleaning group lists had only gotten their first names after it was brought up on a meeting...sigh. But still not bad compared to many other experiences). Anyone could start a co-doing-group for something, by putting up a list and "Just Doing It".

The program of the event was done the same way: People announced workshops, discussions, film screenings and demonstrations, that they arranged themselves, on a huge program wall, that a co-do group sorted out daily (usually 1-2 days before any one day, that day's slot would be full of announcements for different times and spaces; sometimes duplicating each other, sometimes double-booking, sometimes with missing information, never in chronological (time) order). No-one, except for whoever wanted to arrange something, could decide for something to happen or not. Part of the program was of course known beforehand, but that didn't make it more official than the rest. There were also many more infoboards and signs all around the building, about all possible aspects of the arrangements ("Have you seen my sleeping bag?", "Use the paper sign, the toilet's lock is broken!", "This room is for relations and communication"). F.ex. the Finances co-doing group kept a "finance-barometer", showing incomes and expenses both specifically (with small paper notes) and totally (with two scales, one of the actual money balance and one for the end-of-week prognosis.)[4]

In the main aula, there was an infopoint (run by its own co-do-group, who always had 1-3 people there, equipped with a logbook, a laptop and a 5-page compendium with the most important info). This was a quite central communication node (in a central place), where newcomers registered (and were encouraged to join some co-do-group), and where you could ask for info about arrangements and actualities, or leave/tell your own info so others could get to know about it. This was also where you could come with technical needs (copying machine, video projector, paper and markers etc). I got the impression that (at least most of) the resources were pooled for use by whoever needed them at the moment, but i don't know exactly how it worked, or how it worked out, so i can just wonder and speculate[5]. I'll ask someone for more info when i can.

There was an open computer pool, however: In a room close to the infopoint, The PC-pool co-do-group put up a free internet connection, as an incentive for people to stash their laptops there for public use (this would need some surveillance of course), which many did. This gave the option to have public real-time internet organizing, via f.ex. the JUKSS wiki. Although this communication channel wasn't so prominent in the overall organisation of the event (though it wasn't totally unused), i think the pc-pool had some leveling (horisontal-making) effect on the whole gathering: in the computer age, having or not having access to a computer can be quite crucial, and could easily lead to resource access hierarchies. It also allowed for swift, decentralized communication with the outside world, probably helpful for swift, decentralized political media work for example (f.ex. press releases for actions, and there was different actions or demonstrations once a day on average).

At the Infopoint was also distributed, among other info & papers, a Reader (brochure) about the congress and its arrangements (plus some beforehand announced programs). It also gave an introduction into the thoughts behind the JUKSS: self-organisation, pro-activity, openness, communication, antihierarchy, antirepression, respect, diversity, etc. There was also a daily info-meeting, and a get-to-know meeting, for newcomers, that i never went to, but that i understand had the function of giving the same information in a more personal, and non-textual, context. Obviously the communication at JUKSS was mostly quite text-dominated...

The focus on text might be a weak point: There was actually so much text to digest that it got a bit tiring for me, and i'm quite okay with text, and verbal communication in general. It can also become a privilege issue: Not everyone is as good at processing vast amounts of text. Indeed most of the people were (my assessment) well-educated, probably ethnic majority and middle class, or at least associated with subcultures whose social position is at the nonconformal fringes of the middle classes. Also, nowadays, not even middle-class school-(or even university-)enslaved youth seem very competent, or interested, in processing vast amounts of text (if they ever were): The participants may indeed be said to be fringe, an exceptional group on the margins of society, engaging in activities that also are marginal. Which of course is not something to blame them with, but it might have some consequences for organizing. However, in JUKSS, the organising seemed to work fine.

For other contexts, or to make the JUKSS more accessible, a solution could be to try to make the verbal, and especially textual, communication, as light (but not 'lite' - 3-sec-attention-span bland "infotainment") and minimalistic as practically workable: Maybe to have more focus on decentralized non-textual communication (see the section on the info point above. Also at least some of the co-do-groups could operate with only informal, personal communication within the group), along with balancing the textual information with pictures: The advantage of visual, textual, material, is that you can digest it at your own pace, when (and where, if its portable) you want.

To make an effective introduction to the ideas behind f.ex. JUKSS, to explain the philosophical/ideological basis (a main purpose of the JUKSS Reader), in non-textual form is of course a challenge. (Luckily, 200 years ago some anarchists invented a concept called "the propaganda of the deed". Indeed, this also was at play in JUKSS: the activities & arrangements explained themselves quite well (because they worked). But for people new or prejudiced to these ideas/arrangements, it might take some more effort to make them "make sense" - maybe we need to both show by doing and explain what we're doing at the same time?)

But it is an important challenge, because currently the dominant culture is shaped by audiovisual overload ADHD media, and text didn't use to be common people's mode of communication in earlier times either. Widespread literacy seems to be a historical exception, that might be on the way towards decline already. And anyway, if endless meetings (for information or for deciding) isn't so well-working or fun, then neither is endless writings (and we all know what a strong organisational tool the "wash your own dishes" sign is[6]).

Solution? Short meetings and short writings! Preferably with a fair amount of overlap between different "media", but not so much within one media, f.ex. ten meetings/writings with the same information (frustrating[7]. Some overlap might be good however, so that it's harder to miss the essential stuff.) Information should be as clear and sensible as possible, and so too the arrangements: And it should always be clear where to find more (specific) information.

