Think about something that will make a person who is slightly addicted to organising events and working as the cultural assistant, fostering a greater connectivity between city and the college community desperate? The cancellation of a long-awaited workshop? Not the worst guess. The closing of a favourite theatre? That is painful, but survivable. There is one thing we have all had more than enough of in the past months, something that has become our new reality: lockdown. My relationship with lockdown is an ambivalent one. I appreciated the safety that it brought to our lives as well as the additional desk time that I gained by getting rid of the travelling prior to a class or event, which I could invest in reading the news or coming up with a new project or event idea (the two main hobbies I have since a while). But lockdown also brought a great amount of solitude, being distanced from my friends and also from the greater community; I lost a grasp on what the people I usually had daily contact with were doing, what their mood and motivations were. It felt strange, sometimes even wrong to attempt organising inclusive and inviting events while not really knowing what people were keen to take part in. First I thought that leaving room for creativity and flexible agendas will give back the sense of freedom we had been deprived of, so I tried to come up with some virtual events such as an online performance or a discussion circle. I was sending out e-mails and waiting in empty Zoom rooms, experiencing first excitement and second frustration, which melted into a powerfully growing Zoom-fatigue in me as well. I had to admit to myself that this is neither what the community nor what I really wanted.
It was a late November evening when the realisation first came to me, that I could and should not do it alone. I can not know what others want but my goal can be to bring these motivations to the surface. I can foster the building of our community through the empowerment of small ideas and initiatives, through assisting student’s inventiveness at the college, and by this opening up new opportunities for engagement to the whole community. This became the vision of Awareness Week, a sequence of programs organized by and for the student body, a festival that provides opportunities to become aware of the possibilities as well as the limitations of our community in the present, pandemic-burdened moment. On a more symbolic level I also had the intention of raising awareness of how important it is to actively contribute to the community, to show to the student leaders of our community as well as the whole student body how great ideas can have profound impacts.
A busy winter break followed with a lot of thinking and writing, applying for fundings, reaching out to the Civic Engagement Office and people who may be interested in getting involved with the project. Some days I was sitting by my desk late at night, but this time not because of the tantalising screen, but because new ideas, new potential opportunities kept coming to my mind. What if this would also be a mentoring program? How might I encourage more people to start their own initiatives or to join existing ones? How can I then provide assistance to all the initiatives on campus? Workshops, incubator programs, meetings formulated in my mind; the sketch of a dream project. And then, miraculously from late January on, the dream started to become reality. The Civic Engagement Office supported my idea, I got funding through the Open Society University Network (OSUN) and several student initiatives joined within the first few weeks. In mid-February I held the first, introductory meetings and many people came to all of them. I was above the clouds.
The euphoria of formulating the project convinced me that if I foster collaborations between what is already existing on campus, the rest will happen on its own and I’ll be able to focus on the other aspects of my plan. I only realized the huge gap between my idea and reality when— as a ‘side-effect’ of this enthusiasm of collaboration with others—I forgot to ask people to collaborate with me on my ideas. I offered all the help I could but had not asked for any in return while the workshops, team meetings, communication and advertisement were surely too much to handle on my own. The organisational complexity of Awareness Week sucked me in and took the power over me.
I switched to survival mode, investing most of my time outside of my studies to keep the project together, to coordinate, communicate and organise. These tasks confronted me with my shortcomings and limitations and forced me to drop many of my ideas. Yet, as more and more of my original ideas fell out of the picture, the collaboration with the other initiatives blossomed. With the slowly arriving spring, the Urban Garden club started to take its new shape while with BCBees club we were buzzing about fun remote language games, not to mention the poster campaign running during the whole semester in collaboration with the Multicultural Student Union—examples of some formulating projects I personally took part in. Assisting in these new initiatives and encouraging the development of ideas during these first months showed me that Awareness Week was evolving; the point was to push existing endeavors further. Nevertheless, many of the student leaders were lonely in their endeavours, a reassurance that great ideas themselves may not find their way to the greater community and receive the attention they deserve, but if I could bring them together in a frame where they could all expand and connect to each other while presenting themselves at the same time, at one place, that may bring the breakthrough. The small, individual achievements were there, they only had to be made visible and that was the goal of Awareness Week.
