Ulrike Reinhard: Skateboard Parks and the Power of Relationship
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Sep 23, 2017
Ulrike Reinhard Transcript
Guest: Ulrike Reinhard Host: Rahul Brown Moderator: Preeta Bansal
Welcome to Awakin calls! Every Saturday, we host conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, speakers whose personal journeys awaken and inspire our innate spirit of service. Thank you for coming together to plant seeds for a more compassionate society.
Rahul:...some agendas piled on top of each other, to the spaces connecting with a more agenda-less interaction. I'm curious to see how you view these two as distinct, and what your experiences have been, across both modes of connecting?
Preeta: Yeah, fascinating. Well, thank you Rahul. I'm really excited to be in conversation with Ulrike about these subjects. Yeah, as you said, I've been involved in the public policy and the political world for most of my career, and I think you know obviously networking and the value of relationships are very, very powerful in that world. But, you know, they often do come with at least a sense, if not agenda, kind of, of purpose or transaction. Like a sense of looking to people for the various assets they can offer, and interacting in that way for purposes of a common, you know, maybe a common agenda.
What I found so beautiful about my journey in ServiceSpace is really starting to embrace this notion of just holding space for people in a completely agenda-less way. I mean engaging in deep listening and engaging in just trying to connect to people at a deeper core level, that transcends maybe the small ‘I’ or the ego, and the sense of impact in the world. And just let the commonalities and even the connections emerge of something even potentially more beautiful than what our brain could drive as an agenda, let that actually emerge. So I'm very much in that transition from the traditional mainstream networking to agenda-less interactions, so I'm excited to hear about Ulrike, to hear about her story and she's been so much on the cusp of a lot of these kinds of issues all her life. So with that, it's my pleasure to welcome Ulrike Reinhard as our guest this week!
Ulrike: Yeah, thanks a lot and hello to everyone out there!
Preeta: Yeah, so just a brief summary. Ulrike is a German publisher, author, a Futurist and she's been involved in a lot of global development efforts throughout her lifetime. Currently, she lives mostly in India, in rural India, where she is the woman behind a skateboard park, that’s in a village; the park has been upending notions of caste and gender, and empowering a community economically. She's been also involved in development efforts in West Africa. And I think interestingly about Ulrike, beyond this, she has been so involved in kind of the whole advent of collective intelligence and networks and decentralized and distributed power, long before the internet arose. She herself is a connector, an enabler of people. She's traveled to, you know, hundreds of countries interviewing Nobel laureates, politicians, thinkers, entrepreneurs and has published a lot of these interviews on her YouTube channel and in various magazines. So she's someone who is very astutely aware of the power of connections and especially genuine connections. So with that, welcome Ulrike and we look forward to hearing more about you, and I’ll kick it off with that.
Ulrike: Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much for this introduction. I'm happy no one can see my red, flushed face now!
Preeta: Yeah, I thought maybe if we can start just a little bit -- you can tell us of your current efforts and we can work back from there. Right now, you live mostly in rural India working on this skateboard park. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about what you're doing now, how long you've been doing it and and why skateboards?
Ulrike: Yeah, so I arrived in India, more or less by coincidence, five and a half years ago. And somehow, I got stuck, and you know people say either you love India or you hate it. For me, it's truly turned out to be a love relationship, but once in awhile, yes, I do hate it.
I started out to work in Madhya Pradesh, which is the heart of India. It's a very laid back area. You know, a lot of unemployment -- most of the people living in these villages, they are holding below the poverty line cards, meaning they make, for a family, less than $1.30 a day. And the families are very often, you know, quite big -- they have 8-10 mouths to feed, so it's a very poor area. The village I'm in, Janwar, is 1300 people are living there, probably a hundred and fifty houses. There is no sanitation, there is no electricity, there is no shop in the village, there is no public transportation. So, they really have to walk like four kilometers to the main road to catch a bus, or get any kind of connectivity. And then just imagine in the middle of this village, where you have mud houses, not really paved roads, there we have built a skatepark three years ago, and it's the biggest skatepark in India. It's like close to 500 square metres, I don't know how many square feet this is.
And it's really, it's for many people who are coming there, it's surreal to see this. An open place, in the middle of this...the skatepark is around all these houses and the villages and it's a very, very open space. It's something which the people there have never, ever experienced before. Usually, when you build something, the first thing you build -- it's a huge fence and the gate, and you know, you set up like 5 signs, “This is private property. Please do not enter.” We have done the complete opposite -- we have built the skatepark with the help of skateboarders from all around the world. It was money that came from a crowd-funding action I did; I did an auction on eBay and we were auctioning skateboards which were transformed into art-boards by artists around the world. And with this money, I built the skate park. So again this was a community effort. Then the skateboarders came in and with the help of the local people, within three and a half months we set up the skate park. And then in April 2015, so to speak, was the grand opening, and the grand opening was only that I handed over fifteen skateboards and fifteen set of safety gears and helmets to the kids and I told them it's yours. Do with it whatever you do.
