Tandem Fryslân Partner Forum in Terschelling, November 2017. Photo by Guido Bosua
Tandem Fryslân Partner Forum in Terschelling, November 2017. Photo by Guido Bosua

Reflection, Confidence and Scaling Up: An Interview with Sjoerd Bootsma

Leeuwarden-based Sjoerd Bootsma participated in Tandem C&P in 2013, working on Criss-Crossing communities with Sandra Hall in Birmingham. Both their organisations at the time: Podium Asteriks and Friction Arts exchanged participatory techniques that are applicable in their work and communities. With an eye to ‘Mienskip’ or ‘sense of community’ – the theme of Leeuwarden European Capital of Culture 2018 - Friction Arts focused on engaging colourful neighbourhoods in the then-far relatively white ‘Welcome to the Village’ festival. In Birmingham, Podium Asteriks’ presence has catalysed many new connections to previously difficult-to-get-to stakeholders. This European collaboration has opened many doors for Sjoerd who has since then worked with Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018 – European Capital of Culture. Tandem programme manager Philipp Dietachmair sat down with Sjoerd to discuss his Tandem journey from participant to co-designer of one of our new programmes: Tandem Fryslân, which has its Interim Meeting from 16 to 20 July 2018 in Leeuwarden, the lessons he learned, how he sees the future, and why culture should be the backbone of every policy.

PD: You told me earlier that you felt it important for organisations in Friesland to be able to experience a programme like Tandem. So I want to ask you: what did it mean to you personally and for your organisation at the time – Podiun Asteriks – to be part of a programme like Tandem?

SB: I talked with Hink [Tandem Fryslan participant Hink Speulman from Stichting Sociaal Cultureel Werk Buitenpost 'it Koartling'] about this, asking if he enjoyed participating in Tandem and he said yes, because it brings him two things: first, “it gives me a reflective moment as I get out of my own context for a week and I get to reflect on the work I do,” he said, and “that helps me putting things into perspective.” He then followed saying that it helps him notice there’s a whole group of people who are working on the same issues as he does but on an international level, “and that gives me confidence” he added. Thirdly, he also said he could use Tandem on a local level to persuade people to take him more seriously. These are exactly the three things that I experienced when I participated in the programme in 2013-14. This then motivated me to start talking about the possibility of organising a Tandem Fryslan this year. So, it’s funny how that comes full circle in a way.

I remember that those three things were also important for my organisation at the time, Podium Asteriks. This journey of reflection, confidence and scaling up, is made possible by the fact that the programme is focused on process and not on result. Then there is the cooperation with your Tandem partner on one side, which is important because you grow on a personal level, and there is the cooperation within the Tandem community, and that is really helpful when it comes to your self-confidence, it really helps you broaden your perspective. It really is an enrichment of your practice.

How important is it that this happens on a European or an international level? Would it be different if it happened on a regional level?

It is important that it happens on an international level, for a number of reasons: it has more impact because you tend to know all your regional levels and players already, so that’s not really broadening your perspective, the share notion of experiencing the fact that you are part of a much bigger international community that has the same values is truly important, and that helps you when you are working locally. You know you are backed by something!

Did you expect this from Tandem? Was this a surprise for you?

That might have been something I hoped for, that’s a bit difficult to recall exactly as it was four-five years ago. I remember going to the Partner Forum with one mission in mind: to get out of my comfort zone as much as I could, because I needed that (I even wrote it down!) It worked!

Sjoerd Bootsma at the Tandem Fryslân Kick Off Meeting in Rijeka, March 2018. Photo by Guido Bosua
Sjoerd Bootsma at the Tandem Fryslân Kick Off Meeting in Rijeka, March 2018. Photo by Guido Bosua

Now you’re one of the organisers of Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018 – European Capital of Culture – when did you start there, and what role did Tandem play in it? Which lessons did you learn from Tandem that you have implemented in this role?