Also, it would be good if the arrangements were robust in the way that they don't collapse if some crucial communication doesn't happen (f.ex. not everyone reads the introduction brochure on the first day, or participate in that one meeting). I don't know if this is utopian or obvious, or in between. In JUKSS, this was supported by the ideal of voluntariness: The amount of things that "Had To" be done were minimal, and split up as much as possible - although not perfectly: i heard there were some quite overworked people at the end of the week. Probably, had it lasted longer, that would have had to be dealt with, but for one week the inefficiency was affordable, if barely. However, my impression was also that increasing the efficiency, i.e. more aggressive work-recruiting, would have been affordable (generously) if needed: there were lots of people that could have picked up the work.

This points to the need for another form of robustness - that things are not dependent on specific persons' participation. In some situations this can be next to impossible, and even if not, we should be prepared for that certain stuff might crash because no-one is interested, even if there are several people that could chip in[8].

However, in some cases it is quite important that things don't crash with one person. These are also often things that are hard to solve within one week, as some skills take longer to learn. What can be done, and was done in JUKSS, is to make clear which people have specific skills or areas of responsibility: f.ex. by people having a sign saying "Technics support" or "English translation" on their clothes.[9] This could possibly be expanded further ("Burnt-out Organizer", "Anarchist Leader"...No, seriously, i'm thinking more of specific skills and roles: "officials contact", "car driver", "graphic design"). On the other hand, there is something uncomfortable about it - the association to military uniform badges or something? Another option could be a contact list at the infopoint - the sign system anyway has the disadvantage that you have to see the person to find them...

The innovativeness in the structuring of JUKSS sparked lots of ideas in me, for how to (possibly) organize events like these better, and also more continual activities: Would it be possible to have many, decentralized infopoints? To create a similar system with only, or almost only, oral or non-textual communication? Of what importance is the scale (amount of people, time)? How was the initiation, planning, and preparation organized, what methods were used? How to create this kind of structure with minimal finances & resources? Would reducing the textual information make people spontaneously use the non-textual tools more actively? Could these arrangements be vulnerable to repression or spionage because of their openness? Could they be made less vulnerable but still be "open"? How much or little "attunement" (getting used to) do these arrangements demand from the participants in order to work (i.e. in order for the participants to make it work - there were some aspects where it could have helped if more people actively chipped in)? Or do they demand unity of political interest/vision? to what degree? And many more. I guess i will talk more about these issues later, and maybe try to implement some lessons in the meanwhile.

Source: http://takku.net/article.php?story=20090204133309431

  1. Their own definition, translated from german:
    "What really is a Jukkss...?
    Jukss is an abbreviation and stands for Jugendumweltkongress. What the Jukss really is, is reinvented from time to time. In all cases Jukss is a colorful, diverse, self-organized, utopian, unbelievable, open-space-ish and generally unglued (crazy) event, that normally takes place at the turn of the year."
    And here's the info-flyer text on their home page (which, of course, is a wiki: a webpage where users themselves can edit and create all (or most) of the content): http://jukss.de/En:main_page#SHORT_INFO
  2. This time it was held 27.12.08-4.1.09, in Frankfurt am Main, middle-south Germany, in the building of Freie Waldorfschule (Institutional 'alternative' school based on anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner's philosophy. Interesting side note: For the gathering, someone had put up a critical collection of racist quotes from Steiner's writings...). It was attended by about three to five hundred persons (own vague guess), of which most were probably in their twenties or teens, but also with a considerable amount of thirties, forties and older. I'm not sure about the sex distribution, could have been even or uneven in one or the other direction (possibly there was more older men, and more younger women, as i remember it), and i'm also unsure about the power distribution between sexes, although in several workshops males seemed to talk a lot more than females.
  3. There was a Core Group in the preparative organizing, and probably many of the same people were busy with arrangements during the event too, but they definitely didn't run things - not to deny that there probably were "Very Important Persons" (this wasn't straight from utopialand), if not passing decisions then at least making sure everything ran smoothly (the gender balance of these people is also unclear to me). As said, the work behind the event is unknown to me, to the disadvantage of this text.
  4. When, two days before the end of the gathering, the barometer was on -2000€, the finance co-do-group circulated a paper with the header "financial crisis in JUKSS", asking people to chip in by what they could. It eventually rose from -2000 to -400 in the remaining two days, partly with a few hundred € from self-organized busking and street circus sessions. When the note for that came up on the finance board, someone added another note saying (in german) "Fantastic! We should do more of these!"
  5. At least the group i was involved with seemed to get projectors, flier copies, banner materials and paint without problems.
  6. Indeed, in JUKSS the dishes got done - quite evenly divided, i think, between the dishwashing volunteers, spontaneous helpful folks, and the kitchen: Another important practical pressure - food - was outsourced however, to the excellent Vegan Organic GMO-free activist kitchen LeSabot (http://lesabot.org), although supplemented with chopping volunteers. This of course freed up energy and time for other activities, which should be taken into account.
  7. There was also an A4 with the most essential stuff from the Reader, but those two plus the noteboards meant there was the same info in three places at least. I, being textual & stupid, of course read them all...
  8. F.ex. At JUKSS there was a "toilet newspaper", whose idea was to provide a handy information channel in a place where everyone had time to read. I think it made a couple bland, non-informative numbers, and was silent the rest of the time due to lack of participants. This might have been a nice project last year, or maybe next year, but this time it just died, without negative consequences.
  9. I believe that roles that are more about personal influence (f.ex. with bureaucrats or school officials) should be promptly avoided and addressed: F.ex. by always taking one extra (new) person to the negotiation meeting, keeping a log so that someone else can pick up, and avoiding informal consensus (no "friend business relations") so that the cards are on the table for someone else to pick up. I also have no clear picture of how this worked in JUKSS, except for that there were "school contact people" and "authorities contact people" (possibly co-do-groups), that you could reach via the infopoint at least.