I'm not a skateboarder but I have seen that skateboarding has quite a transformative power. I've seen this in Afghanistan with the ‘Skateistan’ project, like ten or twelve years ago, an NGO was setting up a little bit outside of Kabul, a skate park very closely attached to a school. And I’ve been there couple of times and I saw what happened to the girls participating in skateboarding there. I mean, you see girls completely veiled but they are pretty safe and sound on these skateboards. It really gave them a lot of self-confidence and it made them aware that they are capable of doing something. So this was actually my inspiration to, you know, set up this surreal place in Janwar and use skateboarding which is quite, I would say, it's quite sexy to look at, you know -- it's a very, very attractive sport. You need mental but also physical balance. It's, you know, it's a sport for an individual but you need certain social skills as well to behave in this given set of cement, where they skate board so...Yeah, there are many reasons why, why it is skateboarding and not cricket or soccer or basketball, what I used to play when I was young...
Preeta: Yeah, that's fascinating. You mentioned that you came to India about five and a half years ago. Did you come with an intention of setting up a skateboard park or trying to engage in developmental efforts, and I guess the question is why India and why Madhya Pradesh (M.P)?
Ulrike: No, there was no plan. There was seriously no plan. I came to India and this was really for the very first time, this five and a half years ago because I was invited to a conference. So I booked my tickets and flew into Delhi where the conference took place, and I thought I would fly out of Bombay, because I have never been to India and I somehow wanted to go from Delhi to Bombay. So, when the conference was over, I started to look at the map and find my way to Bombay. So, the first thing that I did was to see Taj-Mahal. I always wanted to see this since I was a teenage girl and then the next stop was actually Khajuraho, these world famous temples, it’s actually I think a world heritage site there. So I went to see these temples, and this is M.P and I stayed there at a private hotel and somehow I got into a conversation with the owners and they said, you know, we were always planning to build a school somewhere, and maybe you can do this with us. I said that why me and why are you offering me this within just two days of staying there. I stayed a couple of days longer, we talked and somehow this idea of doing something in India in this area was somehow, I saved it on my hard drive up there in my head, and then I went out from Bombay and at Bombay airport, I received an email from a friend. And he was writing, you know, whenever on your travels when you have work for me to do, I would like to join you. So I simply answered why don't you come to India and build this school. It was more or less a joke and he answered, “Yes.” So, four weeks later both of us went back to M.P to explore with this family what we can do and how we could do it. So we stayed another four to five weeks finding out what is going on there, trying to get a better understanding of this family and then we decided yes, we are trying to build the school.
Another four weeks later, we finished all our work off back home. I cancelled a couple of contracts I was on and I went back to India and we started to work with this family in Khajuraho to set up this school. Unfortunately, this collaboration didn't work out after a couple of months. We quit but we stayed because we liked this area. It's really, it's a beautiful state, it's, you know, you have this wilderness, it's rough, it is really very, very beautiful and it brings you back to basics in life, which I believe many of us in the West or many of us living in the cities have lost. So somehow we decided to stay. I got a motorbike. I was travelling around in India, when I think, I've been to every state, all the way down to the south, I have been up in the mountains but I always came back to M.P and then one day someone else was asking me, “Why don't you want to work in our area?” and I said, “Yeah.” And then we were thinking what to do and then I said let's build a skate park, and the person I was talking to, he said, “A skate park, what is this?” So I showed him a video and he liked it and he said yes. So the decision was basically made within five minutes. And then I said, “Oh, all you have to do is really secure the land where we are building the skate park on” and then he said, “Yes, I will do.” Because the land issue was the case which didn't work out with the first family, so he said he would secure the land. A guy showed up, he had three properties and one of the properties he owned was in this village so this is how I came to Janwar. I saw this village and I really somehow fell in love with this spot and I decided yeah let it be in this village and as I said earlier, I was inspired by this ‘Skateistan’, but this is where my, how shall I say, my working life comes in. I'm a network person, even though I'm not a digital native, but I really do believe in this new, digital infrastructure for the better. So the concept, the skate park we have set up, this is why the skate park doesn't have any fences. This is why the kids self-organized this space. It's really because it's built on the principle of networks theory, that it is an open space that like-minded people can simply come plug-in and play with us, and try with us, this development or progress of the kids, of the villagers who are involved, that we contrive this together, forward in a way, which is not defined by us. I'm not the one telling the kids what to do, or the villagers how to solve any kind of problem. I simply keep, you know, somehow disrupting them with the skate park or other kinds of things and then we look what they do with it. It's literally a change process -- so how do you create change? You do create change if you just disrupt an existing system. If everything is in balance, nothing will move. If you want to create change, things have to move. So you need a disruptor and from there you're only, you know, you can pretty much sit back, relax and observe what is going on and this is what I did in this village.
