Promoting sustainable lifestyles from Suderbyn ecovillage

During my stay at Suderbyn I got to know the NGO called RELEARN which is run by some of the ecovillage inhabitants together with volunteers and aims to promote ecological lifestyles and social sustainability through education and research. The NGO is housed at the ecovillage, which creates the unique opportunity that many individuals can actually experience a holistic approach to sustainable life first-hand through projects offered by RELEARN. Over the last ten years they have run multiple European funded research projects on different aspects of a holistic, sustainable society. Every year they host countless youths through volunteer organizations like the European Voluntary Service (EVS). Participants of these programs become part of the ecovillage life and are engaged in a wide variety of tasks that increase their competences, knowledge, autonomy and personal leadership of sustainability projects. Tasks range from hands-on work with sustainability projects like the wind turbine, permaculture garden and biogas digester, to the development of social competences, experience with project management and intercultural exchange. During my stay at Suderbyn it is a turbulent time for both RELEARN and Suderbyn ecovillage as the two year research projects on closed nutrients loops comes to an end, while at the same time a one-year EVS program is ended and a new program starts. This means that five youths that have lived as part of the Suderbyn community for the past year are leaving, while the remaining community members are expected to welcome three new ones. The fact that it is such a difficult goodbye for the volunteers shows to me that the programs offered by RELEARN in synergy with the ecovillage can make a life changing impact on the participants. RELEARN is an inspiring example of how ecovillages can be a fertile soil for initiatives that make a tangible and fundamental contribution to the global sustainability movement in terms of knowledge and experience with alternative technologies, as well as by fundamentally changing individuals consciousness to a holistic approach of sustainable life.

Why RELEARN?
RELEARN was founded on site in 2007 because the community members of Suderbyn saw the opportunity to contribute to local promotion of ecological lifestyles through research and education in their ecovillage. Over the years, the NGO has shifted its focus to regional and international work on many different topics around holistic models for social and environmental sustainability. The name RELEARN was chosen because their mission is to work for a society in which innovative solutions for sustainability are integrated with forgotten knowledge from past times when human life was organized locally in community style and harmony with the local ecosystems. The assumptions behind their work are that society, nature, economy, culture and individuals are all integrated parts of one complex system. Therefor they focus on experiential methods of holistic learning, through non-formal education of youths and adults, action research and outreach and cross-border cooperation across nations and sectors. Quite practically this means that RELEARN has established synergies of the ecovillage community, projects and gardens with educational and research projects. Allowing them to effectively inspire and empower individuals and groups for constructive change towards a sustainable society while they have opportunity for experiments with low-impact technologies and social sustainability and personal development through community life.

The garden at Suderbyn ecovillage where spring is just arriving now. In the back you can see an experimental greenhouse/showerhouse build with clay.

The NGO is (very non-formally) run by a board of several community members and some volunteers. And anyone staying in Suderbyn is always welcome to join meetings. The meetings and decisions are organized using sociocracy, meaning there is no hierarchy, full transparency, open communication and space for everyone to feel heard and contribute from their own qualities. Through funding from the research and volunteer projects they run, the non-profit NGO has several paid positions. This is a really nice advantage for inhabitants of Suderbyn ecovillage, since it can be difficult to make an income when living in any slightly remote community. The NGO collaborates with many different partners around the world, from other ecovillages and ecovillage networks, to research institutes and partners in the Baltic Sea region and Russia. When staying at Suderbyn one cannot but notice that RELEARN’s contributors are working around the clock to manage all the different research projects and volunteer programs, while also having to apply for future programs. Running RELEARN is a demanding job and the countless hours put in by Suderbyn community members deserves appreciation. It is by them not experienced as troublesome since the NGO’s aim is so close to their personal ideals and it allows them to live in the community and spread their values. They also tell me that noticing on a daily basis the tangible impact from their projects on individuals, on technological advancements, on intercultural relations and on the sustainability movement as a whole is very rewarding and encouraging.

