Scale-jumping in village volunteering – Reflections on multi-scalar collaborations in rural social entrepreneurship

Systematic learning from early on is among the pedagogical approaches of CINSC (Centro Infantil Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Baixo Alentejo, Portugal). Each day the children plan what they want to do, and afterwards reflect together whether it actually happened.

Ageing, unsustainable infrastructure, high support for right-wing populist parties – in debate about the pressing societal challenges, rural areas are often discussed as problems, pulling innovative urban areas behind. Positive aspects of rurality are, in turn, connected to the images of peaceful family life and “communal” relationships. However, a closer look at rural social entrepreneurship questions such traditional spatial impressions about “closed rural communities” and “global, progressive cities”. In a PhD-research within the project RurAction I have studied the relations of long-term sustainability and collaboration among socially innovative rural service producers.

Based on the first analysis I can suggest, that especially economically stable and politically influential rural social enterprises need and foster cross-regional and international connections as much as they need their villagers. And this does not mean, that all good ideas come from the closest big city. Some initiatives may bypass urban networks altogether in their collaboration. They do so in order to strengthen the horizontal connections with other rural civil society actors, and to achieve stronger voice in policymaking processes. The following blog post will present some means and challenges of collaboration across scales in two case studies of the project. These are Schloß Trebnitz in Brandenburg and Centro Infantil Nossa Senhora do Carmo (CINSC) in Baixo Alentejo, Portugal.

In Schloß Trebnitz children kann learn from German and Polish artists during a summer camp thanks to a cooperation with Gustav-Seitz-Museum at the Castle premises. (Photo by Franziska Mandel)

Community-co-production in multi-scalar networks

Rural social enterprises are organisations and initiatives, whose aim is to provide livelihoods and solve social and ecological problems, but not to strive for private profits for their own sake. They can be very diverse in size, organisational form and operational field. This blog post discusses two “community-co-producing social enterprises”, which refers to enterprises where the citizens actively engage in production of their services.

Usually community-co-production is researched in a village or neighbourhood, where the “community” has rather clear spatial boundaries. Also in the two above mentioned enterprises the majority of the volunteers come from the surrounding region: In Alentejo the parents read to the children and assist teachers in the daycare center. In Brandenburg, in turn, the villagers maintain an old park and a village shop integrated into the education center. Both associations organise yearly parties with the residents, “herbstfest” in Schloss Trebnitz and mothers- and farthers´ day in CINSC, among others, where the villagers bring program, food and sell local products.

Autumn party at Trebnitz with local products and program by the residents

However, with the second look in the local engagement is actually intertwined in multi-scalar relations. In Brandenburg the village shop has a café on weekends, which is run by polish and german youth as part of the castle´s integration activities. In addition Schloß Trebnitz has initiated a political education program for rural civil society, which attracts participants all over Brandenburg, and whose program is co-designed with the participants. According to a co-coordinator of the program, Berlin is a nice neighbour to have. What really matters for the participants, however, is the equal exchange with other villagers across Brandenburg and even internationally. In Alentejo, the daycare center actively searches for new, progressive education methods nationally and internationally to pass on to the local parents. It has been selected as one of the few model institutions for validating a new method to be used all over Portugal.

Such diverse ways of engagement in Schloß Trebnitz were not possible, if the education center didn´t manage different funds from European and national sources. A central part of the center´s activities are organising cross-border encounters with German and polish youth and adults. The approach brings the center a specialization and an important source of funding with which its buildings can be renovated, international encounters enhanced in the everyday life of the village and high-educated workers employed from Berlin to the countryside.

Volunteering benefits from professional support

Usually co-production studies discuss initiatives, which have been emerging from an existing, active community of service users. Professionalization of such citizen initiatives is often discussed critically, because the increasing legal and bureaucratic requirements are a challenge for volunteers and their participation. However, when such structures are created from the start, they may actually support local co-production greatly: International networks managed by project workers from urban areas open up the homogeneity of the producing local communities. Workers also take care of the legal responsibilities, so that the volunteers can focus on what they want to do most.

In CINSC in Alentejo this is more challenging for various reasons. The region has much less private and public funding available, it is too badly connected to commute to from the big cities, and the organisational form in Portugal has typically fully volunteer-based leadership. Therefore, the daycare workers focus on delivering the basic services and dealing with increasing costs, but do not have the capacities required to compete for the scarce additional funding schemes. After managing the current projects, previous leaders have resigned. Running and developing a demanding basic service on volunteer basis was not possible on long-term. The daycare center faces now a challenge of keeping committed board members to carry the legal responsibility of quality education in a periphery – in their freetime. Thanks to the enduring local connections, however, active engagement of parents in the education continues.

Celebration at the end of the pedagocical year at CINSC is a gathering for the whole town.

To summarize, there is a potential for progressive and sustainable solutions in rural areas, which do not depend on urban impulses alone. Multi-scalar connections and institutional funding are, of course, important. They provide the organisations with professional workers and meeting spaces, which support local volunteering as well. On such a foundation, local empowerment and learning may flourish from sharing experiences with other villagers as peers near and far, rather than from external visionary leadership. Social enterprises are key organisations in combining the stability with transformative potential.

Sunna Kovanen studied geography in Turku and Joensuu. Since 2017 she has been working as a researcher in the research area „Multiple Geographies of Regional and Local Development“ of the IfL.

This text has been written within a project funded from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement N° 721999.
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