Preeta: Great. Let me just pick up a few things you said there and I will throw a few thoughts out and you can choose to answer them as you wish. You mentioned way back when you first went to M.P and stayed in this hotel and you worked with originally the family that was behind that hotel and you said you had a thought when they asked you to start the school, why me? And then you cancelled your contract, you went back and then decided to go back to India and work to start the school and I guess a couple of questions that come up there, what was your answer to that question, why me and why did you feel so compelled to change your life so dramatically to do this, that is one question and then another question that I'd love to follow up on is this notion that you just ended on just disrupting an existing system. What motivated you to do that, that someone from the outside?
Ulrike: I think there is no precise answer and so to your first question why me, you know the moment and this is basically my entire life story, the moment I get interested in something, I think for myself and my willingness to do this, to take this chance or this opportunity or am I not and this idea or the first idea of setting up a school in India. it simply caught my attention and this was enough for me to follow up and then as I was saying I sent this e-mail to a friend of mine and he's really a close friend. I've known him for many years -- I think thirty years or so and it also caught his attention so this was enough for me to say ya let's fight. And it turned out to be a very very nice experience and I wouldn't say that it has changed my life dramatically. There is a change in the living conditions, yes. India is not as easy going as a place where I am born and where I come from. So India is much more often hassle in many ways but it also has to offer many things which I don’t have at home, so it's actually a nice balance and me I've travelled you know most parts of my life so I'm used to staying wherever I'm comfortable so this is not that much of a change. Your second question, sorry, I forgot.
Preeta: No that's great, you were talking about the change process and how to create change. And you talked about systems that you created. And I'm just curious, maybe focusing in on your journey how important has outsiders coming in and disrupting, when I say outsiders, meaning people from outside of the community coming in and disrupting an existing system. How has that manifested in your life and more specifically what led you to be motivated by this notion of disrupting a system in Madhya Pradesh, a village in India?
Ulrike: I was always interested in, you know, to drive change for the better. And I was living in the mid-80's in the northern Bay Area when we just got the first glimpses of the internet. The internet didn't have any pictures then. I got my first my first email account in 1987 and it was with The Well, which was really and still is the cult community on the web. And everyone there, there was probably a group of a 100-150 people in the early days. We knew that this new infrastructure somehow has the power to democratize and give people more voice who don't usually have a voice. This is important if you want to change things. I would say without the internet, the entire Arab Spring wouldn't have happened. Now, you could say this is a good or bad thing, but this is another discussion where a lot of politics comes in. Basically, I would say the internet played a major role in connecting the people and to drive this change in the Arab world. Internet, if you look at certain industries, let it be mobile communication or Apple, at the big company, they were able to disrupt two industries, mobile and the music industry because of understanding how digital is working and they were using these infrastructures in a very smart way and they became leaders in markets they've never been active in before. So the internet and its infrastructure is a very, very good enabler to connect and with ease, connections, finding out what the communities is all about and from there you can easily learn, how to improve, how to disrupt, and how to track change. So this has been part of my work since 40 years now, almost, 35 years. For me it's not a big difference if I go into a big corporate, lets say a bank or whatever, or into NATO, in Brussels, close to where I sit now. If you want to attract corporate now, you need to disrupt, you need to shake the system, a couple of people in there to make the move. The same is in the village. The work itself hasn't changed much -- it's just a different environment. Once you understand, if you ask yourself, if you're on the internet, why do certain Youtube videos or whatever pop out to millions and millions of people. It's because they find resonance and they find resonance in their communities and this is something which, you know, cannot be bought. It cannot be bought with advertising dollars or advertising euro's -- it's just what the community out there decides. And this has basically changed the rules of how systems are working. Earlier, an advertising dollar was much, much, more worth in the age before the internet than it is today. You can't push in the internet -- all you can do is pull. The advertising industry, huge companies and huge companies or even countries were pushing with their financial power into markets to make people believe things. And this has completely changed with the internet.
Preeta: There's a lot we can talk about there, if we have some time. I would love and maybe our listeners...to talk about in terms of the internet and how, especially in light of recent changes or recent developments in advertising, Russia and hacking, and there are a lot of things we can talk about how the internet and technology industry is evolving. I want to go back to your story because I find it fascinating. What I find particularly interesting is that, in addition to wanting to bring change to this village and disrupting, you were willing to disrupt your whole life. As you said, cancel contracts and go live in India which is obviously a big change. Can you tell us a little about what you see in terms of the role of disrupting yourself and changing yourself internally and your situation with the external change that you're disrupting, and being a part of the shift?
