The times, they are a-changinaa‚¬a„¢ aa‚¬a€œ social activism gains momentum

Newsroom 23/08/2010 | 12:48

Romanians often refer to themselves as a passive people, an attitude seen as a hangover from the communist years, when little could be done to protest against the government’s restrictive decisions. Twenty years have passed since the fall of communism, however, and a general hunger for doing, changing and contributing can be felt in the air. It might have taken a long time for people to start fighting for their rights, but given the rate with which social activism is developing, the tide has definitely turned.

Corina Dumitrescu

 

Civika is a social platform launched in 2009 to bring together community projects and activists. One of its best known projects is Lecturi Urbane (Urban Reading), which appeared in the spring of 2009 “over a beer,” according to Dan Dumitrescu, founder of Civika, the brainchild of him, Andrei Rosca, creator of Bookblog, and Adrian Ciubotaru, blogger, activist and writer. In the first stages of Lecturi Urbane, a small group of people went to the subway daily and read, so as to encourage other passengers to follow suit. When autumn came, Ciubotaru and Dumitrescu decided to take the project to a new level, turning it into a true community event. More focus was put on communication and the group decided to offer books to passers-by, who were encouraged to read them and pass them on to others. Over a hundred people came to the first edition of Lecturi Urbane and a national television channel joined in to film how volunteers had transformed subway trains in genuine libraries on wheels.

Now, Lecturi Urbane is a project of national proportions, taking place in over twenty locations across Romania, with local young people deciding to do something that counts for their communities. “In Tecuci, a 17-year-old girl organized Lecturi Urbane, and took care of absolutely everything, including approvals from the local town hall,” says Dumitrescu. Lecturi Urbane is no longer restricted to public transport, but is taking place on the streets and in parks as well, conquering more public spaces as it grows. Thousands of volunteers have contributed to the success of the project and thousands of books have been distributed so far.

Amusingly enough, Ciubotaru recalls, he has also received books with the Lecturi Urbane stamp on their back from strangers in the subway, unaware of his connection with the project. Both Ciubotaru and Dumitrescu have revealed that as autumn comes, Lecturi Urbane will develop even further, but for the moment they are being tightlipped about how. One aspect that will certainly be implemented in the future is the transformation of Lecturi Urbane into a NGO for whose further development more funds will be needed, Ciubotaru explains.

The man with the story behind the Lecturi Urbane project, as Dumitrescu, his partner, describes him, Ciubotaru says his enthusiasm for the project stems from the fact that while growing up, he did not have the opportunity to volunteer as young people in Bucharest and larger Romanian cities do now. Lecturi Urbane is a project to which anyone from anywhere across Romania can contribute and help make grow.

It is said that success does not come without criticism. Some have claimed that the popularization of reading might result in its trivialization. “And what is so wrong about that?” responds Ciubotaru. Reading is no longer an activity exclusive to elites, he explains, and by making it popular, one can only hope that it will help open the minds of the majority and also encourage more civilized behavior among people. Ciubotaru calls Lecturi Urbane “a franchise of common sense,” situated between an organized event and a flashmob, at the basis of which is the Broken Windows Theory, which posits that if a building has broken windows which are not fixed, it will encourage illegal behavior in the area.

More precisely, people respond to their environment: if people see others behaving in a civilized manner, they will do the same. So if a group of noisy people enter a quiet subway wagon in which people are reading, they will lower their voices, explains Ciubotaru. Lecturi Urbane is a growing success that might someday go beyond the borders of Romania and of whose success Ciubotaru hopes to talk about in international conferences in three years’ time. Considering the splash that the event is making, that day may come even sooner.

Another successful Civika project is Bikewalk. 19-year-old Ariel Constantinof, project manager for www.amdoar18ani.ro and www.motivonti.ro, initiated the movement (www.bikewalk.ro) in April. The concept is simple: cyclists gather in Tineretului Park (where they can borrow bikes if they don’t own them), usually on Saturdays at 18.00, and take a ride around downtown Bucharest, while traffic is stopped. So far, the movement has managed to gather hundreds of cyclists, and this is just the beginning.

Civika recently joined forces with Bikewalk, as it shares the same civic spirit, offering its full support to the project, helping with its communication, promotion and further development. Dumitrescu believes the event could become a regular thing. “The police would no longer be resistant because of our high numbers. The first lane of traffic could be dedicated to us on large boulevards. In the most recent edition, no car ever hooted its horn at us, even though we sometimes blocked intersections, and people were standing outside smiling at us, encouraging us.” The main aim is to normalize cycling and make it safer, as well as to demonstrate that if at least ten percent of drivers chose to ride a bicycle every now and then, traffic would be a lot more fluid and people would be healthier and even less stressed.

On the same energetic note, Via Sport is a project organized by Bucharest City Hall to which Dumitrescu has also contributed. “Stop traffic! Start playing!” is the project’s motto and it has succeeded in banning traffic on one of the busiest areas in Bucharest, Kiseleff Boulevard, and turning it into an oversized playground, for children and adults alike. Tennis, badminton and football areas and bicycle lanes were created for those spending their weekends in the city over four summer weekends, the last of which was the August 20-22 weekend.

Lecturi Urbane, Bikewalk and Via Sport, like other projects of their ilk, are shoestring affairs: most of the communication and promotional activities were done online, via blogs, Twitter and Facebook profiles. These projects share the audacity of the Pay It Forward concept. Offering books to strangers is an amazing feeling, agree Ciubotaru and Dumitrescu. Encouraging people to protect the environment and take exercise by joining the Bikewalk outings and returning to people the responsibility and joy of public spaces are probably common sense for Westerners, but for Romanians they are a rediscovered right.

All of these are altruistic gestures made by the people for the people, showing that it does not take a revolution to change mentalities. In all these cases, change might not occur over night or without effort, but the results are invaluable. “An activist is a person responsible enough to take an attitude,” concludes Dumitrescu, adding that social responsibility should not only be manifested as companies’ somewhat commercial CSR, but “PSR” (Personal Social Responsibility), as well, since we all benefit from the communities that we are a part of and it is our duty to pay, at least a little, back to them and thus, to us too.

Photo: Stelian Pavalache

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