RÉCIT 2008: Discovering citizens’ education in Grenoble and Paris
by Aimée van Drimmelen
"In order for another world to be possible, we need another education all life long."
-Didier Minot, RÉCIT
On January 1, 2008, I joined a delegation of Quebecers to participate in the 3rd Citizens' Education Meeting of the RÉCIT (Réseau des écoles de citoyens), held in Grenoble, France. Our group was made up of a diverse range of people all involved in one way or another in the community sector, in education, democratic organizations, or international solidarity work.
The Quebec delegation:
15 delegates under the age of 35 from Quebec were sent to France with the help of the Office franco-québécois pour la jeunesse (OFQJ), an organization that facilitates exchanges between the two regions. Meeting other delegates and learning about one another's projects and initiatives across the province was the first highlight of the trip.
There was Dominique, who works for Regroupement Action Jeunesse 02 in the Saguenay/Lac St-Jean region, Samantha, director of the Magdalen Islands' CEDEC , and Julie-Marie who sits on the Table jeunesse in Gatineau.
Locally was Sophie who works with the Centre de Documentation sur l'éducation des adultes et la condition féminine (CDEACF ), Elizabeth from the Institute for Community Development at Concordia, Alex from the Centre for Community Organizations (Co-Co ), and Leslie from the NDG Community Council .
Interested in international work were Claudine, who has done work in Mali, and Martin who, among other projects, worked with the Comité pour les droits humains en Amérique latine (CDHAL ) where he organized a tour of nine cities in Quebec for indigenous women from Ecuador. He also helped direct a documentary about the tour and the negative impacts of Canadian mining companies called "Amazonie, cuivre et cie."
Speaking of documentaries, Julie co-directed a short film called Mamoué, that shows the activities of Mamie Henriette, a Quebec woman of Congolese origin, who founded MIDI, an association that helps elderly immigrant women avoid isolation. Mamoué can be viewed until March 30 at http://www.rcinet.ca/rci/fr/concours.asp (click on the button "pour lancer la compétition").
And that's just part of the group...
Inspired by the 2002 World Social Forum that took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the central theme of this year's RÉCIT meeting was "Becoming citizen and actor in a united world." The objective was to give the over 300 participating organizations and experts a forum to get to know one another, and exchange research, experiences and philosophies, all to facilitate more efficient, coherent and effective actions.
A variety of workshops were offered on a wide range of topics, from "Participating in public life and engaging youth" to "Tools and practices to build a sustainable world." My choice as a representative of La Maison Verte was "Responsible consumption for all," where I could share our experiences and discover what likeminded initiatives exist, or are being attempted, in France.
Many of the issues brought up by the group in relation to improving our consumption practices were just as relevant in France as they are in Canada. We discussed the importance of becoming "consommacteurs," meaning engaged, aware and educated consumers who make smart choices. The concept of "simple living " was discussed. This is a movement or philosophy where people choose to live simply instead of chasing wealth and spending power. Simple living often involves working less and making less money, naturally reducing our consumption levels. This gives more time to enjoy our lives and focus on personal and family growth. Also, the less we consume the less negative impacts we put on labourers and the environment both locally and globally. As one group member stated, "I try to live simply so that others can simply live." Or, in my words, "I'm living simple and I didn't even know it!" Sometimes it's easy to do our part.
Shortening the distance between producers and consumers and finding local solutions and sources of goods was another obvious path to a more responsible consumption. Supporting local products is already very important in France. Grocery stores and markets proudly indicate local products and produce. Similar to our CSA vegetable baskets, the AMAP system puts consumers in direct contact with a local farmer, who drops off a weekly basket both in spring/summer and fall/winter. Members pay one week in advance for their next basket.
Several of the workshop participants are involved in projects to support the sale of local products in their communities. One interesting example is Grenoble native Sylvain Prat's initiative Court-Circuit . This system encourages the sale of quality, healthy and seasonal local products (like fruits and vegetables, honey, apple cider, and jams), in existing independent grocery stores around the city. Members are notified via email when goods are delivered to stores, and receive a special rate when they go to purchase them. A map on the website indicates all of the stores that are participating so buyers can find one in their neighbourhood instead of driving longer distances. Another map shows storeowners the concentration of members around the city that are looking for local products. Carrying these slightly more obscure or perishable items can be risky-business for a small store, but Prat's system offers storeowners a guarantee that members will come in and buy the products. It just started in September 2007 and already seems to be working well. Check out the website to see for yourself! A similar project could work well in Montreal with all of our wonderful fruiteries, no?
After two days of discussion, we concluded that citizens' education is crucial in encouraging and facilitating responsible consumption for all. This type of education can come from many places, whether incorporated into formal education, in community spaces, in the family, in art and film, or beyond. The need for concrete examples of alternatives is key in changing people's perceptions about their consumption habits. The group also agreed that having the chance to meet one another and to draw inspiration from each other's initiatives and experience was very valuable.
Community organization visits in Grenoble:
Grenoble and its surrounding areas are known for their rich history of progressive societal innovation and experimentation. New forms of participative urbanization, co-operative pedagogy, and the organization of its habitants have been taking place for over 40 years. Today the region is overflowing with initiatives and campaigns on everything from immigration to ecological issues. A local paper features articles on community gardening, new buildings in the city core that are following "High Quality Environmental Standard " building procedures (similar to LEED ). Local agriculture is supported by groups like Terres d'Ici . Like many cities in France, a smooth, efficient and accessible tramway system connects most corners of the city. Many of the tracks are surrounded not with concrete, but grass—a green bonus.