Ulrike: I don't think that I've disrupted my own life. I was trying to say that, you know, that this has been my way -- to live under various circumstances, to change from one situation to another, I've been doing this all my life. I think it's, how shall I say, I'm a curious person. I want to understand things and I think the best way to understand, a situation, issues is to go there and find out and you really experience your own, if you go to a country and you experience it your own way and you can make your own opinion out of what you see. This has become very important to me, many years, I don't believe the media anymore and I have a lot of questions and this is why I started to travel and find out, you know, more about what is going on in this world. The only way to do so, I believe, go out to see, to live with people, to interact with them, to work with them on projects, it is and then you know, I feel a pretty good perspective and you become capable of evaluating what's really going on there. Maybe there was some type of dissatisfaction in the western world. There were so many...certain questions that I had, I didn't get answers which were satisfying. And then I went out and I started to travel and I started to interact, the internet helped me a lot, and so it wasn't such a traumatic change now being in India, it was just another form for searching in my life. I'm sure I'm not going to die in India and if you ask me where I will go next, it will simply evolve out of what I've been doing my entire life.
Preeta: So let me ask you about what your view is about the intersection between change, disruption and change, and then continuity on the other hand. I know you've worked in the past in West Africa, working to empower rural communities to avoid a paradigm of rich NGO's providing to them but trying to empower themselves. Given that, as you say that, you're unlikely to die in India, what do you see as the role of bringing about the external disruption and transformation with the kind of ongoing process of what the villagers have to do, going forward on their own?
Ulrike: So, basically the organization, if you want to call it like this, I am working with the people, for whom it will become very, very clear that we are there in this village to become obsolete. We have reached our goal, if we are no longer needed. And this is literally what I mean. You know I've been working with these kids and through the kids with the villagers, over the last two and a half years. What we have achieved through this skatepark is that the discussion of caste -- it’s still there, but it has basically vanished. You see, ‘Adivasi’ -- meaning ‘tribal’ kids are sleeping, eating, playing with kids from various castes. This was unheard of, unimagined of before. Now, it's simply happening. The people who see it are actually happy. Because the kids are happy.
All of a sudden, through the skate park, we have the simple rule -- no school, no skate boarding. And parents had to send kids to school. They had to get a new teacher, after the five months that we were there. So it helped in this way.
Since we got some nice media awareness, lots of people are traveling to this village. We have established homestays. It's actually very cheap to stay there. It's like three dollars a night. But this is a lot of money for the people. So, we have five or six home stays and this drives a little bit of economic change in the village. Now a couple of parents can pay for their school. And they do this mainly for girls so that they can go to a school, because the school in our village ends at grade eight. So, this is all. It's all the things that are happening. And our goal is that we need these kids, and this is where self-organization plays a very crucial part to take responsibility, ownership of what we are doing. And the more they understand these principles, the more they will be capable of doing it in their own way. And I'm very happy to leave this village in a couple of years and then the kids or maybe then the young women and men will go on, on their own and keep this village going. So we are really there to become obsolete. And that is why I am very much relaxed. Then I do not have to die there.
Preeta: That's great. So just a, just a very quick question. How much time do you spend in Madhya Pradesh now, over the course of a given year and how do you communicate with the local population?
Ulrike: I mean, I live there. So this year I wasn't because I was, in between, very sick. But usually, I am there the entire year. I probably leave for a couple of weeks. I go back home three or four weeks, I travel a bit in India, but most of the time, I'm there. The communication is actually a very funny thing. They do not speak Hindi. I also don't want to really learn it. Because it's a natural barrier between me and especially the elder ones in the village. This way I really avoid to get involved in every tiny little kind of thing they would come up with. For example, that they ask me to take one of their kids to hospital because they are sick. Since I cannot provide help only to one family, if I would do such a thing, I would have to do it for the entire village. This is impossible because, I don't have the financial power to do so.
So, not speaking the language helps that people don't come with these things. The kids slowly learned English. We are capable of getting things done -- they understand when I talk to them, not very complicated things, but they do understand. I also get a little Hindi. So, it's a mix between English and Hindi. And of course, I do have a colleague. He is from Delhi. He's with me since over a year now. And on more complicated issues, he will simply translate.
Preeta: I know you previously worked in West Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about how long you worked there and what kind of relationships are there in the communities that you worked in and whether they are on-going?
Ulrike: Actually the relationship to West Africa and its mainly Benin -- it is a very, very small country bordering Nigeria to Ghana. And this was more of a family related thing - since the father of my son - he came from Benin. So we went there when my son was like 8-9 years old. This is now almost 20 years back. We went to visit the family and we drove around in Benin and we ended up in the northern part of the country, in a small village which was actually run by women. And it was an African NGO, run by 5 of these local women in Alego. And they really impressed me - these ladies. I mean they were real African mamas and they were really, really very strong. And the way they were handling these efforts in the village was really amazing. So I kept coming back there and trying to support them with computers and internet infrastructure. And mental support and also support in a way that - i would stay for small projects for at least 3 years. And then I was not capable of following up for 5 or 6 years. And now it is basically a family relationship thing. But no longer I am actually involved in work there. But the problems you see in these African villages are basically the same that you will see in India or China, in the villages.
Preeta: And based on your experiences in Africa, did you find that when you had to step away inevitably that those who were there were able to carry on some of the projects on their own? In a sustained way?
