On a rainy autumn day, I met Janek Szpil at the Kraków Embassy. He just arrived from picking grapes in France and I had a day of rest during my biking adventure from the Czech Republic to Poland. We spoke about local activism, Kraków cycling culture, burn-out, and Eastern inspiration.
Janek, what does the Kraków Embassy do?
It is a place where activists and social entrepreneurs meet, exchange ideas and create projects. Inspired by Berlin’s Thinkfarm we founded the organization three years ago to support local communities.
What is the biggest social or environmental challenge that Kraków is facing now?
In my view, it is whether and how Kraków will manage to develop as an open, sustainable and international city in the current political situation. In the last two years, general trend forced from the new government is to be closed and very conservative.
Did the politics influence the city?
Luckily not yet. Our mayor is old and not very modern but he remains to be independent. I am hoping that the city elections in the next year will go in a good direction and we will keep on encouraging the society which is becoming more and more active.
„SPOCO is cool“ workshop at Ambasada Krakowian, Photo by EI Polska
Can you tell me about any interesting initiatives?
We have a strong movement of defending local green areas supported by a wonderful artistic group Niedzielni. There is a wild area called Zakrzówek where the city wanted to build blocks of flats but thanks to protests major parts will be protected. We are also fighting against a highway which should be built inside the city and cross a unique forest and Vistula river. The idea is not to completely stop the construction but to have a small scale street or a tunnel highway.
How does the city react to such activism?
Surprisingly in the last years, the city hall started to be more open to environmental initiatives. I was involved for 10 years in a bicycle movement called Kraków for bikes. Many things have changed for better. We have new bike paths, contraflow lanes, a good system of city bikes and schools get financial support for building bike racks and encouraging children to cycle. But there are still certain parts of the city which are undeveloped.
When I was coming here on a bike, I noticed that the traffic on the Polish roads is huge.
It is a problem of Malopolska region. It is densely inhabited and you have traffic everywhere. The thing is that both the government and NGO’s should work together to support cycling. Usually, the city builds the infrastructure and NGO’s raise awareness. We organized a huge cycling festival and ride across the city. The ride still takes place on a smaller scale but I left the movement.
Photo by Bartolomeo Koczenasz
Was it too much work?
Yes, it was. I was organizing the festival, fighting with the city council about infrastructure and I forgot about my personal life. I had serious health problems and at one moment, I just had to stop and rethink everything. I resigned and started my work here. I now do more yoga and less activism. I also think I do a cleverer activism than before.
The burn-out syndrome is such a common issue in the NGO sector, right?
Absolutely. People working there are too active. I have some NGO people in my yoga classes and they are the biggest work because they are so tense. People should find a balance. I know it is hard to combine being an activist and keeping a peace of mind, but it is really important and manageable.
Now that you are focused and balanced, what do you do?
I work at the Kraków Embassy where I connect people who solve problems in different projects. I also organize events and coordinate networking breakfast and Kraków Soup.
Photo by Olga Baca & Obart Studio
A Kraków Soup? What is that?
The idea came up in Detroit in 2010 after the city’s serious social and financial crisis. The Detroit Soup is an event in which people meet over a cup of soup and vote for the best project with a positive impact on the community. The money raised for the food is given to the winning project.
Wow, I have never heard about it. How does it work here?
Well, we have had two editions so far with around 50 people participating in each of them and we raised around 200 euros at each event, so in general 400 euros and two initiatives came up. We will do another round in winter and see.
What other projects do you do?
I am responsible for organizing a networking breakfast. Initially, we wanted to connect NGO people but it is unpredictable who will come (laughing). We have had local politicians, entrepreneurs, start-up people, a boss of a big company, homeless people, travelers, friends of the Embassy, freelancers, and artists. We share food and talk about what is happening in the city.
Photo by Bartolomeo Koczenasz
I guess there is a lot happening in such a big city. I was wondering do you also work with expats?
Yes, we created a project called Collaborate, Kraków. We connect foreigners with local activist groups and engage them in our organization. So far there has been a project about food waste and a summer film festival. However, there is still a problem of language since city institutions and many NGO’s do not speak English.
It is same in the Czech Republic. Speaking of our region, a majority of environmental and social initiatives take inspiration from the West. Are there any unique ideas that come from here?
We take a lot of trends from Western Europe but there is something important which exists here and in other Eastern countries. We have spirituality and traditions which are alive here and not anymore in the West. I am connected to people who are exploring traditional Polish culture – singing, crafts making, natural building and traditional natural agriculture. This is a huge area which we are just starting to explore and we have a lot of things to share with the world.
It is making me feel proud…
See, if I think about my inspirations in life, I take a lot from the East. For example, I am a fan of Russian network of eco-villages based on Anastasia movement. These villages based on spiritual activism have been mushrooming since the 1980’s and it has even accelerated thanks to Putin’s project to rent land. Ukraine also has interesting projects similar to our Embassy. Or have a look at urban gardening. There are great urban gardens from the communist times and now we can combine them with permaculture. There are many great things here. We just need to rediscover them and combine them with the coming trends.
Thank you for the inspiring end. Good luck with your yoga activism, Janek.
Copyright: cover photo by Bartolomeo Koczenasz, all photos were used with permission of the photographers.