Sign hanging on the wall in the dining room of Suderbyn community

The Green Skills volunteer program
For the past eight years RELEARN has hosted a one-year European Voluntary Service (EVS) program called ‘Green Skills’ in which four to six youths between 17-30 from European and non-European countries can participate. With the Green Skills program, RELEARN hopes to encourage youth from all different cultural backgrounds to get involved with sustainable development and grassroots initiatives, and to equip them with knowledge, practical skills and social competences to do so. At Suderbyn they recognized that the younger generation can be heavily frustrated with current sustainability issues and therefor aims to empower them to react constructively and turn awareness into action. The latest Green Skills program ended just during my stay in Suderbyn, having started last year in spring. For this program they received over 600 applications, showing the immense popularity and demand from youths for this type of experience! The participants of the Green Skills program live at Suderbyn ecovillage and contribute to all ongoing projects, while being endorsed in community life. Activities range between permaculture design and organic gardening, alternative renewable energy, natural and experimental construction, project management, administrative and organisational responsibilities, community- building, collective decision-making and group facilitation, intercultural exchange and supporting social competences and personal development (particularly critical thinking, system thinking, creativity and leadership). Through practical and theoretical learning about the alternative ways of life experimented with at Suderbyn and the deep connections growing between people, RELEARN strives to inspire and empower the participants to become more active agents of their own life and the wider society.

The celebratory closing ceremony of the Green Skills EVS program of this year, with participants from Spain, Russia, Hungary, France and the Netherlands, on a windy but sunny saturday morning. In the background you can see the pole of the windturbine!

During my stay I got to talk with the participants of the program and it is immediately apparent what a big impact the EVS program has had on participants. They all speak about how incredible the experience at Suderbyn has been for their personal development in all areas. This is not just through having gained invaluable knowledge and experience about different aspects to low-impact living through the hands-on work in the garden and building projects technologies. For example, one participant is very proud to be puting up the wind-turbine again in this week as during his stay he has contributed to the work on three different wind turbines, improving them each time and now he feels really confident about how to do it and is even teaching others. The participants of Green Skills also feel they have grown in confidence and autonomy in taking on tasks and projects and feel they have developed so many social skills from community life. Reflecting on this, it seems this is greatly supported by the fact that in Suderbyn ecovillage everyone in invited to join decision-making and project planning. This makes it easy for also volunteers to have a say in which projects or activities are being done and how, and to consequently to feel ownership over them. The deepest impact of the EVS program on the participants is perhaps hardest to convey, but on a profoundly personal level all of them feel they have grown and opened up as individuals. The community space of honesty and sharing allowing for them for perhaps the first time in their lives to feel accepted and appreciated just exactly for who they are and through that to love and trust themselves in all situations. All these attributes named by the participants can be added up to something called personal empowerment, something I see as a critical point for fundamental change towards a sustainable society. The fact that RELEARN so successfully manages to create settings in which processes of personal empowerment can take place is very exceptional and can in my opinion be exemplary for many NGO’s wishing to contribute to fundamental change towards a holistically sustainable society.

The presentation of the ecovillage project two long-term volunteers are planning to set-up after their stay at Suderbyn. Being a part of community life in Suderbyn and contributing in the many different projects has empowered them to now start their own project.

Past EVS programs have proven to make a big impact on the lives of the international youths participating. For example, two long-term volunteers who are leaving this week are planning to start a similar type of project in France. During their stay at Suderbyn they met each other, have gathered al lot of the practical skills and experience to now feel confident to take on such a project and they have also been helped in developing a good plan to start their project. Several of Suderbyns current community members have actually come to the ecovillage as volunteers originally and decided to stay. For almost all of them this has included a radical change in their lifestyle and values from the moment they arrived several years ago. One participant used to be into economics and financing and is now leading the permaculture garden projects. Making a full transformation from newbie of permaculture principles to planning and managing the multitude of garden projects in the permaculture garden. The same counts for other EVS’ers: they have found their spot here in Suderbyn where they are accepted for who they are and invited to learn, take on responsibilities and develop their practical skills and social capacities. The have therefor decided to stay and contribute to the ecovillage. Others have gone all over Europe to contribute to other sustainability community projects, building on the confidence and experience gained at Suderbyn and spreading the values of the ecovillage along the way. This is in line with a mission of RELEARN, to create a strong network in different countries of Europe and outside which helps them spread their ideas and collaborate towards a more sustainable society in environmental, social, economic and cultural aspects.

Former EVS participant and now Suderbyn inhabitant Antoine working in the permaculture garden last summer. Photo credit: current EVS participant Antonio.

