by Renée Horster
From Saturday, the 7th October to Wednesday, the 11th October 2017 a group of around 60 participants from 25 nationalities got together in Kreuzlingen to kick-off this year’s LEAP program. Over these four days they talked about their values and the strategy of the oikos network, shared what they do in their local chapters, facilitated workshops in various topics from non-violent communication and environmental psychology to design thinking and climate simulations, as well as practiced their active listening skills and engaged in a panel discussion about the role of youth organisations in society. In all those different sessions, or somewhere in between, a few other things happened: the participants became friends, they questioned some of their beliefs and found confirmation for others, they tried new things and got out of their comfort zone and they inspired and encouraged each other to do nothing less but be part of changing the world. In short, it was a powerful experience – not only on an individual level for each participant, but also on a societal level. The work of organisations like oikos in meetings like the one in Kreuzlingen are key to drive positive change in the world. Without them, sustainability practices are in danger of remaining abstract, fixed concepts, rather than dynamic, ever-changing processes towards a better future. I was able to see how important this is, when I reconnected with oikos for this year’s LEAP Meeting, two years after being an active member. Having moved from student engagement to working in the social sector after graduating in 2015, I fell in love with the oikos spirit all over again and understood on a deeper level, why this organisation is so special for its members and so important for society.
When I joined oikos during my undergraduate and went to my first international meeting, it was game-changing. For the first time, I met people, who were just as confused about what we were being taught in management and just as concerned about climate change and who most importantly were just as excited about the many different ways we can help to change things. The oikos community was and is very inviting. In most local chapters, there are plenty of public events one can join and low barriers to becoming a member. Once part of it, it is easy to get more involved. There is a huge variety of projects on a local and international level, so that anyone’s personal take on sustainability will resonate somewhere. While the founder’s mission of brining more sustainability to management and economics education is still at the heart of the organisation, oikos has become the home of so much more. Local chapters invite students from all disciplines and the oikos culture emphasises doing. If you want to get a project started, it will most likely find encouragement and support in the oikos community. The openness and diversity of the oikees is empowering. Rather than imposing one specific sustainability agenda, oikos embraces lots of different approaches. This is reflected in the fact that oikos opened up the LEAP Meeting to other organisations, who follow a similar mission. At the meeting representatives from rootAbility, GRLI, NUS, and CSS (Chalmers Students for Sustainability) joined the conversations, ran workshops and used the occasion to strategize together about how to best support each other in their joined cause. To come closer to a more sustainable world, we need many different people, driving change in many different ways, to really tackle the equally diverse sustainability-related problems of our time. In the LEAP-program, oikos not only appreciates these various approaches, but actively supports members to find their own personal one. LEAP unlocks the potential and determination of its participants. And what could be more crucial in driving change, than committed individuals with an attainable vision for the future?
Of course, such different approaches may also lead to conflict. At every oikos meeting I have been to, including this year’s LEAP kick-off, someone points out things like that meat is being served, or that they feel it is strange that people take short-distance flights to get there. It is good that people notice these things, because it fosters critical thinking, it creates discussions and it encourages reflexivity. Noticing them in a context like the LEAP Meeting is even better, because there will be many people willing to join the discussion. It is in such conversations that oikees get to define and refine what sustainability means to them. Another point of criticism that sometimes comes up and which was also discussed in Kreuzlingen, is the idea of preaching to the choir. While many oikees explicitly enjoy being around like-minded people, they are also keenly aware that who they really should be talking to, are the people who are different-minded. While these discussions are equally important as the once just mentioned, this tension is also where the transformation of LEAP happens. Spending time with the choir is needed to be able to go out there and listen to and speak to the unconverted. This sometimes conflicting, sometimes empowering energy will give the LEAP participants strength, when they are talking to someone, who might not be as aware of or care about sustainability (yet).
Telling from the feedback forms, the LEAP participants had an immediate experience of this transformation. To a large extend, this may be because learning and acting are so close together – even merged – in the program. Designed as a participant-driven experience, the oikees were encouraged to try out new things and to push their comfort zone a little bit. And they really did. Many stepped up to facilitate parts of the agenda in the form of energizers or added to the program by organising running, meditation or jamming sessions in the evenings, mornings and lunch-breaks. Some facilitated whole workshops, sharing their interests and creating learning experiences for their fellow LEAPers, while others joined the final panel discussion, which was live-streamed over Facebook. Having had those experiences, participants left feeling more confident in their own abilities to make a difference. By offering these opportunities, LEAP provides a key element in driving change. It offers a save space to try out and practice new skills, that are widely recognized to be essential for a sustainable future. Such skills include active listening, facilitation of workshops, taking initiative, as well as being empathetic and open-minded. The academic literature continuously calls for such competencies (see for example Weick et al., 2011), yet many higher education institutions do not include them in their curricula. oikos has criticised this and works towards changing it. In the meantime, LEAP fills in the gap and adds a deeply experiential learning experience to the oikees’ education. Like this, oikos pilots a vision of an education system, in which learners are supported in their potential, rather than restricted by rigid hierarchical structures.
The LEAP Meeting shows us what education could be like. It provides opportunities to try out new things and encourages reflection. It creates a strong community of people, who are dedicated to driving sustainability. People, who after their time as oikees will go on to work as sustainability managers, policy-makers, social entrepreneurs or activists. They will be able to listen carefully and speak with intention. They will know themselves and that they do not have to change the world all by themselves. They will be able to handle uncertainty and overcome whatever holds them back. Most importantly, they will be comfortable to swim upstream against the currents that drive climate change, because they are prepared for it and because they are backed up by a network of like-minded people. For me, becoming an oikos member was the first step in what I hope to be a career dedicated towards sustainability. I believe the LEAP Meeting prepares oikees to become changemakers in their organisation, community or city and in their own individual way. What oikees learn during LEAP will help them to take action for sustainability, beyond and long after their time as active members. No wonder the importance of a strong alumni network came up more than once in Kreuzlingen…
Few impressions (Photos by Renée Horster):