Thanks to the RÉCIT organizers Julie and Gauthier, we had the chance to visit some of these organizations. One highlight was Soli'Gren, an association that promotes local organic produce (including a fruit and veggie basket) and offers space for other organizations working on fair trade, fair travel, health and nutrition.
Grenoble's Artisans du Monde , a French fair trade organization similar to our Ten Thousand Villages , takes up the ground floor storefront at Soli'Gren, but it's more than just a store. First it sells fair trade products from around the world, as well as locally produced goods. Second, they support or invest in related social and political campaigns. An example they gave was a campaign against the exportation of excess milk from France to African countries like Mali, Senegal or Kenya—an act that undercuts local producers and leads to reliance on foreign sources as opposed to developing local solutions and getting at the roots of the hunger epidemic (more info on the CFSI website). Their third side is educational. ADM workers give in-depth workshops tailored to primary and secondary schools, and even some businesses. To help bring people into their space, they also run a variety of activities such as papermaking and cooking courses.
I spent my last night in Grenoble at a great bar we discovered earlier in the week called La Bobine . This "bar associative" runs like an artists' co-operative with benefits. For 6 € a year, members have the opportunity to get involved in the project. They can help with programming and promotion of concerts, art exhibits, and other events. For example, that night a traditional acoustic started the night for an audience ranging in age from 1 to 65 (good thing they just banned smoking indoors in France!). Following this was a film-screening put on by the Réseau Éducation Sans Frontières about immigration issues, and then came a sweaty rock show. Who could ask for more? It got me thinking. Co-operative bars, eh? Co-op La Maison Bière anyone? Who's with me?
Back in Paris:
After the whirlwind that was Grenoble we hopped on a train back to Paris for one of our last encounters as a group-a visit with the Maison pour un dévelopment solidaire (MDS) located in the diverse and bustling neighbourhood of Belleville in the 11th arrondissement. The MDS works towards local social development and community health through a process dynamic popular education. They work with numerous other associations and governmental bodies to realize these goals out of a relaxed ground floor space in the heart of the 11th arrondissement.
MDS worker Omer was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of Belleville and some of the community initiatives found there. We passed artist squats and walls covered with beautiful graffiti, organizations geared towards greening the neighbourhood and affordable social housing projects. We visited the Maison Des Métallos an old metallurgy foundry that was recently transformed into a state of the art performance, gallery and workspace grounded in the community. We saw elementary schools with hand painted banners bearing messages like "Let them grow up here" and "Let them learn" hanging above their doors and from their windows. Omer explained that these messages were in protest of the police tactic sometimes used to catch and arrest "Sans papiers " (paperless or illegal immigrant) families, which involves waiting for the parents to collect their children and making the arrests at school. January 19 was the European day of action against the detention of immigrants without papers, an issue that was brought up often, and is close to the hearts of many in France. For more information (in French) visit the RESF website.
The tour ended back at the MDS offices where we were treated to a delicious meal and a chance to meet more people affiliated with the association. I ran into Emmanuel, who visited Montreal last summer with a delegation from France to participate in the Concordia Institute for Community Development's Summer Program , including a workshop on responsible consumption hosted by La Maison Verte. Inspired by the trip and all the different Quebecois groups they encountered at the meetings, he helped launch Action Vert l'Avenir, a collective that works with communities to promote and develop public green spaces, urban agriculture projects, and environmentally-friendly practices. Way to go guys!
Exploring Paris by bike, for free (almost)!
After the greatest part of the delegation returned to Quebec, I stayed a few extra days to explore the amazing city that is Paris. One of the biggest highlights of this trip was getting to try out their self-serve (almost) free VÉLIB bicycles found all over the city. Lucille, my new Parisian buddy, was nice enough to lend me her membership card for a couple of days. For 29 €, this pass is good for a year of unlimited use. One can also buy a day pass for 1 € or a week pass for 5 €-a better option for tourists. You simply swipe the card on a reader beside your bike of choice and it is released from the station. Then you have one half-hour of riding for free. If you go over this time, it costs 1 € for the second half-hour, 2 € for the third, etc. This is to ensure that the bikes to remain in circulation and aren't taken for too long. You can basically get almost anywhere you want to go within a half hour anyway, and if you need more time you can simply switch bikes at the next stand you come across and keep going.
Parisian mayor Bertrand Delanoë wasn't kidding around when he introduced this service in 2007. There are 20,600 bikes in total, and a bike station can be found every 300 meters within Paris proper. I found these bicycles extremely comfortable to ride. They are equipped with baskets, front and rear lights (powered by pedaling), a bell and three gears. They even have a locking system if you have to nip into a store or café. You can take the bikes out 24/7, so they are a great to get home late at night, or early in the morning! Needless to say Parisians have welcomed them with open arms. These funny looking vehicles are seen in use everywhere. There's no doubt the project is an amazing success.
There was talk of interest in a similar project in Toronto and Montreal, and I say "do it!" It's true that a lot of people already have bicycles, but this system will be beneficial to those who don't, and will encourage those who still commute to work or school by car to give cycling a try, easing congestion on the roads and improving physical health. The only challenge I could see here is what our winters and salty roads would do to the bikes-a problem that could certainly be figured out!
Maybe it's the anthropologist in me, but I always find any opportunity to visit new places and make comparisons between what you know, and what you are experiencing for the first time, valuable. The work of the people I met both from France and Quebec, and the community organizations I discovered, were informative, and reaffirming. I felt a sense of solidarity that is easy to forget when you are focused on your own work, in your own bubble, day to day. It's important to remember that there are people all over the world doing these types of things—trying to change things for the better, trying to work together to figure things out the best ways possible. One of the main things I heard people mention in the conclusions of the RÉCIT conference was a feeling of not being alone. We are not alone, and not only that but we are changing things. Enjoy the ride.