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Citizen assemblies are valued and promoted by a wide spectrum of advocates for increasing grassroots participation, democratization, diversity, solidarity, inclusion, sustainability, public health, community resources, transparency, and more. They are a favorite social prescription from prominent activists, academics, and organizers, yet are rarely actualized and sustained.
I spoke with representatives from The Initiative for Citywide Assembly (Iniciativa mestni zbor – IMZ) about the non-partisan, self-organized municipal assemblies in Maribor, Slovenia that has now been active for 10 years. IMZ shares its rich experiences, offering insights into organizing and facilitation, organizational structure and culture, community, diversity, intersectional activism, and more.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Would you introduce us to the citizen assembly movement in Slovenia? How and when did it begin? What was the context in which the project was conceived and launched?
The Initiative for Citywide Assembly (Iniciativa mestni zbor – IMZ) is a group of citizens whose aim it is to promote non-partisan political self-organization at the city district level in the Municipality of Maribor, Slovenia.
The initiative was formed in turbulent times at the end of 2012, when people, deeply unsatisfied with local as well as state governance, took to the streets.
Describe the structure and values of IMZ and of the citizen assemblies themselves. Does IMZ draw on certain theories or organizing traditions? Are you rooted in any political or social vision?
Our aim is to regain the co-determination and co-management that was taken away from us at the local, municipal, and national levels. This is achieved most effectively through direct democracy.
We believe that the solution lies in self-organizing, debate, sharing information, and education, which enables us to critically, directly, and creatively respond to the degeneration of our political and social system.
The initiative (IMZ) and citizen assemblies are both structured the same way. They are both horizontally organized, without directly appointed leadership. Participation in both the initiative and/or citizen assemblies is voluntary. Neither IMZ nor local assemblies are a formal organization of any kind.
From the early days of the project through the first 10 years, what was the development like? How many citizens participate, and what is their connection to the group? What were some notable experiences, challenges, and achievements?
The assemblies started to happen at an opportune moment. After the economic crisis, municipalist movements came to life and older ideas of different political and economic systems (socialism, communism) became a possibility again.
This resulted in a really high level of participation (between 20 and 60 people per assembly) at citizens’ assemblies at the beginning. Mostly older generations, who still remember how self-management (at the workplace and at the municipal/city districts level) worked in Yugoslavia participated.
Because of the assemblies, the Municipality of Maribor has become more responsive to inquiries from the citizens and is even a little bit afraid or annoyed when they get a letter from an assembly requesting answers (which happens quite a lot).
What is also an extremely important achievement of the assemblies is the introduction of participatory budgeting in Slovenia in 2015.
Looking forward, we really want to include Roma people in the assemblies or other groups of people who really live on the edges of society, though assemblies have already helped defuse some of the societal antipathies towards the marginalized groups.
Did IMZ as an organization go through any significant changes or iterations over the years? How have you maintained a resilient and effective organizational culture?
Organizing and moderating citizen assemblies is a major part of IMZ’s efforts, but not the only thing. In the past, we didn’t stress enough that other contributions, like administrative work, were necessary to sustain and grow our efforts.
At times, a lot of people left, and not many new ones came. So, the reason that IMZ still exists is probably just our stubbornness and a firm belief that this activity is necessary.
Even when assembly attendance slowed down, we pivoted our efforts in order to help our city deal with the consequences of climate change. Two projects – planting a Miyawaki tiny urban forest and planting a part of a bare stream bank raised quite a lot of interest, connecting us to various people and organizations.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the project? How did IMZ and the assembly participants handle this disruption?
Essential for citizen assemblies is an open, safe space where people who live in the same community meet face to face and debate about good and less good aspects of living in that community. The Covid-19 pandemic shut all that down and forced us to move to the internet.
Online assemblies were considerably less engaging and not very fruitful. During the two years of the most severe pandemic period, both live and online assemblies were eventually discontinued.
