A Long Letter Home: Reflections and Lessons from Barcelona

“One of the biggest mistakes you have made in the United States,” a member of the cultural center in Sant Andreu told me one day, “has been to reduce your citizens into voters.” 

This letter marks the end of my nearly three month life in Catalonia. You already know many of the stories: neighborhood celebrations, international protests and police brutality, community meetings and public debates, participating in actions to block evictions and negotiating fair rental agreements. 

Three months spent in pursuit of understanding how people in this remarkable region have developed an instinct to reach for their neighbor when they see something that is wrong and go do something about it.

There were many stories I have not had the time to share, like the weekend spent visiting an abandoned old hospital occupied by dozens of housing activists, and the conversation I had with the City’s Commissioner who spoke about his transition from activism to politics. Or even one of the most memorable cooperatives: a telecommunications company in Northern Spain whose customer-owners are the driving force behind expansion of high-speed internet access to remote rural communities. 

Then there were the experiences I neither planned for nor expected: crafting an emergency shelter on top of a mountain in the Pyrenees during a thunderstorm, communal dinners with my flatmates who had come to Spain as refugees from Ukraine to avoid conscription, having my backpack and computer stolen after an eight-hour train ride, and being mistaken as an undercover police officer by activist organizers. 

Throughout all of this, I have been extremely fortunate to find people who have become my friends and touchstones in this world. People like Nikoleta Theodoridis, the founder and coordinator of Sobre Mestres, a cafe and restaurant in La Lleialtat Santsenca. I have regularly spent my evenings working at her table and sipping a cafe con leche as she guides me through the intricate details of neighborhood politics or provides a sounding board for my thoughts. 

Then there are the day to day aspects of life that aren’t worth their own letters but make up the in-between parts of living alone in a new country: numerous conversations shared over tapas with new friends, frustrations with the lack of grocery stores, the people I have lived with, and the evenings alone watching reruns of Brooklyn-99 or the Office and thinking of home. 

There are many lessons that I will be taking forward with me from these experiences and others in this city. Some personal, some professional. 

The first is the importance of “muddling” - the act of wandering without a plan, but with a purpose. My first month in Spain was spent in a state of muddling, mainly having one-on-one conversations to become acquainted with this place and the people in it. They were not interviews, but opportunities to build relationships. Some of those conversations went nowhere. Others, like my very first one-on-one with Anna Fernandez, Coordinator of the Catalonia Social Solidarity Economy Network, connected me to dozens of other community leaders in Barcelona and led to partnerships with incredible institutions like Ateneu Nou Barris and the Impuls Coop Network in Sants.

It was this muddling that created space for the magic to happen and provided access to opportunities that no amount of research could have opened a doorway to. 

As a strongly goal-oriented person, I struggle with muddling. I like to know where things are going and have a plan of how to get there. But the second lesson I am being beaten over the head with on this fellowship is a reminder that working with people requires paying sincere attention to their interests over my agenda. 

That’s why these are conversations and not interviews, because the most important part is getting to know the other person and helping them get to know you. We very rarely sit with people who take the time to see us deeply, and express genuine curiosity in not just what we can do for them, but who we are. In my experience, it’s the only thing that will make complete strangers want to work with a young man from the United States who shows up one day while they are already very busy.  

It was only after learning that the Barcelona Commissioner for the Social Solidarity Economy had spent 25 years living in an occupied community center and I asked him why that we moved past the superficial conversation about the policies and procedures to something deeper. As a result, at the end of our conversation, we didn’t shake hands and part ways having successfully conducted a transaction of information. We left with enough mutual-respect and curiosity that we would meet three more times, each leading to new connections in Barcelona, new insights, and a potential visit to the United States to learn about our Organizing methods in the Industrial Areas Foundation. 

In addition to the many lessons Barcelona has taught me, it also has a lot to share for all of us interested in addressing the social, cultural, and economic pressures our communities face.

“One of the biggest mistakes you have made in the United States,” a member of the cultural center in Sant Andreu told me one day, “has been to reduce your citizens into voters.” 

Barcelona, in its Ateneus and cultural centers, its neighborhood organizing groups and anti-eviction associations should give us a vision and imagination for what a more substantial form of citizenship could be. 

It looks like the neighborhood of Sants hosting dinners of 250+ people to celebrate their community and share food. It’s the same neighbors coming together to fight for the Can Vies social center or the residents of Nou Barris taking out the asphalt factory poisoning their air. It looks like a network of local co-ops, owned and operated by members of the community, investing in new childcare resources

As one member of the Nou Barris neighborhood told me: “of course it is our responsibility to fight for our interests. Who else will do it?” 

It’s a rejection of the idea that, as Howard Zinn sardonically puts it: “the supreme act of citizenship is to choose among saviors, by going into a voting booth every four years to choose between two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions.”

Active citizens are people who feel personally responsible for taking on issues, and feel like they have the power to do so.

One thing in particular has enabled people in Barcelona to take on this larger citizenship role: public spaces. After the fall of the dictatorship, the first battles people fought were to retake community owned and managed spaces. There was a reason Franco crushed the Unions, dismantled the cooperatives, and forced neighborhood organizing underground: because he knew those are where people build power. 

Reclaiming these spaces was hard-won. It took imagination to propose that old factories be converted into neighborhood social centers, courage to stare down a government which - until recently - had been in the business of “disappearing” anyone who dissented, and perseverance as these fights sometimes took a decade or more.

But what these public spaces allowed people to do at the end was remarkable. In northern Barcelona, the creation of Ateneu Nou Barris enabled residents of the neighborhood to pave their streets, weather a heroin epidemic, build public housing, create environmental protections, and much more. They have gotten the city to pour millions of euros into a predominantly working class and immigrant neighborhood because they organized. And the foundation for this organizing was a space where people could come together, build relationships across differences, find solidarity on issues that impacted them all, and then take action. 

As I begin my transition from Barcelona to the next leg of my journey in England, I will pack these stories into my bags and continue learning from their lessons. May they stoke your imagination as well and give you hope about the world. 

With existential issues seeming to lead every newspaper headline, it is more important than ever that we are reminded of humanity's better angels. Pack them in your bags too because, well, what if the world doesn’t end? We’re going to need this stuff. 

May we all continue to muddle, to see and be seen deeply, to be active citizens, and rebuild our public spaces.

Can I make this a caption?

Public debate at La PAH, to decide on strategy for anti-eviction campaign.

La PAH after a succesful action negotiating a halt to the eviction of one of their members. 

Can Masdeu is a former hospital building that was occupied by over 40 community members after the 2008 evictions forced them from their homes. Today it is a hub for permaculture and co-living practices in the region. 

Emergency shelter constructed during a sudden thunderstorm seven miles into the Pyrenees mountains. 

7:00am meeting to file a police report in the vain hope of tracking down my stolen backpack and computer. 

One of many neighborhood celebrations held at the local Ateneus. A place for people from the community to eat, dance, and talk together. 

The very first neighborhood dinner I attened. Hosted by La Lleialtat Santsenca with over 250 community members in attendence.

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