The research projects
Next to the various volunteer programs, of which Green Skills is just one, RELEARN runs and contributes to several research projects. What I find inspiring is that the research projects range from experimentation with sustainable technologies and transport, to experimenting and working on social and inner sustainability in multicultural and oppressing situations. During my stay, the two-year research project called Closed Loop Baltic came to a close. This project was run in collaboration with a Finnish research institute and aimed to develop a prototype of Closed Loop energy and food production, using aeroponics and biogas production inside a dome greenhouse, for rural households in sensitive areas of the Baltic Sea. This in order to reduce toxic nutrients inflow from agriculture into the Baltic Sea while at the same time developing local resilience through food and biogas production in a cold climate. Check out their website for an explanation of the work done: http://www.suderbyn.se/closed-loop.html

A project meeting for the Closed Loop Baltic project last summer inside their pilot Dome. Photo credit also Antonio.

A very different research project they are currently still running is called We Are (creative force) and is aimed at experimenting with freedom of expression and non-discrimination in Russia through music, animation and game-design. In the first week of my stay three ecovillage members gave a presentation of their work so far with the project. Past December they had travelled to a far-off community in Siberia, where they gathered a selective group of Russian frontrunners of free expression, sustainability and non-discrimination. In the unique setting of caved in snow cabins they created a space for spontaneous growth of collaborations between the individual activists. RELEARN and Suderbyn is also heavily involved in ERO, the Scandinavian ecovillage network (http://ekobyar.se). This network is participating in the CLIPS project, an European-funded learning and incubator program for community development and revitalization run by the Global Ecovillage Network. Its aim is to develop a framework to guide community-led projects in their initial steps and existing initiatives that struggle or simply need revitalisation. The framework is developed using experience and insights from established ecovillage projects, of which Suderbyn is one, which are translated into concepts and methods applicable to any group that recognises the value of community. Read more about the project here: http://clips.gen-europe.org

Pictures taken during the We Are project, last december. Photo credit: Olya Loginova

RELEARN hosts many other very interesting and inspiring research projects which would be too long for me to list here so I invite you to check out their website to get an impression of the other work they are doing: http://www.suderbyn.se/relearns-projects.html

EVS participants practicing Acroyoga on top of the stage used during the No More War festival which was hosted at Suderbyn ecovillage in 2017 by RELEARN (http://www.suderbyn.se/no-more-war.html). The hill underneath the stage is actually the community’s waste water treatment system, a simple sand and gravel filter.

Opportunities from housing an educational and research NGO in an ecovillage
I personally find RELEARN a very inspiring example of how the setting created in an ecovillage can be utilised for research into alternative, sustainable life-technologies and for empowerment and education of individuals across the world in order to contribute in a constructive and holistic way to a sustainable future. Personally experiencing and hearing of the huge impacts the volunteer programs have had on individuals participating in them has really touched and inspired me. It gives me a lot of hope that ecovillages can be a place for empowering individuals and collectives to fundamentally change our systems in society towards holistic sustainability. Meaning that with all their projects combined RELEARN offers both potential to gain experience in practical, technologies needed in a sustainable society, and in interpersonal settings and organizational structures that are socially sustainable. They manage to experiment with social settings that empower individuals to explore their potential, build capacities and gain confidence to be positive forces of change themselves.

For Suderbyn ecovillage the NGO also seems to bring many advantages. Through the many research projects they receive funding to test their innovative solutions for living off-grid with a low-ecological impact. RELEARN also provides paid working opportunities for community members. On top of this the many volunteer programs constantly bring in a flow of enthusiastic and energetic individuals who are eager to contribute to the many projects going on in the ecovillage. This lowers the work pressure for the permanent community members and gives constantly fresh working energy and insights in the group. Just recently, during the visioning process that the community members are going through there has been some talk about the future focus of the NGO. Some community members feel that it would make more sense to focus on research and educational projects that really contribute to Suderbyn and are hosted on site, or with direct beneficial outcome for the ecovillage. Other community members feel inspired to use the experience of Suderbyn to assist communities, collectives and individuals across the globe and do international projects which might not have a direct pay-back to the practical aspects of life in Suderbyn ecovillage. The question of focus is ongoing but I more than confident that together this group of individuals will come up with a solution that suits everyone as each and everyone of them are bright, inspired and loving individuals skilled in honest, transparent communication and decision-making. I feel more then confident about the future of RELEARN and wish for it to serve as an inspiration to other ecovillages and NGO’s to utilise the potential synergies between research, education, empowerment and local community life!

Read more: http://www.suderbyn.se/ngo-relearn.html

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