I got involved in the European Capital of Culture in late 2011, so before my Tandem experience, but this was a very helpful and concrete way of involving yourself in a European movement. That’s why Tandem was really useful. As part of the European Capital of Culture programme, we asked all organisations to step out of their comfort zone and into their communities, presenting ideas they haven’t worked with before, reaching people they have not reached before. Tandem was a lesson for me in that sense, showing me, it was possible, and that such thinking will enrich your practice. So that’s important. I always had to convince people to work on that European dimension, because most people don’t see it as a very useful thing: they know everyone locally, they know how to do their project and just go on with their way of working. In order to convince people of the importance of working on a European level, you need to have experience and Tandem was key for me in that sense. Also: European collaborations don’t always need to be big, you can work smaller and still be meaningful: just like Tandem.

What is the tricky issue with the European dimension? Why is it so difficult to convince people of this European dimension?

The difficulty wasn’t about the financial aspect, and people could very easily think of five or six projects which will immediately have a European dimension in it. European Capital of Culture programmes are thus definitely helpful, as they all ask projects to have a European dimension. So, if you are interested in the European Capital of Culture programme, you start looking at something like Tandem very early on. It’s an easy way of involving your project with European partners.

What do you think of the European dimension in these programmes such as European Capital of Culture? When the EU came up with the concept they also had an ideal thought of what the programme could contribute to the European integration project as such.

If you start out with a lot of small European collaborations, you will probably end up with a lot of bigger projects that work. That’s my experience: we started with smaller projects and now we do a lot more. We’ve learned that it is not that hard, and it also brings you a lot. When we started working on all the projects for our Leeuwarden-Friesland European Capital of Culture bid, the project owners thought it was a hassle, and there still are projects struggling with it, and that is sort of a prejudice I think - maybe a fear of going out of your comfort zone or thinking it won’t work. I don’t really know what it is. I would advise to start with smaller collaborations first, and then move to bigger programmes, that would be the best method I think.

European Capital of Cultures come along with many opportunities, i.e. on an economical level, like developing tourism, or the cultural scene and more. It’s all a wonderful way to present your city to many international visitors and stakeholders. But looking at the level of your local communities, how do you make sure you don’t only do programmes for tourists and positioning Leeuwarden on the map – something everyone agrees is important – but also work for your local communities?

In our main programme we formulated five important factors that all projects should incorporate: empowerment, ecology, experience, entrepreneurship and the European dimension, which gave us a tool for measuring and addressing the importance of the European dimension, while in our open programme we do not make this compulsory but suggest that it should be. We work with Tandem in a similar way: most projects coming from Tandem are in our open programme, as grass-root initiatives. We offer it as an opportunity.

Sjoerd Bootsma and other participants at the Tandem Fryslân Kick Off Meeting in Rijeka, March 2018. Photo by Guido Bosua
Sjoerd Bootsma and other participants at the Tandem Fryslân Kick Off Meeting in Rijeka, March 2018. Photo by Guido Bosua

Can you tell us more about what happens at the community level? Most events are already fully booked, many visitors are coming from the region… what do you see happening and what is your hope in terms of how this will evolve in the rest of the year and afterwards? What will the legacy be for the community?

When it comes to the European dimension, we hope to achieve a working method that includes a European or international cooperation, and that people will notice it is not as difficult as they might have thought it was and that it is a normal thing to do. Which allows to include new communities into your project. We had many more successes on European fundraising than the years before. I think Europe has become a factor in Friesland in the last few years.

How do you think local communities and visitors will experience that? For instance, we were all in Terschelling for the Tandem Fryslân Partner Forum in November 2017, a big Tandem group walking in the streets, and locals were noticing: ‘oh, the Europeans are here!’

Yes, that’s one thing!

I think it is important for Friesland to see itself as a European region, instead of just a Province of the Netherlands, that’s an important factor, because this is a different century. I hope that organisations might sooner look for European partnerships rather than looking for the ones in Amsterdam for instance, because I think that is more useful for them. I also hope that they have learned, either by doing it themselves or through the partnerships they made, that it is actually not that hard if you put in the effort. Also, in order to become a European Capital of Culture, you need to work together with many people, so a lot of people contributed to the programme and we got here together, which gives Europe a more positive vibe than it may have had before we started this whole process. There is Europe the institution and Europe the continent, including all the different communities: the narrative from Brussels and the narrative made by the communities across the continent. People usually link the idea of Europe to spending holidays in Croatia and travelling with no borders, but they don’t tie it to the idea of being neighbours with different communities on an entire continent.

