This August, the Oasis game came to the UK for the first time and was played in Silvertown, a corner of Newham in East London. I attended the training program and project weekend, along with several other Lush employees and a handful of other participants. This is my personal diary from the experience.
Donating to charities is a comfortable way to tell yourself that you’re “doing your bit”. Being somewhere in person – now that’s a different story. How much easier it is to allow a certain sum of money disappear from your bank account every month to “good causes” than to actually get your hands dirty.
I don’t see myself as an activist. The thought of chaining myself to a fence does not fill me with excitement (I merely wonder “how do they go to the toilet?”). Volunteering for any kind of direct action seems like an alien, unknown experience. And to finish off the excuses my internal dialogue has been dishing up, I have no useful skills for volunteering work. I’m not a social worker, builder, campaigner or green hero. By the standards of the Bigger Picture, my work is airheaded – I’m a perfumer. I’ve spent my whole life selling, marketing, creating or applying potions and lotions. It brings joy to individuals, yes. Does it make money for the people I work for? Absolutely. Does it make the world a better place? Well, yes, in many ways - but not in the grand way I have always imagined the Heroes of Activism go about things. They travel to disaster areas and build bridges or climb on top of coal power stations. They throw rancid butter onto the decks of whaling boats. I’m not cut out for that. I’ll just peer at them admiringly from afar.
I might have gone on to believe that I was unsuitable for any kind of volunteer project, but something happened. Ruth Andrade, our environmental guru at Lush showed us a video made in Brazil, her home country. Ruth is a powerhouse of a character; a true inspirational leader. Spending any amount of time with her simply leaves you a changed person. It is impossible not to be influenced by her in some way.
In the video, Edgard Gouveia Júnior from ELOS institute explained a new concept: what if we could change the world by playing a game? What if we could approach a difficult situation with a different attitude? What if everyone could find a way to contribute, regardless of what kind of skills they have? What if we didn’t treat people in disaster zones or poverty as victims? What if we found a way to connect to them and work with them and leave behind a lasting legacy?
This was the Oasis game concept, first born in the favelas of Brazil. Architecture students ditched their indoor classrooms and took their desks outside – amongst the people whose lives their work would be influencing. They involved the community directly and the results were breathtaking. This seemingly small step led to a whole movement that has been around the world in the last 12 years and spawned several side projects.
After intense preparation, the Oasis participants are each given roles best suited to their skills. The names for these roles sounded more like classes in a role playing game: Oracle, Time Keeper, Lighthouse, Guardian Angel, Gnome, Hunter, Messenger...
I had goosebumps by the end of the presentation. Maybe there was a way for someone like me to contribute after all.
A few months later, Ruth brought us exciting news: the Oasis game would be coming to UK for the first time. It would be played in Newham, an area in the shadow of the London City Airport and 2012 Olympic Games frenzy. Expensive private property developments aimed at rich commuters are muscling in on previously council-house territory. The local residents are like a dirty secret, airbrushed from the gleaming façade of the city. A group of determined activists, calling themselves the Momentum Project, has already started to change things little by little, by hosting community events and trying to convince locals that “you don’t have to move out of your community to live in a better one”. Partnering with the Oasis game meant a much larger group would be there to create a short burst of intense activity and hopefully, a lasting legacy.
I asked Ruth if she would let me participate. Apologising for my lack of volunteering experience, not really knowing exactly what the training and the project would involve, but convinced that if I didn’t throw myself in it now I would never have the guts to. To my astonishment, Ruth not only said yes, she seemed delighted that I had asked.
We were told to pack for six days and be ready for hard work. The Dutch branch of the ELOS institute was organising this game and we received a comprehensive welcome pack and instructions on what to bring in advance. It certainly dealt with the logistical side of things but nothing could have prepared us for the actual experience itself.
On the first night, arriving at the Ibis budget hotel (accommodation which turned out to feel not unlike sleeping in a large bathroom), I did feel a sudden flash of doubt that I had made a mistake. The lobby was populated by people who looked every inch the eco warrior, world-traveller, activist and hippie hero. Just in case you haven’t worked it out by now, I really don’t. At 40 years of age I was also the oldest person in the room. When waiting for our training to start at the Asta community centre next morning, I tweeted: “The Oasis training is about to start. A room full of young volunteers… and me.”
The facilitators were Rodrigo from Brazil, Niels from Netherlands and Conchi from Spain. Unlike any other training course I’ve been on, they took control of the room in a very calm and subtly manipulative way, coaxing things out of us and getting us to agree to seemingly bizarre activities. Instead of long-winded explanations and theory, we were coached to find our own answers. Instead of asking us who we were, they asked us how we were feeling.