In April, as the date of Awareness Week approached, the tasks accelerated even further. Foremost, we had to finalise the lineup of events in order to start advertising them to the greater community. Collaborating with the student initiative leaders functioned as “checks and balances” in this brainstorming process: we critically reflected on each other’s huge plans, keeping one another with two feet on the ground and in the realm of possibilities. This is also how we came to the realization that a week-long event may be too scattered and difficult to coordinate and advertise. So, a few weeks before the Awareness Week, we made the decision alongside the Civic Engagement Office, that we would pack all the programs into one weekend, the Awareness Weekend, postponing the Awareness Week a semester, giving ourselves more time to figure out the best way to make it happen. Another challenge was the tightening COVID-19 regulations, as we hoped that the end of April would bring us some nice weather and more opportunities to gather in person. The nice weather did indeed come but the strict regulations remained in place. These all contributed to other struggles, long nights stretching into the mornings, thinking and re-thinking the programs, the descriptions, collecting materials from the initiatives about the finalized and re-finalized events and trying to keep up with the time and motivation. During these last weeks, came the most difficult aspect of the organisation as well, that I had not calculated properly, namely how much time the advertisement part requires. E-mails, Instagram campaigns, a newsletter, brochures and posters, the writing, editing, designing process of them and then the distribution… a lot of work. But at least it gets to the people, I thought when I closed my laptop around 3 in the mornings.
Weeks were passing quickly and the end of April arrived. Almost everything was ready. The weekend’s schedule with the 9 events, the links, the posters, the brochures, the results of the amazing hard work of 7 student initiatives, to whom I want to say thank you again. We only needed people to attend, to invite our community to tune in to the meetings, to learn more about the great work these initiatives had done while also telling us what else they would be interested in. We invited the community to make Awareness Weekend happen with us, together. I was very excited during the whole weekend, joyfully zooming in and out of the different programs to see them happening but also a bit disappointed because there were not many attendees, sometimes no one besides the organizers and me on the calls. By the end of the weekend, the spell broke and I had to realize that no matter how much effort I put into it, Awareness Weekend still vastly remained a great collection of online events whose format does not have much attractiveness on a beautiful, late spring weekend. When I ended the call for the closing ceremony instead of the joy of the accomplished work, I had one thing on my mind: I should not have forgotten about the challenges of our new reality.
I was disappointed but unable to name why in particular. Anything I recalled from the previous months seemed to not be good enough, not organised enough, not communicated enough, simply not enough. Days passed by, days when I did not want to look at my posters at the student center, my schedules on the cafeteria’s tables, my posts on Instagram. I wanted to forget this whole semester a little bit, this fiasco of mine. At the same time, the grateful and congratulatory feedback kept coming from everybody else saying that I should see this as a success. Of course there is always room for improvement, but as the first Awareness Weekend, those three days created a great foundation to build on. As I am writing this article today, getting to a reflective distance from the event, I can also see many elements that went well and also a lot to be improved.
This half a year taught me that an event or an initiative for the community does not necessarily mean that it is a community event. Coming up with great program ideas is a good start, but the real challenge is to think about how to make people personally interested in participating. Working with the student initiatives is definitely an important aspect, a first step but as Awareness Weekend proved, it may mean simply getting a small circle of already engaged students even more engaged. A great success of this semester’s Awareness Weekend is that this small group of engaged students grew, that more people feel that their ideas can emerge from the realm of dreams and become reality. Nonetheless, the quest remains: How to engage everybody else?
I do not have a ready answer for this question but during the past semester I gained some experiences which guided me and what may guide us, as a community closer towards an old-new dream of mine as well: the 2021 Fall Awareness Week, a week where my first dreamy plans and expectations can merge with the lessons of the previous semester. I would like to shape this coming week so it can provide forums for what you want to talk about and also a different kind of learning experience, one based on learning by doing. Awareness Week will be a celebration of our community with opportunities for in-person encounters, a reunion after long semesters of forced separation.
What do we need as a community to heal and to grow? I will try to keep this question up front during the whole semester, as addressing it may give us a chance to think together and to build our community further. Awareness Week in its current form is a sequence of empowering events for a limited group of people but it has the potential to become more: an attitude of self-aware engagement with our environment and each other which develops into a tradition that we are shaping and formulating from now on, together.