Finding your own way

A few days ago I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxWomenFlanders – below is the text, the video isn`t out yet. Enjoy reading 🙂

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Some people say I am privileged.
They say I am always in the right spot at the right time.
Coincidence?
No, I don’t think so.
The older I get, the less I find that my life journey is a blend of coincidences.
Over the years I’ve understood much better what was guiding me and why things kept happening the way they did. And the Internet contributed its fair share to this. Understanding the Internet helped me to understand myself better.

But first things first.
I am a native German.
I come from a middle class family and I was the first in the family – and so far the only one – who went to university. I studied economics. Somehow I was the black sheep of the family. Because I never walked down the “safe and secure” way. The way my parents were hoping I would.
I played basketball pretty well – I was part of the German national team – but I stopped when it became too commercial. I didn’t feel like being “used”.
I was offered a well-paid job at a German TV channel but I didn’t want to commit myself to something I wasn’t really convinced of.
And frankly speaking – I wasn’t convinced about working for any company … and I never did in my entire life.
I always did my own thing – and looking back, it was always about connecting people.
Building bridges.
I never followed a steady straight line but I feel I’ve always had an unflappable sense of direction.

After my studies I took a year off. I bought a one way ticket to New York City to visit my aunt and explore more of the US.It was pretty exciting. I went cross country by car and visited almost every state in the Union.I got stuck in the northern bay area.In Sausalito to be more precise.Just across the Golden Gate Bridge when you leave San Francisco.

I met an Austrian who answered my question “Is this beach private?” with: “It’s all yours!”I took him at his word and we got married one year later 🙂

It was him who opened the door to the world of networks for me! He introduced me to The Well.The Well was the first online community worldwide. It was launched in 1985! And I opened my first email account in 1987.
A whole 7 years before the Internet got pictures.
The Well used to have their office just one street below us.
And whenever the sweet sweet smell of grass was drifting up, I knew we were on!

I was never interested in all the technical stuff.I really wanted to understand what makes the Internet different from what we had so far.
Lucky me, during my time in Sausalito and thanks to The Well, I met a handful of characters who were digital natives in a much more radical sense than their date of birth might imply. In conversation with them it was easy for me to forget about set agendas and fixed outcomes and I could easily follow wherever the dynamics of open processes might lead.

I truly fell in love with this concept of open processes …

I was open, curious and I always had a clear set of values which determined my actions. No matter what I was doing. And no matter where I was doing it.
During my life I’ve travelled to more than 120 countries.
I’ve worked in big cities and small villages.
I’ve worked with governments and organizations.
In war zones and on so-called safe ground.
With top managers, head of states and very, very ordinary people.

To illustrate this, let me tell you one story now about the NATO Summit in Chicago 2012. I was asked by Stefanie Babst, who was then head of public diplomacy at NATO to help her prepare the NATO Summit in Chicago. Her idea was to connect NATO with the online world and with activists mainly in connection with the “Middle East” and Afghanistan.
I thought ooooouuuuups! What a bold move!
It gave me a couple of sleepless nights before I made the decision and finally accepted the offer.

So. There I was.

On the one side NATO. Strict and rigid hierarchies. 14 levels of them – from the humblest employee up to Rasmussen, who was Secretary General in those days. Everything was mapped out.

And on the “other” side “my people”, activists from the Middle East and Afghanistan, people who had an outreach into communities where NATO had no standing at all. It wasn’t easy to convince them to take Steffi serious and support her move. Stefanie made some remarkable statements in an interview I did with her on how she was planning to open up NATO.
She called it creating a greater “WE”.
She knew that this project – “we_NATO” – would challenge the NATO institution. She was convinced that NATO needed such a challenge.
And she got things going,

So for the summit itself she set up an internal team of some 30+ plus people from various fields of NATO. A matrix organization, a tiny little creative cell, within the strict NATO hierarchy! It felt like a little playground … Most of the people involved felt pretty excited about our mission to connect activists with NATO ambassadors.

We launched the platform we_NATO four and a half months ahead of the summit.It was a live stream discussion between Joichi and Stephanie …And it was then that the NATO machinery really started to roll.
Outside the matrix.
The PR department kicked in.
The departments involved kicked in.
The NATO Ambassadors kicked in.
Everyone played their “normal” role which they were there to play.
The lines were pretty well defined in the hierarchy.
And it all worked perfectly well.
Against us.
I hate to say this but.
we_NATO, the way it was set up, crashed.
And I told Steffi beforehand that it would crash.
And I told her exactly why.

At NATO only 2 people are entitled to make statements in public … And coordination among all these hierarchies does take time. Far more time than online is willing to allow …This couldn’t work.It simply took way too much time.This was one reason for the mess – lack of time. The other reason was that no one was interested in reading “polished” comments and answers – where you feel like this is a compromise and not an “honest” answer. In short: Public diplomacy 🙂

Yet even though we_NATO crashed, I never called it a failure.
Working on/with this project straightened things out in my head.
And allowed me to be much better at what I had already started.

A new endeavour in rural India!

Janwaar Castle

Janwaar is a small village in the heart of India. It’s a village where girls get killed because their families cannot afford to pay their dowries. It’s a village where women have no rights. Where tribals are suppressed by caste. Where almost every family makes less than 1 Euro a day!

This was the place where I built a skatepark.
In an almost surreal setting.

Why skateboarding you might think?
Skateboarding culture is counterculture!
Against the mainstream. It’s all about disobedience, resilience, finding your own way.
Exactly the opposite from this village.

So my simple assumption was:
Could this skatepark, if set up as an open process, trigger change?

Today I can say: Yes, it can!

This skatepark has built bridges over deep, deep chasms.
Caste barriers have broken down.
Gender equality, at least in the skatepark, is within reach.
Programs have emerged which no one would have thought of earlier.
I hear from parents that their kids now have choices for the very first time.
I hear that the way the kids speak and express themselves has become much more precise.That the number of fights in the village has gone down.

And that they all stand together – tribals and caste – when their skatepark or me come under attack!

This is proof of concept!

So what have I done?

Well, we set a couple of golden rules:
Girls first >>> meaning that whenever a girl wants a skateboard, she will get it first.
And No school, no skateboarding …. !
And we walked our talk and treated everyone as equals.
This was the framework I started out with.
I understood my role always as an observer. I’ve never understood myself as leader or the one who has the say. Whenever a kid or a family started “to move”, I guided them. All these are very individual learning paths.
Not programs which are designed as a “one size fits all” quick fix.Many “development aid” projects fail exactly because of this. They are designed FOR the villagers, not WITH them.

My job in this village is designed so that I eventually will become obsolete.
The day these kids and villagers act and move for themselves by themselves, this is the day when I leave.

Off to the next open sandbox.
Wherever it or that might be.

Thank you!

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