Making change happen in the face of failing politics and economics

In Portugal people are getting organised and starting to determine their own destinies despite the massive challenges

A €78bn bailout has seen unemployment of the under 25’s peak at 40%. Negative net migration has created a brain drain, over 400,000 people of a population of only 10m have already left. The former prime minister has been arrested on corruption charges and the current one is embroiled in tax scandal.

A generation that sees the rest of Europe calling them the PIGS and talks angrily of being ‘absolutely f**ked’ as a country. Austerity is the brutal fact of life for a generation growing up with few opportunities.

Its little wonder in 2011 over 500,000 people took to the streets to protest in Portugal. Organised through social media by a generation cited as the ‘distressed generation’, this was the first mass civic protest since the 1974 revolution. Locals put a brave and positive face on things, but beneath the surface you sense real cracks are appearing and frustration is bubbling against a traditionally conservative elite. The fatalism of old is starting to fade.

Amongst this there is a new energy. A creative and resourceful energy that initially mobilised to take to the streets. When the politicians didn’t listen and this energy tired of manifestations and working within the system to change things, they changed direction.

The people that are left and haven’t migrated are making their own future. They know there won’t be the jobs they want, so they are already thinking what they will do from a young age. There are plenty of assets like underused buildings (one city centre square is thought to have only 4 residents amongst the property speculators), great food, tourism and music to build new opportunities from the ground up and transform the city.

It is encouraging to see neighbourhoods not just focusing on the problems, but taking a strength-based asset approach to developing their communities. Rather than bemoan the derelict building, they embrace it and use it as a beacon to rejuvenate the street and attract other resources.

While Europe and Politics could easily be depicted as the problem in Portugal, that feeling doesn’t seem to prevail. The young don’t appear desperate to leave the euro, to overthrow democracy or leave the EU. Indeed improving democracy seems more the priority.

Initial activists formed the non-profit Academia Cidadã (Citizenship Academy) to drive forward change. They want to empower people and organisations and ‘deepen democracy’ through education, communication and artistic activities, and talk about making every citizen a politician.

Derelict buildings in poorer areas like Renovar a Mouraria and Cozinha Popular da Mouraria have been transformed into neighbourhood cafe bars and social community space; drawing people together through the love of food. While Pendão em Movimento’s logo is a puzzle made of pieces representing each group using their multipurpose space. In the heart of their housing estate they bring different groups together to solve common issues and provide activities like kickboxing, gymnastics, masterchef competitions and space to record music.

© John Dawson

The rehoused communities from former hillside slums prepare ‘solidarity soup’ and provide space for IT skills, dancing and the older residents to meet, eat and play cards.

Old industrial buildings like LXFactory have been remade: a former industrial building refurbished in a restaurant, cultural centre and co-working space for small creative and social companies.

The battle between gentrification of neighbourhoods for the benefit of tourists and speculative investors against the needs of the local communities is complex. Lisbon Sustainable Tourism is tackling this and takes people on walking tours away from the usual routes and uses profits for social purposes like taking blind people, the elderly and kids from out of town estates on city tours.

The Cape Verdean dominated Cova da Moura favela neighbourhood of informal housing is home to Moinho da Juventude, which has organised themselves to run projects like IT training, access to books, a recording studio and cookery in their communities. The lively Bieno has a keen eye on the tourist trade to show a different side to the city.

Moinho da Juventude, Cova da Moura

The excellent Musica Portuguesa a gostar dela propria has filmed and remixed nearly 2000 videos of lesser known Portuguese folk music, fusing culture, heritage and music and challenging the hegemony of imported mainstream pop culture.

Global finance and Europe’s politicians feel a long way from the solution to community’s problems in Lisbon right now. Local bottom-up solutions, entrepreneurial activists and community enterprise are the ones providing some of the answers, just as they do across Europe. Community enterprise has many challenges and a long way to go in Lisbon, but there are dedicated people making it happen, changing their city one neighbourhood at a time, thinking big but acting local. It’s time to back these people; collectively they are today and tomorrow’s City Makers.

Eurosceptic voodoo dolls at Chapito

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