Would you say this is a Frisian identity question in the face of a wider European context?

Talking to Hink for instance, I do notice that it has an effect to be in a small European collaboration because it is easier for him now to get local partners on board because he’s been taken more seriously, which is also a bit odd, but that’s how it works. When as a local initiative you want national press, you need to get international media’s attention. We had that experience with the festival: if we wanted local press attention, we first had to get the regional press on board so that the local would pick it up, and the same goes now with the national press: we need to get the international press. You always need to step over the next big thing, and you’ll be picked up, oddly enough it works like that.

How do you believe the cultural capital event will influence cultural policies and policies in general – also in working with different sectors?

I would certainly hope it will have an impact on policy making, but this is something we still have to fight for a little bit. Because there is this famous Dutch saying: “Ze dronken een glas, deden een plas en alles bleef zoals het was” (which literally translates as: ‘They drank a glass, took a piss and all stayed the way it was’), and dat willen we niet! – we don’t want that. Usually, organisations like these are also always very dependent on very few people that actually go for that, and I wonder, if you take these people out what will happen? I’m not quite sure if the legacy would be secured. There is a worry that we may not be able to sustain it in years to come: maybe one year ahead, but then four, five years later we’ll remain in our safe provincial region.

Any idea how we could address this?

We’re still fighting for the way we will structure our legacy organization, which has not yet been formalised, and I noticed the provincial and city officials want to keep the legacy in their organisations and I think that is a big mistake, because you will give it to some policy maker who will then get another job and someone else gets it and before you know it will be out of the window again. I’m really afraid of that. I hope we will be able to make a mark at the end of this year where we can claim the future of Friesland for the next ten years in a legacy plan as the public field in Friesland, including policy makers, cultural initiatives, and make a pact together and agree that this is not something that belongs only in City Hall but also in the field itself. Then we need to come up with a monitoring and guiding method, as an independent organisation. But I find it very difficult. The city and the province say: “we pay for it, we decide” and this is a challenge.

I remember during your participation in Tandem you were very active in including different sectors into your projects, such as the agricultural sector, and you are still doing this. Is this a new standard Leeuwarden or Friesland has set? How do you think that can be an inspiration for future Capitals of Culture, or to scale up on European policy level?

This is exactly what we want to achieve in our legacy, that in regional, provincial and local policy, culture is not just one paragraph, but that culture is the backbone of your policy, whether it is economic and social. At one point I realised that this cultural capital is actually about democracy. A project like King of the Meadows – whose focus is highlighting the importance of cultural and biological diversity – is a good example. I realise that through culture, we have actually – on a couple of themes – succeeded in making coalitions that are economic, social, cultural, and that they have been building up to new policy making. That is one of the things we should be proud of. I would hope that it stays like that.

You see the power of culture, the power of the arts: that you can touch someone in their heart and mind, because usually, all these democratic processes are focused on the mind, but movement only starts when you feel it first, and that’s what those people of King of the Meadows achieved. They used culture to have a wider impact.

Culture becomes a catalyst to address many other questions and tackle challenges.

Yes, exactly.

Back to Tandem: your Tandem journey is quite exceptional, starting as a participant and becoming co-designer of one of our programmes. It is exactly the direction we want to go towards, it is the logic of the Tandem community: you can be a participant and a designer at the same time. What thematic threads you see within the future of Tandem? Where do you see it going?

I think that the core aim of Tandem is giving local initiatives an international experience while also building their self-confidence, which will help gain some weight in the local community. But as you’ve been around for a little while now, your network has grown, and all your alumni have different needs, so there is a new aim you need to work on (or not, it is a choice you need to make). The question is: how do you become an active European community? There needs to be some sort of reason for cooperation post-Tandem, if you want to remain in the family, which will be different than the first time, because you’re not going to do it for the same reasons again. I think there’s a need, and how you should organise it is up for discussion. Tandem is quite a network, but how do you influence policies on the Brussels level when it comes to European grass-roots and activist movements? I am curious how Tandem will go ahead with that, and I’d be very interested to learn! Thinking about one idea based on the Tandem Fryslan experience: organising events in rural areas rather than cities, or even a “Tandem rural” may be a direction? I think that’s an opportunity you have as a programme.