Ulrike: They do. I mean the computer centre we have established is still up and running. It has become bigger. Yes - these things are going. But you always do need - this is what I have learned over the years - if you come in, especially as a foreigner -- if you don't have the acceptance within the community; everything you do, will sooner or later fail. So, it is not so much the question of having money and getting things done. It is much, much more the question of how you convince or how you interact with these people that they do take responsibility and ownership of whatever they want to happen. And these things will last. And this is what -- I meanwhile, believe what is completely wrong with all our developmental aid models that we are working on. We always think we have to go somewhere and implement solutions which most of the time are designed on some desk in some big town. Maybe in Delhi or even in the West. And then you come and you go into these villages and you try to implement what you think is of great help for these people.
This is not working like this. And this is why so many programs especially these pre-definedprograms that have pre-defined outcomes are not working and when the people are leaving then, 2 or 3 years later, everything is rotten. In India, I see so, so many projects which are heavily funded by our German government or British council or whatever. I mean, billions and billions of dollars are spent every year and this we've been doing since decades, right? And still, two thirds of the population in India are living below the poverty line. So it's a legitimate question to ask -- why is this though? And I think one of, or the most important answer to this is, it's because the system is wrong, the system -- most of these development agencies will go, “This system is rotten, this needs to be renewed.” Yeah, it needs to be renewed in a way; as I was trying to say earlier -- we are built to become obsolete. But which NGO wants to become obsolete?! They all are there because they have a pretty comfortable life, you know. They earn double the money they usually get because they are stationed out of the country, and they're...it’s a pretty comfortable life. Most of them do not really understand what it means to live in a village like Janwar. I'm not saying these are bad people. But what I'm saying is, there is a huge lack of (understanding) of the problems of these people, in these villages, for whom they design solutions for. So if you don't integrate them in the creation of the solution, you will never ever have acceptance.
Preeta: Yeah, I'm thinking of your project, and maybe we could just think about -- what would be failure? Let's say you leave in a few years. The skatepark continues for a couple years; people maintain it; some of the rules stay the same. Over time, some of those rules start slipping away -- maybe certain local people, men start controlling it -- what would be failure in your mind, from your perspective, of your legacy of the skatepark?
Ulrike: You see -- the skatepark is not the most important thing. The skatepark is the trigger for change. So it's what we've been achieving over the last two and a half years, and this is the most astonishing thing is that there is a change in the mindset of the people. And this is what you need. You know, you can do many, many things. But if people don't change in their mindset, don't understand why learning can be good or why, you know, being clean is better than, you know, remaining dirty. If they don't really feel this with their own hands in their own environment, they will never ever understand. So, failure for us would be that we are still necessary, let's say, in ten years -- then we have failed.
Preeta: Yeah, so just to take your example...And I love your rule that you can’t go to the Earth. You get more opportunities to go to the skate park, if you’ve gone to school. And you said you know…
Ulrike: Not the other way round. Excuse me, it's the other way around.
Preeta: Sorry. They go to school and they're allowed more access to the skatepark. And you said there's a change in the mindset of the people that school is good, and things like that. I guess, I say this because I’ve been involved in some development efforts in India, and the question is just -- you know, after a time, let’s say the skatepark shifts after you leave and they no longer have that rule. And then people suddenly going to school...I guess I’m thinking you can have a transactional view that if I go to school longer, I will get this reward. And if the reward is no longer there, have you really shifted the consciousness? Or, you know, it's just...I guess I'm wondering is it an intrinsic change?
Ulrike: No, no, no. It's much, much more than the skatepark. So what happened since this skatepark is there -- as I said, please only understand it as a trigger for change. It's nothing more, nothing less.
It has disrupted the village. And this is why certain kids and their families have started to move. All of a sudden, we find out that some of the kids are interested in the arts, some of the kids really love sports, other kids love to build stuff. All of them are somehow interested in farming because they all are working the fields. None of these things are happening at just school. So what happened already after two and a half years is that, all of us, and this is why I'm talking about co-creation and collaboration -- because the kids were interested in the arts, because the kids were interested in doing better farming, or in making sports, or in buildings things, we have designed, with the kids together, what we call ‘Learning Labs’. These ‘Learning Labs’ -- they can last for two hours, they can last for two weeks, depending on what it is -- whether the kids can work and only those kids who are interested. If it's only one, fine; We’ll do it for one. They can work on a specific topic they are interested in, in addition to school. So what we basically do -- we have defined 4 areas so far -- this is sports, this is the arts, arts including everything. I mean, music, dance, sculpture, everything. Then we have a maker lab, and we have farming. These are the four additional fields, in addition to the schools, where kids are interested in, where we are doing learning camps where they become better and we don't have to, you know, to define a new curriculum or so on. (sneezes) Excuse me!
Because we stay with the government school, but we add on these learning labs. At the same time, we work together with these government schools and we do teacher training programs -- other people are coming in, who are...and they are not paid by us -- they come because they love the project, and they have these teachers, to become aware of better ways of teaching. And we have volunteers coming in who are running theater workshops, you know, who are interacting with the teachers and the children on you know, maybe doing maths for two weeks, and English.