We spent a long time that first day finding ways in which to connect to each other and to ourselves. As New Age as that sounds, this methodology was the foundation without which the Oasis game simply wouldn’t have worked. I had decided to accept whatever would be asked of us and to be very open to new ways of doing things. This attitude paid off. Over the next six days I learned a great deal about teamwork and about myself.
Our modern work environments often teach us to fall back on old routines. We often focus on the “how” instead of the “why”, and we often completely ignore the people involved in the process; the real human experience that we all share, but try our best to push out of the way when there’s work to be done. We also tend to focus on what there is to fix, rather than what we can create.
By asking us to throw ourselves in and embrace whatever happened; by not giving us the answers and asking us to get rid of the superficial layer that we are all so focused on in our normal daily lives, we learned ways in which to find the right thing to do. Going out to knock on the doors and striking up conversations with strangers in an unfamiliar area wasn’t quite as daunting. We had to be ready to spend the next few days making these connections and fuel a small local miracle.
It was a little frightening at first. Usually, one would set off to work on a project like this with far more theory and planning. We obviously trusted that our facilitators knew what was going on under the surface, and that they knew what they were doing. But still the first couple of days felt a bit like going to a new place blindfolded, and having to work out where you are and what to do without any further instruction.
The most bizarre thing about this methodology was that although the pace we were learning and moving at during instruction seemed slow and serene, the amount of work we accomplished in six days would have taken most people a month. By skilfully reading us and tapping into us, we were coached to skip many of the steps that one would normally assume this type of project had to include. I was left wondering how many days, weeks, even months of my life I have wasted in meetings and presentations that ultimately just served to add extra padding to otherwise simple concepts. It occurred to me that perhaps we are frightened of simplicity.
There are seven steps to making the Oasis game happen:
- The Appreciative Gaze: Appreciative way to observe the local community. A way to focus on what’s there and what about it is beautiful. Getting rid of your prejudices.
- Affection: Encouraging the creation of genuine connections between people based on common values and trust.
- The Dream: To create a space where people can express their most true and ambitious dreams for their community. Not focusing on the negative or problem solving, but focusing on something real that can be achieved now.
- Care: The careful planning of projects and strategies so that they include the community’s collective dreams in all of their diversity. The right ones are good for yourself, good for your neighbour and good for the planet.
- The Miracle: The actual project, where members of the community and Oasis participants make one of the dreams into a reality together. This part used to be called “Action” but at the end of every game, the locals used to say “it was a miracle”.
- Celebration: Coming together at the end of the journey to share the joy of working together. A party!
- Re-evolution: The legacy of the game; a new cycle of expanding dreams and to discover the potential within.
During days 1-to-4 we focused on the first four steps. Every day started with a vegan breakfast and a song and a dance. We were taught different dances and different songs and always with the minimum instruction. “Just watch what I do”, said Rodrigo. We did, and we danced. The first time many of us seemed a little clumsy or nervous but over the week dancing became an important part of our daily routine. It was a metaphor for working together; it made us closer and raised our heartbeat, ready to go out full of energy. Sharing the laughter from failed steps or silly moves was all part of the plan. We weren’t meant to become professional dancers, we were meant to enjoy the process and gain something from it.
On the first day, we practiced the Appreciative Gaze by walking around the community blindfolded, gently guiding each other and trying to get an impression of our surroundings without the prejudice that using your eyes as the primary source of information often brings. We learned that sometimes you see better with your eyes closed. We learned to trust each other fast. We learned not to worry about looking very silly.
The local kids responded to us first. Some of them followed us on the first day when we were out with blindfolds.
We went out again, this time with our eyes open and found beautiful things. We tried to find the people behind the beauty. By the end of the week, we had a small but devoted crew of local children who helped us literally drum up attention when we turned our volume up a notch and went to shout on the streets to broadcast the time and location for the community meeting we were organising.
The last time I went out to shout on the streets was an anti-nukes demonstration back home in Finland in the 80s. Yet by the time we were ready to get the megaphone out and march through the streets of Newham to draw attention, I was first in line to join the crew. Shouting shoulder to shoulder with seasoned activists seemed perfectly natural. We wore fluorescent vests and chanted: “Asta centre, six thirty; share your dreams, six thirty!”
Curtains were parted. Doors were opened. Dreams were gathered. People who had said they wouldn’t come sneaked in to see what the fuss was about. Once the spark caught, the community woke up and took ownership and they were the ones that made it all happen.
We realised that we were all facilitators and that we were merely nudging things that were already there to wake up and spring into action. Cautious but curious people from all walks of life filled the community meeting room, and started building models of what they would like to create during the coming weekend. Suddenly the whole thing was theirs. Suddenly it was the most natural thing in the world. Suddenly they believed it could happen. There was a palpable shift that night from our hands to theirs. Some of us cried a little. Possibly out of relief.
