Listen to active citizens!
Amalia Zepou, deputy mayor of civil society and innovation in Athens, demonstrates how a few private initiatives can be turned into a platform that has the potential to profoundly change how city governments interact with citizens!
In the beginning – about 10 years ago – there were only a few active Athenians, who took essential tasks in their own hands. They cleaned the streets of their neighborhood in Athens, helped minorities with their papers or gave recycling workshops for their community. Documentary filmmaker Amalia Zepou was one of them and recalls that “in the beginning we did small things individually or with friends and then more and more such initiatives were born.”
Little by little the protagonists of these activities got to know each other and realized that more people than they thought had become involved in similar hands-on initiatives to improve quality of life their city.
Since, for instance, collecting garbage or acting in public space needed the official permits and some cooperation with the city government, it was crucial to find a mechanism for systematic communication. Initially the cooperation only worked because of helpful and open-minded individuals within the municipality
“The more we did, the more I saw that there wasn´t a mechanism in the municipality in place to handle all those telephone calls of people who were supporting the city. So that was how it was born. It was a bottom-up idea”
With the help of mayor Yiorgos Kaminis, an independent elected official, who had the courage to support new ideas, synAthina was launched in July 2013. The online platform is a tool to connect active citizens and organizations throughout the city and provides them with important resources, help and information. About 2800 activitiesand more than 300 community groups are linked on the platform today! On synAthina the groups don´t only present their projects, but can also find new members and partners as well as supporters.
The activities on synAthina include a wide range of important social, environmental and humanitarian tasks in areas where active and engaged citizens feel a strong need for action and improvement. There are groups that cook with donated food for people in need or doctors who treat people without health insurance for free. There is also a mobile laundry service for those who live on the streets as well as intercultural sport events and cultural get-togethers. Especially since the financial crisis and the refugee crisis hit Greece very hard, a movement like this with all its beneficial activities was and still is an essential part of maintaining at least some kind of stability.
Because of its simple yet brilliant concept synAthina was one of the winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge in 2014. This award and its financial support was fundamental for synAthina to work the way it does today. In 2014 Amalia Zepou was also elected to the City Council where she became deputy mayor of civil society and innovation.
Despite many successes, like the reopening of the market of Kypseli that was achieved by a close collaboration between municipality and active citizens, Amalia Zepou always keeps the bigger picture in mind.
“The biggest challenge is to create a culture where the city opens its doors to the knowledge of citizens, to the activities of citizens, and includes them in its decisions, in its priorities.”
In her role as a bridge between both worlds, the municipality and the citizens, she is constantly working on building trust and ultimately changing the current culture of mistrust towards a culture of mutual listening.
“Changing the culture means forgetting about political parties and being open to all the people that are concerned with the public sphere, beyond party politics!” she summarizes her vision. Meanwhile, the strong interest in synAthina from other cities shows that the project definitely hits a nerve.
What has started with a few active citizens that cared for their neighborhoods and looked for practical solutions to actual problems, has turned into an inspiring and promising model of cultural change towards a new kind of democratic participation.
I like to think of myself as.. an optimist. But after all the obstacles we have experienced, “stubborn” would be more appropriate.
I love my city because.. I was not born here, and always wanted to catch up on the things I had missed from my origins.
The best work related decision I ever took was… There aren’t any worst or best work-related decisions, it is a path of innumerable failures primarily and small successes that one imagines to write in their personal memoirs in the end.
Everyone can live more sustainable, simply by… thinking of their children.
Every city should… attempt to be inclusive, of others, of unsuspected visitors, of difference.