All these kind of things are happening. And they are happening because we have set up this concept as open. As I said, everyone who wants can simply plug in, and plugging in doesn't mean that we pay them -- it does mean that we share common values to drive somehow this change onwards. And this will continue. And I mean, it's already happening, without me or us being there. And therefore I'm quite positive that it will stay, because somehow the people, you know, they see and they have learnt that if they do something, then other things will happen. And this is for villagers, in such a remote area in India, it's for the very first time that they experience that someone is coming and staying with them, coming back without asking for anything back, we're just there and drive things forward. And, these people, they do understand this and they are very, very much engaged.
Preeta: That's remarkable! It’s beautiful!
Ulrike: And, I think development, aid -- those people who are responsible for this, if they would take the people they work for much, much more serious and if they would look at them as equal partners in this process, I'm very sure we can achieve much, more than we ever have.
Preeta: I want to ask a bunch of questions about what takes a girl from Germany, like you, to the Bay area to participate in this online community -- the ‘Well’, which was kind of a spiritual community -- what was that initial journey like, and how did you get involved later in the development field, but Rahul, I don’t know if you want to jump in at this point?
Rahul: I just wanted to remind folks that they can also ask a question for Ulrike if they’re interested. So if you have a question, and you are dialed into the call, you can press *6 to get in the queue, or if you're listening remotely through the webcast, you can also e-mail us at email@example.com. And I know Preeta has a bunch of questions, I do too, and so we're delighted to continue along those paths, but just wanted to remind folks that they do have an opportunity to share their own questions. Go ahead, Preeta.
Preeta: Yeah, I was just asking Ulrike about your personal journey.
Ulrike: I was studying economics but when I finished my studies, I just felt like taking a year off and I went to America. My dad's sister was living in New York. She is still living in New York. So, I went to see her and from there I started traveling, and I ended up somehow in San Francisco. I got married there, so I stayed a couple of years longer .Unfortunately, my husband died kind of early, but this was in the mid eighty's when this entire internet community was starting to evolve and I was simply -- for my life, now looking back -- I was at the right time, at the right place. Having met all these people in the mid-eighties like Howard Rheingold, Stewart Brand, they all were around. I'm still in contact with them, so it was simply...again, it was a coincidence and it was luck that I was there and got the opportunity and simply took the chance.
Preeta: You also talked about the internet and there's so much that we can go into, which I will refrain from at the moment, but the one question I did have for you is in your time when you were in India, with such a proliferation of Facebook and Whatsapp in India generally, but even starting to reach rural India, I am wondering what you're seeing there in terms of both reach and potential impact.
Ulrike: Yeah, so in the village we are working, we do not even have network coverage. We have to drive five kilometers to make a phone call. So leave alone having internet connectivity. Also, you have to understand that these people as I was saying earlier, they live below the poverty line. Whenever they get a few Indian rupees their highest priority will not be to buy airtime or data time. So even the most ambitious program Modi is setting up called "Digital India" which is more or less a joke. It's like I can speak for our area and I know it for many others. The main broadband line is like four to five kilometers away from the village. They do not hold the last mile down. We are just trying to get internet into our village, but it's an investment of at least twelve to fifteen thousand U.S. dollars to get the signal into the village and the government does expect that if we want internet, we pay for this. In the rural areas when we talk about Facebook, Google all these kind of things they are simply unknown. When you go away in the next bigger city for example in our case, Panna, it's like seven to eight kilometers away, usually, the villagers don't go that far. So yes, Facebook is a huge topic but it's very superficial. When I talk about the internet, I rarely talk about these applications. For me, the internet is this underlying infrastructure. It's really the tool to connect, to collaborate, and save our cost and simply to reach out to people whom earlier we weren't capable of doing so. So for me, the internet is the infrastructure we now have to really do democracy.
This is where we all started out in the eighty's. This was a big dream. Many things since then happened. There is a huge movement from the government, from big companies to commercialize this internet and again take it away from the people on the ground. But the model itself, this is what I always say, Janwar Castle this is the name of our skate park is actually all about -- it’s built on a network structure and this is what I mean when I say internet. This is what I hope to see -- like I'm currently travelling with three of these kids through Europe, I think even without discussing all these things, they do understand a lot and the way they act here and the way they behave it's very, very open and it's really a thing built on trust. And this is what we need I believe in this world.
Rahul: I couldn't agree more, Ulrike! I really have a few questions for you as well. This model for social change that you are espousing -- to me is, it sounds a little bit like using disruption almost as a Trojan horse and then using that Trojan horse to kind of get into people's hearts and plant seeds for a different possibility and nurture those seeds just long enough to know that there might be a fruit tree on the other end, but then to really kind of step away, before there ever is a real tree. You know once someone else has decided to continue to nurture that tree. And I just think that -- that model that you're talking about is so revolutionary, as you point out, with regard to the way that other traditional organizations and N.G.O.s have looked at social change, you know. I know that you are early in your experiment, but I am curious about whether you feel other more traditional N.G.O's or government agencies are sort of taking notice of this budding experiment that is going on in Janwar.