Just like sometimes it takes a child to point out the obvious, or a new employee to question long-held beliefs in an organisation, we, total strangers to Newham, were able to gently coax out a small transformation. It felt so simple yet profound. If more people around the world could find a way to energise each other this way, what could be possible?
In many of the locations where the Oasis game has been played, there is a real lack of infrastructure so the projects often focus on creating that, and there usually aren’t many objections from local councils and town planners. But even in England, where people assume that they can’t change their environment because of bureaucracy, those assumptions should be challenged. Once the community is mobilised, it’s surprising what can be done.
The Silvertown community chose to transform a derelict outdoor terrace on the side of the Asta centre. They turned it into a usable, shared area with a dance floor for street dance practice; tables, chairs, a garden and a pizza oven.
One of the talented young men, Hilton, had expressed a very specific wish: to have a piano there. Lotte from our group had popped in her piano-shaped pencil sharpener to decorate one of the models. Since we would have to source all the materials locally and obtain as much as possible through donations and abandoned scrap, a piano seemed a touch too ambitious, but we were all secretly hoping that one would magically appear.
On the morning of the project itself, we were all energised, but also somewhat nervous. How many people would come? What if we couldn’t deliver the dream?
Our roles were assigned. Throughout the week, I’d been broadcasting our activities using the Momentum Project’s social media channels, preparing the presentation to the community and keeping our chaotic notes and flipcharts in some kind of order. When the little cards with descriptions of the roles were taken out on the morning of our first project day, none of us knew which ones we’d adopt yet.
The descriptions were read out and willing, suitable candidates selected. Gnomes looked after greenery and recycling, the Messenger would register and document things and tell others about what was happening… wait, that was me! I volunteered to be the Messenger. I had already been one and didn’t know it.
One of the biggest jobs for the actual project itself was to source a myriad of materials, preferably from the local community, and for free. We had several task forces out to carry in abandoned tyres, do a bit of guerrilla gardening, knock on doors and ask to borrow tools and approach local businesses for small donations. I had brought my car and ferried people to pick up paint brushes from a local hardware store, went to B&Q to pick up the play-sand they had kindly donated, and drove to a skip and dug out damaged bricks from it. Once the community members themselves were mobilised, materials and donations started pouring in and we soon had enough to get started.
I used Freecycle to find some missing elements and we had a small budget for electrical necessities such as plug sockets. It was my task to find an electrician and after scouring the Yellow Pages for one that lived locally but being unable to get hold of anyone, I took a break to clear my head in the kitchen. Yvonne, a local community member who’d attended some of our meetings was there, helping Agatha, our cook who’d been feeding 30 people for a week, always smiling.
I had a chat with them and when I mentioned that I had been unable to find an electrician, it turned out that one of Yvonne’s neighbours was one and he could be persuaded to help us for the steep price of a chicken chow mein. I grabbed Yvonne and we headed to the local Chinese take-away.
Amina from our group came to me with spectacular news: after we’d spread the word that we were looking for a piano, she had actually found a lady called Karen via Gumtree who just happened to have a piano languishing in her shed and was willing to donate it!
When the piano arrived, Hilton, whose wish it had been to get one, immediately put it to the test. Even out of tune, hearing this young man suddenly turn out a perfect piece of moving classical music in the middle of the chaos that was the project weekend was inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I had an idea: what if we could wheel the piano outdoors and film him playing on it, on the streets of Newham?
Amina had an even better idea. Unbeknownst to me, she had worked as a children’s music coach. She wanted to get a group of the local kids together and do something with them. Amina’s choir practice and the kids’ songwriting formed a memorable thread throughout the weekend, and culminated in a one-off live performance that was captured on video at the start of our sixth stage of the Oasis game: the Celebration.
Pizza oven, dance floor, giant mirror, bathtub full of play-sand, a whole new garden area, tables and chairs, lots of colour: the Oasis gamers and the community worked hard for two days and transformed a previously derelict space.
Every hour new people drifted in, curious about what was happening. Parts of the community that would never have imagined working together, now did. We had a spread of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and everyone pitched in. Like our feeble attempts at learning a new dance, but really bonding through stumbling along together, the community formed new bonds and connections by pushing to get this project done within the time allocated.
There was love and laughter and it was clear that something other than painting fences was happening beneath the surface. The journey was always the point. It mattered that we listened to the community’s dreams and that they all felt personally involved and committed. It didn’t really matter what we would build together just that we would build it together.
The final stage had begun.
A Lush video of the Oasis Newham week, including Hilton, Amina and the song!
Photo credits: Mara Verduin, Alessandro Stellari and Pia Long
A shorter version of this diary was first published at Blogcritics.org