There are many reasons why I cringe everytime I hear people stereotyping, or being biased, consciously or unconsciously, and the most important one is that by choosing not see through people, we miss an incredible amount of pure gold.
This is the reason why I strongly wanted one of my businesses - #SmartPlan, launching in February – to be made of smart minds and iron-will talent, competence and no arrogance. I made a conscious effort of steering away from old school hierarchies and titles, and chose to focus on those gems who do not let old flawed square structures define them, those who make real impact, those who do change the world, bringing incredible determination and strong implementable ideas to the table. I am after the real thing.
The day of the event she went up on stage with determination. Not the type of determination enhanced by titles of typical executives, but the kind, gentle and steel-strong kind of genuine determination that shows at first glance. A young, strong, beautiful young woman with clear ideas, facts and incredible work done. Work that saves lives.
When people meet me the comment they often make is that they feel the energy and the passion I convey. When I later met her for an interview and sat next to her, I was taken aback by so much wisdom, energy, kindness, determination, passion and iron-will all packed into an incredible 28 year old Swiss woman.
I interviewed Liska Bernet on that November day after her TEDx speech, then again last week. I normally edit or add a few content hooks to my #FearlessFridays interviews but this time I will step aside and let her words and pictures speak for themselves. She has had me glued to the spot every time. Enjoy the emotional ride dear reader.
Q. Liska, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a 28 year old Swiss woman currently living in Zurich with my partner. I finished my Master degree in International Development with a focus on humanitarian emergencies at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the summer of 2015. This was at a time when hundreds of refugees were making the perilous journey through the Mediterranean Sea every day. Many of them drowned and the rest was in desperate need of our help. And yet, the European response seemed lethargic. I felt shame, shame to be European, and realized I had to do something and take action. Over Facebook I connected with a group of people who were helping out along the Balkan route and shortly after I decided to join them. First, I went to Serbia and later to Lesvos, where I was confronted with a desperate humanitarian situation and with police brutality against refugees. I saw that there were no big NGOs there and that the governments were just not there. However, in both places, there was a passionate team of strangers from all over Europe with a shared goal. They unloaded vans, prepared food, handed out winter jackets and shoes: students, retired people, mothers, truck drivers, doctors and bankers. And from there we started organizing ourselves. I was blown away by what we managed to achieve together while the officially appointed authorities barely showed their faces. And so I kept going – to this day.
Q. What did you do next?
Have a look at this picture of an official refugee camp in a European country in January 2017.
When thousands of men, women, and children arrived at the borders of Europe in 2015, I became part of a grassroots response to this European crisis. Because like many others, I just couldn’t quite comprehend that scenes like the one in this picture are really unfolding in our own backyard.
Over the last couple of years I saw many things I never expected to ever see in Europe. But what shocked me most were the conditions refugees were forced to live in.
I saw thousands of people sleeping on dirt soil, without shelter, water, or food. And I worked in camps where up to 6000 people shared 8 showers.
I have a background in development and humanitarian aid and I’m quite familiar with the typical excuses of why it takes three months to build a toilet or why refugees still live without proper shelter after two years. But none of these excuses really work in Europe. It’s a lot easier to ship a few containers of aid to Greece than to Syria. We have sufficient funding considering the number of refugees: in Greece, less than 1% of it’s population are refugees or people seeking asylum. In Lebanon it’s over 25% of the population.
The humanitarian system has been struggling and has been playing chess with politicians.
There have been some especially effective, scalable projects that manage to offer food, shelter, medical support and many other things for thousands of people- doing more with less. These projects and the people behind them are the grassroots response.
Q. What are their solutions? What do they do differently?
There are three takeaway lessons that we should learn from their efforts.
- Lesson Nr. 1: Put people first.
Traditional humanitarian systems are often based on a charity approach. They look at the people affected by a crisis as a beneficiary and not as a partner. The grassroots response grew out of solidarity. And solidarity means to work together and not for someone.
To give you an example: in these pictures you can see a food distribution based on the logics of charity. This picture shows how bread is thrown out of the back of a truck. Whoever catches it, can keep it. Or below you can see how refugees have to stand in line for hours and hours every single day to receive their meals. And finally here you can see the meals. I’ll let you judge if it’s worth the wait.
Food distributions based on the logic of solidarity look different. In a community centre that we built in Athens - alongside refugees themselves, we built a kitchen where refugees cook food for up to 1000 people each day. And they decided to serve it restaurant-style because that’s more dignified than having to stand in line for everything. There is a lot more pride and dignity in empowering the people and the overall effect was happier, responsibility-taking people.
- Lesson nr. 2: Change the dynamics of fundraising.
Big NGOs are often very funder-driven and often end up struggling with political pleasing exercises. In all this, they sometimes forget to engage with real people’s problems.
Grassroots groups mostly opt for crowd funding money for specific projects or to give directly to refugees.