Ulrike: They do take notice. I can tell you this. Like, everyday, I at least get one e-mail or one message asking can we have a skate park in our village. Many of them are not really serious. We have, or I have spoken to at least ten different organizations or institutions in India, where they slowly have understood that it's not only about building a skatepark but that the underlying structure. This open sand-box is actually the most important thing to drive this change. They are very serious and I am very, very positive that within the next year we will see in the rural areas, two, three, four more skate parks and I am also very positive that if these people succeed in understanding the concept in a better way, then change will happen there as well.
Yes, you are right -- we are not that far down the road. It is still or it was an experiment, but what we see is that it's working out really well. And, you know, I've been also working with companies over the time of ten years or so and when you keep disrupting and when more and more people adapt to this then the company's, let it be employees, then the process continues without yourself having to disrupt constantly.Then you have like ten others in a company or in another case, in a village, who will play this role as disrupter. It is actually simple, but it has a lot to do with giving up power and letting things go. This system is not built on hierarchy; it's not built on control. When we disrupt, we never define an outcome -- meaning we don't have a very, very specific goal in things we do, but we do have a very, very clear vision.
We want to make this life more comfortable for these people there. We want them to become more self-confident. All these things we have. But for a very specific issue, let's take this trip to Europe now, we don't have a defined outcome. We don't have a defined goal, because each of these three kids will experience and do it in it's very own way. So there is nothing for us to predefine, because whatever they will do with it, will be the right thing for them. And this is, when I look at the conversations we having with other places who want to set up these skateparks, the most challenging thing for an organization who wants to run such a project -- they usually want to control. They usually want defined outcomes. You know, 5% economic growth or 20 people or more at school, something like this. We don't have all this. We look at what the kids and the villages do with it and then we help them to achieve their own individual learning paths. And that is completely different, of course.
Rahul: I notice that Preeta has another question, and I also want to allow space for her to ask that.
Preeta: I love the vision of social change that you have outlined and you also talked about the Arab Spring and disruption and the role of the internet. There is one thing about disruption, like in the Arab Spring we saw that, you see disruption, then you see how the rebuilding happens after the disruption. In that case, you know, that was the Muslim Brotherhood. The tools that disrupt are often not the tools that can allow...
Ulrike: Please, please, please. I'm very sorry, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood. I think what happened in the Arab Spring is that, it is a highly political issue. There are many interests involved. And when you specifically point out about the Muslim Brotherhood, I think you also need to say, the same thing holds true not just for Egypt, but for Tunisia as well, they had a similar organization that is called Ennahda, which was called Ennahda. I think it is still there, still part of the government in Tunisia. So Ennahda as well as the Muslim Brotherhood were the only organizations during the dictatorships which really went into the the last parts of the countries, in the tiny little villages.
They have been the organizations which provided food, education, medical services, in the remote areas of these countries. I'm not saying they did a good job. I'm not saying they did a bad job. But Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they did exactly this.
So what happened when the National Council was founded, which was actually there to write a new constitution. What happened, through especially the engagement of the United States and the Western World, that these National Councils almost became new governments. They were never meant to be. But when they got formed, of course, these two organizations won the majority of the seats, because those were the only ones who had coverage all over the country.
Preeta: Yes, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get into a political discussion about the Arab Spring.
Ulrike: Yes, but if you only pull it out like this, I'm sorry, you should see these things.
Preeta: The bigger question I was trying to ask you is as you are building this field, as you say, you want to make yourself obsolete. That is the idea of social change. And eventually, other people, global people will take over the change process in whatever form that is right for them with the skateboard park being the trigger.
The question I have for you is how will you know that there is sufficiency in the field you are cultivating, locally, that you will feel comfortable walking away? What will you be looking for in making that determination of when you can walk away?
Ulrike: If you ask me now, I cannot answer. I think this day will come when I feel that it is done. Then I will walk away. I'm sure this time will come. If you ask me when it is, I don't know. And I don't have a specific kind of criteria which I say, "This needs to be done to do so."
Usually, when you look at companies, you can say when five to ten percent of the employees have really started moving over a longer period of time, let's say two or three years, then the process within will continue. So I can't tell you, but as I said, I don't have these criteria met...I will walk away...I don't know yet.
Rahul: I have slightly different form of that question. There is an Old Testament story of the Jews casting off the life of bondage in Egypt and going into exile, and then sort of arriving at the promised land, but ultimately, re-creating a life under the Pharaoh, under the Promised Land, which didn't represent the spirit of exile and freedom in the first place. Just sort of taking the idea that Preeta expressed, further. Let's say the model of change that the villagers went through arrived them back at a new form of stratification and separation, after you had walked away. Would that form of their own self-governance still feel like a success for you, because it was driven by their own autonomy, or would it feel like a failure because it had replicated the conditions that they were in before, under a new name?