During this time we tried to stay connected with people and keep them informed with periodical e-news releases.
Once Covid-19 became manageable, we found that people have returned in similar numbers, though the complexity of the activities has been reduced and most of the built-up self-organized structure will need to be reformed. We have noticed, however, that more people aged between 25 and 40 have started attending the assemblies.
Are there any organizing lessons or observations on how citizens relate to participatory civic projects that you want to share? Either during Covid or generally?
Firstly, we find it is important that assemblies are carried out at the same physical space, always at the same time. Our current assembly dynamic is once a month, at the same day and at the same hour.
Secondly, a community agreement on how the assembly is going to communicate, reach decisions, and form actions must be the first thing people at the assembly create together and agree on. Community agreement is then revised at the beginning of every assembly and attendees are free to change some of it or all of it, if they agree on it. And that form of agreement is then valid for that session of the assembly.
Alongside agreement on tolerant, non-discriminatory, and productive discussion, there are three points that are a part of every community agreement of every citizen’s assembly in Maribor.
- All participants at the assembly are just citizens, and no political or professional functions or statuses are mentioned.
- All decisions are reached via consensus of all present.
- The principle of direct action is the modus operandi for all actions.
We believe community is best described as a circle, therefore conversation on matters of community is best held sitting in a circle with no barriers between people. It gives everyone an equal position, and the same overview, there’s nothing going on behind anyone’s back.
It is also important that assembly moderators do just that – moderate debate, strive towards forming conclusions, and nothing else. They do not impose their own opinions or suggest what is to be done.
Where does the project stand today? What is the current and long-term agenda of IMZ?
After lockdowns were lifted, we relaunched assemblies this fall in their original form. All ten citizen assemblies produced audiences larger than usual, with many participants being returning visitors.
This gives us the motivation to continue to work towards our long-term goal concerning local assemblies:
- to open spaces for citizen assemblies all over the Municipality of Maribor (the urban area we have covered, the city surroundings, not so much);
- for local assemblies to evolve from “the project” into an accepted standard form of communication and collaboration amongst people living in the same community in cooperation with local authorities.
Have other tangential projects or initiatives arisen out IMZ and its members? Or likewise from the assemblies themselves?
The idea to implement participatory budgeting as a form of direct participation in the matters of the municipality came to life from the assemblies. Today around 41 municipalities in Slovenia execute participatory budgeting processes.
A few former or occasional moderators joined the struggle for workers’ rights and are quite successfully strengthening unions of workers in retail and in personal assistance. They’ve helped set up the first-ever union of workers in creative professions, mostly independent workers and artists.
Before the last mayoral election (2018), assembly participant-led workshops produced a list of demands for local leaders to implement in order to improve conditions in individual neighborhoods. At this time 19 of the 61 demands have been realized and we are confident that number will rise.
Additionally, some of the assembly participants formed non-party, independent political groups to run in local elections and managed to win a number of district council seats.
And of course, the two bigger projects addressing adapting Maribor to climate change have come to life, as we mentioned above.
For readers who are inspired to action by your work thus far in Slovenia, what do you recommend? How can others develop and sustain citizen assemblies in their communities around the world?
For us, it has always been really important not to take over the assemblies with our own agendas or to try to steer them in the direction of our own political ideology/beliefs. It just ruins the idea of self-organizing.
It’s important not to give up and not to become disillusioned when attendance drops or action slows down. As an organizer and moderator, you have to remember it is most important that such open spaces exist, that it is all voluntary, and that you are here to give support. But the pace of work, willingness to dig into certain challenges, decisions for action – that is a decision of the people at the assembly.
Are there further resources and/or contacts you would like to share?
Always good to read Edvard Kardelj, the main creator of the Yugoslav system of workers’ self-management. We have learned about moderating a horizontal group from the anarchists. Also, the concept of a participatory society connecting economy, polity, kinship, and community developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel is something we believe is reflected in the assemblies.