- Lesson nr. 3: It is 2018, not 1945. Digital engagement and social media do make an incredible tangible difference. Leverage it.
Slow, bureaucratic organizations often look like inefficient dinosaurs to a new generation of tech-savvy, entrepreneurial minds. Most members of the grassroots response grew up in a digital area and know how to leverage the speed and flexibility of our time. And because most of them don’t have a background in the traditional aid sector, they use methods and solutions that might seem quite unconventional for the humanitarian system - a system that hasn’t changed much since it was established after the second World War.
To give you an example, when I arrived in Lesvos in the fall 2015, hundreds of people were sleeping outside the registration centre in Moria. They were sleeping in the mud and didn’t have anything. Within a couple of weeks, we managed to build a well functioning camp for about 800 people. Though we were only a handful of people with literally no money, we had social media and we had technology. We used Facebook and other social media channels to get other teams and independent volunteers with relevant skills to come to Moria.
There was for example a group from Holland that usually works in the festival industry. They used their networks to get festival infrastructure shipped to the islands. Suddenly we had expensive high quality tents. Some of them also had very useful knowledge and skills regarding things like waste management and sanitary provision but also things like power, site lighting for safety or crowd control. I know it sounds ironic, but building a festival and building a temporary refugee camp actually has quite a few similarities.
Another team that usually runs a food waste catering business in England showed up shortly after and built a food tent. And within only a few days they established links with local supermarkets where they could pick up the food waste each evening and make it into nice meals.
One team even established a delivery system to bring items from the warehouses to the camps. The system worked a bit like Uber, except that it was free and that we used what’s app to ask for deliveries of the items we needed.
And now, not only in Greece, but across all European countries, people started countless initiatives to help newcomers find flats, jobs, bicycles and friends and all the other things we need to live a more or less normal, dignified life.
Q. What drives you every day?
Realizing that we have the capability of actually changing something if we have the courage to take action and to try is what keeps me going. This, and a massive need for action in this world. I’m extremely thankful that I found my passion at such a young age. When I went to Lesvos, I was thrown into a situation where I had to organize myself with others and start to build something very quickly. Every hour counted and there was no one who could tell you what to do. We just had to try. For me, this was a huge learning experience as I realized what we’re capable of, if we have the courage to just go for it. And it helped me to believe and trust in myself and my skills.
Q. There is a large debate going on around the future of work, talent retention and millennials values. What do you think the future holds for old school organizations ?
Many of the projects I worked in and co-established depended on a huge volunteer workforce - up to 150 volunteers per day. So you have to think about why people keep working for no money or only for a very basic income. Interestingly, quite a few people from the corporate world quit their jobs and decided to come volunteer with us instead. The same goes for personnel from the UNHCR or big INGOs. Our projects were always based on mutual decision-making and shared ownership. Of course this can be very challenging, especially when dealing with so many different languages – but the benefits of basis-democratic approaches and shared ownership are huge as well. People who could never voice their ideas in hierarchical top-down systems start to speak-up, to act and become agents of change. I think it’s very important to feel that you can make a difference with what you do. Innovative talents need work environments where they can contribute, collaborate, co-create. A work environment where their opinion is being valued and respected. Unfortunately, corporate environments are often the exact opposite of that – especially for women.
Q. What is next on your projects list?
I’ve realized that I want to keep building innovative bottom-up projects for humanitarian causes. There is so much work to do. We need to find ways that re-conceive displacement as possible win-win opportunity for host countries. This is what I’m currently working on – together with a great team - a new impact start up organization, Glocal Roots focused on developing and supporting bottom-up innovation. The goal is promoting and enabling immigrants, supporting them from dependency to increased self-reliance, resilience, and development. The stakes are high: the success or failure of this transition can reverberate for years and in the worst cases for generations, with strong repercussions on society. We want to have an influence on whether refugees become fully participating citizens who reach their full potential and contribute to their new society or remain in a poverty trap. Currently, we are working on our first projects in Switzerland, in Greece and in Lebanon. History speaks for itself, immigration is part of the human race, sadly we tend to forget that all of our ancestors, at some point in time, have been immigrants. Many of today`s first world countries are made of immigrants who at some point left their original countries and chose a new home, we have quite some interesting examples to look at.
(Those who wish to be involved with Glocal Roots can contact Liska directly, the support of bright minds and donors is very much needed.)
Q. Any final thoughts for the #FearlessFridays readers?
What we’ve seen in Europe over the past years will stay with us for a long time. Migration is not going to go away and people will continue to be displaced for different reasons. If we want to stop failing refugees, and our society and our children`s future at large, we need to come up with realistic solutions that work in today’s world. Solutions that are not based on old logics of humanitarian assistance and charity but on new practices of solidarity and autonomy. We need flexible funding and innovative, new ideas. We need solutions that reflect our Zeitgeist.