Ulrike: First of all, I would say that there is nothing as a "promised land," because we do not promise. There are no promises made. Everything we do is initiated by the villagers. So we don't define anything like a promised land or promised change. We simply don't do this.
If the village would fall back into separation or whatever, I would say...if I look at the process, it depends on the process, how this would happen. This would define, if I would call it a failure or not.
For example, if a country like Syria is disrupted by a war like this and the Syrian people now, even 5 or 6 years later say we're perfectly fine with Assad. I would say most of the West would call it a failure. If you ask the Syrian people, they would probably say it's fine. It really depends what the people want. If the process, let’s say in 10 years, caste would enter again into this village. If this is something the people really want to do, and they would come to this solution in a way of co-creation and collaboration, it's perfectly fine for me.
If it would be a driven force from outside who's trying to split the villagers because somehow they're more unified than they used to be before, then I would call it a failure. You understand what I mean?
Rahul: I think so. We have a question that came in online from Pavi from California. She says, "Thank you for your work in the world, Ulrike, I was curious to know where you draw inspiration from. Are there particular people, models or initiatives that encouraged you on your own path?"
Ulrike: Yeah, I certainly had during the last 40 years, I had couple of role models, people I worked with for a long period of time. They certainly inspired me, they helped me somehow to understand better what I'm doing. There are probably a handful of people, yeah, who played an important role in my life. Yeah, they were really important, without them I would've walked down a different path.
Rahul: Are there figures that are well-known or is there a common thread amongst them?
Ulrike: Yeah, I think the common thread is certainly that they all were involved with network theory, in Internet. Probably one of them you know is Joi Ito from the MIT Media Lab. We've been talking over a long period of time together. Spencer from MIT, in India as well. There's another guy, a professor in Germany, Peter Kruse for the last 10-12 years. He was certainly the one who understood network theory pretty well. It made a lot of sense to me what he was saying, so it really helped me to understand in a more theoretical way, what I'm actually doing, in reality, on the ground. So, yeah...
Rahul: That's fascinating. Given that all of you were early members of Well and perhaps had this visceral and very natural understanding of network theory and its possibility. I'm curious if that broader community from the mid 1980s days of The Well has stayed in contact with each other broadly and seeded different sorts of experiments of applying these concepts for social change in various ways, like you've done. Do you find that group continues to be in solidarity around the possibility of what this theory can do in the world?
Ulrike: Yes, I think so. Many of them have. If you take Howard Rheingold as an example, he's been working together with Stanford University, experimenting on new ways of learning. There is John Barlow, he was also a founding member of The Well and earlier, the Whole Earth Catalog. He's been the founding member of the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who's been really working hard to keep the Internet free and open. Stewart Brand, certainly with the Long Now Foundation, they do a lot of work, how to drive change, they connect people on a high level. I would say all these people who were originally involved and on fire with what the internet had to offer. They are all still working in these fields. They used this network structure, network intelligence in various ways. They work in various industries. And yeah! If I look back, I can't think of one that has somehow left the community.
Rahul: Interesting! How do you think about the contrast between loose ties and deep ties in network theory and that sort of capacity to create change across both of those types of ties?
Ulrike: Sorry, I didn't understand. Can you please repeat?
Rahul: I was asking how you think of loose ties versus deep ties in network theory? The idea of relationships that are superficial versus relationships that are deep, enduring and lasting, in the capacity to create social change.
Ulrike: I'm not sure if I would differentiate between those two. Usually the people I work with, we share common values. We share common principles. This you only can do if you have some deep kind of relationship. If there is some superficial stuff like putting out some nice photos in Facebook, or sending a like, this has nothing to do with social change or relationships. I think, at the end of the day, there are not too many where you really let it be, online or in real life, where you have deep relationship with, where you have these really strong ties. The internet, yes, makes it easier to have these strong ties all over the globe. I'm very happy to have a network, wherever I go, there are people whom I can 100% trust and rely on. In this way, the internet does help. With superficial or loose ties, I do not deal -- I simply do not deal with.
Rahul: That makes sense! Ulrike, it is my privilege as the host of this call to ask you our final question of our discussion. How can we as the broader Servicespace community support the work that you are doing in the world?
Ulrike: I think, and this is something I realized over the last 2.5 years. It's a very easy thing but sometimes very hard to do. Simply, walk your talk. Whatever you say, you better should do. If you don't do, then things won't happen. If everyone would simply start walking their own talk. I think change will happen very quickly in many, many areas.
Rahul: Beautiful. Thank you so much Ulrike for joining us. We like to end our calls with a minute of silence in gratitude for the time you've taken to share with us. And for all the causes and conditions and volunteers behind the scene who are helping and have helped to make this space possible. And after the call, I will unmute folks to share their gratitude. Thank you, Ulrike!
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