Ina's Service Learning Project - Social Center Uzina

For her service learning project, senior Ina B. from cohort 1 transformed an abandoned building into a social center. With help from several NGO-s and friends, Uzina is up and running.

The need (a social center) and the asset (youth)

Tirana is abundant in betting bars, cafes, restaurants, abandoned buildings, and homeless people but no place where individuals can gather and organize the events that they desire. In a post-communist society, the central measure of all things is individual profit. Privatization has taken over the city, slowly making the local Albanian become hostile to their very own socially-prone culture, and discouraged to take part in any form of civic engagement.

A socio-cultural/community center offers a shared space where individuals can take full autonomy over the organization/management of the center, thus its identity is based upon how the citizens shape it. Its function is always dependent upon a need in the community, it could be anything ranging from a school, an art space, a home, etc.

Having a space that encourages one to be themselves is really important in the development of youngsters. In the case of Tirana, youth don’t have the money or funding to rent or gain access to such a space. However, with a group of very motivated individuals, we were convinced that a vacant building could offer all the possibilities to encourage youth participation in constructing our own customs and meaning.

In collaboration with a Belgian, a Kosovar, and a Macedonian NGO, my friends and I turned an abandoned building into a socio-cultural space. We transformed a potential threat for a neighborhood and a city at large into an opportunity for personal and community development. This project aims to reinforce existing local initiatives of young people and to guide that sense of initiative into concrete results.

The building was transformed in a matter of two weeks, and although there are still quite a few basic necessities missing, we’ve been able to start projects, keep it open during warm days, and organize events. The center is located in the suburbs of Tirana, which is not ideal as it is far away from the center, however, it really provides insight into the aim of this space as it directly faces the reality of a marginalized community.

Uzina is a socio-cultural space with the aim of empowering the local community to transform ideas into action. We hope to bring about a Decentralized Renaissance in art, the politics of life, and culture. The goal of Uzina is to cultivate empathy, compassion, and altruism. We continuously work (and play) to promote love for people, nature, culture, and learning.

Why a social center?

The idea of a social space is rooted in the idea of the commons- rather than a resource, the commons is a process, a set of social relations by which a group of people shares responsibility for a particular space. The city or the neighborhood should be seen as a commons: a social system with a dedicated community that owns and manages the city or the neighborhood according to inclusive values. Working on sustainable and social food systems, democratic data commons, energy cooperatives, and other solidarity networks, we can reclaim the Right to the City.

With the threat of social unrest, environmental collapse, a TT (totalitarian-tendencies) government, anxiety, and distrust, the city is the frontline of a battle against exploitative and extractive systems. Public space is increasingly being sold off, and the very city that’s supposed to belong to all people- is slowly becoming a very foreign land that we’ve come to stumble upon. Simultaneously, the city is also where home, inspiration, and action stand.

To bring life to a city you simply need to create spaces where life wants to be... And I’m most certain that life doesn’t want to be at betting bars.

The idea of urban commons seems to be new as from my experience the words of “social center” have always made people assume I'm a communist, and “community-run events” somehow translates to “hippie parties.” This idea of the commons is nothing new, rather it illustrates historical roots. They’re outputs of a renewed process that come from historical trends and accumulated knowledge. The idea of “commons” is the epitome of “radicalism” in a country that has yet to recover from a Stalinist-inspired “communist” dictatorship. However, my friends and I wanted to decipher this very “radical” idea into something that can be accepted and re-welcomed in our society.

Often people assume that this is just a place for teenagers to fool around...and although yes, we do have quite some jubilant parties, the purpose is very much centered towards something bigger than ourselves *ego feels threatened*. This environment puts forward values of inclusivity and collaboration as the basis of its functionality.

Being and feeling as a part of such a collective inevitably forces you to perceive your reality through a critical lens of manmade systems, implicit rules, and constructs that control our lives today. It’s an environment that is constantly challenging our perception of the world as our different understandings of how things should be done continuously clash. At Uzina we focus on what it means to have collective responsibility, how to make decisions that satisfy a big group, how to have real conversations, creating a chain of shared knowledge, staying true to our values, pursuing truth, managing very complex group dynamics, creating a safe space and encouraging youth participation.

Most importantly, we are constantly having meetings and organizing events in order for this system to be sustainable otherwise it can fall under the trap of simply remaining a romantic underestimation of a bunch of idealists. Being part of such a collective, you cannot be on autopilot anymore as one’s commitment to the social center requires active participation and responsibility.

What makes Uzina so interesting and powerful is that it captures important aspects of many different problems that occur in diverse settings in all parts of the world. If we cannot manage to shape the spaces and activities that take over our lives, how do we expect to manage natural resources when they may be at stake during times of a pandemic? :) #foodforthought #justsaying #allcitiesarefullofvacantbuildings #bigasset #gograssrootorgohome #thinklocalactlocal

”We do not find essential nor predetermined communities without internal debate and contradictions. Rather, communities’ potentialities are found in their ability to generate new social bonds and, to some extent, to have some impact beyond their immediate social environment. Their aim is to expand themselves, from the plot to the neighbourhood, and from the neighbourhood to the whole city.” - Bru Laín Escandell