Interview with Logan Strenchock from CE University

No comments

Logan Strenchock lives in Hungary’s capital Budapest, but is originally from Pennsylvania in the United States. During his studies he travelled around a lot: after he had lived in the US for twenty years, he obtained a Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering and Historic Preservation of Monuments and Structures in Italy and Spain, then he left again for the US to learn about the destructive impact of US food systems on health and the environment.

 

The discrimination and exploitation in food systems in the US triggered him to acquire more knowledge of environmental issues, which brought him to the close connection between politics and economics. He knew he wanted to come back to Europe afterwards to study in an international program. Therefore, he applied for an Environmental Sciences and Policy program in Budapest. He fell in love with the city and chose a Hungarian topic as his thesis project: the development of local food systems initiated by citizens of Budapest.

 

Strenchock talked to us about his work as a researcher and environmental officer at the CE University, but also about his work on green initiatives inside and outside Belgrade. He pointed out three organisations that inspire him in particular: The Szatyor Association, AVM and The Street Lawyers and told us why. In conclusion, he analyses the way politics influences the functioning of the university and civil society organisations.

 

“[It] is my responsibility to introduce the good things happening in Hungary and Budapest, especially those related to the environmental and social movement, to students who pass through here.”

 

“Nowadays, I work in the university as environmental officer for three days a week. I work a lot to help establish the baseline of our sustainability programme, which is related to the way we manage infrastructure, our recycling program, our procurement policy. We also try to communicate with people to make smarter choices and tell students and employees to use electricity consciously although they’re not paying for it. For the last four years, I’ve been working as an in-house environmental design consultant with the architectural team that was designing the campus redevelopment project. We make the decisions related to the eventual energy consuming performance of the building. The third part of the job here at the university, which I think is the most important, is my responsibility to introduce the good things happening in Hungary and Budapest, especially those related to the environmental and social movement, to students who pass through here. CEU is a Master’s and PhD institution, so students are here only for one or two years and can very easily pass through the university and not necessarily know all of the good things happening locally. I think there are great opportunities for students to pursue this on their own, but if people in the university can help to make this connection, then it makes it much easier for them. I like to think that each student has a personal responsibility for seeing what’s happening in their local community.

 

“The people you see are doing very inspiring things and are making a tough choice not everyone would make.”

 

They’re super busy, though, so it helps them to meet people and learn about what’s happening when I can bring these people to the university and I can bring students to these socially significant places in the city as well. That’s probably my favourite part of this job: being a link between civil society and the students and staff who work here. Besides this, I also do my own research projects and write articles. I was involved in a research project over the last year that was the called the ‘Accelerating and Rescaling Transitions for Sustainability‘ project, which was an EU FP7 project. The last assignment I did was making a road map for increasing the impact of the civil, environmental and social movement and diagnosing the biggest challenges compared to the other partner cities in the project (Genk, Stockholm, Brighton and Dresden). Budapest and Dresden had some similarities, it was nice to learn what was happening in these other cities. It was our responsibility to try to diagnose the challenges and unique possibilities here and then try to bring together decision makers and civil society representatives. To summarise
the whole research: the distance between decision makers and civil groups in Budapest was by far the largest and the mechanisms for people to share information were the least functional here. So the story of civil, environmental and social activism and movements here in Hungary is a story of very resilient people doing something which is quite risky and which takes up a lot of their time and effort, but they do it with great creativity and make a lot happen without a whole amount of financial resources behind them.

 

These people are very dynamic and could have taken the easy way out: a high paying job here or they could’ve left a long time ago. But they stayed here because they wanted to see change. They have seen a lot of their comrades working and fighting for financial support, often coming from abroad and getting fed up with it and going away again. I have great respect for them and it is one of the reasons why I really love staying here: the people you see are doing very inspiring things and are making a tough choice not everyone would make.

 

“[The Szatyor Association] is about the right to know more about your food, the right to have access to healthy food and the right to engage in a solidarity exchange with people you want to know and care about.”

 

One of the projects that really tries to change the system is the Szatyor Association, a citizens initiated local food cooperative. It was started by a group of neighbours that wanted to know where their food came from and ordered together from food producers instead of  as one person, because they don’t trust what comes from a supermarket. Little by little other neighbours found out about it and it became so big that their garage wasn’t big enough for the shipments. It started in 2007-2008 with the neighbours and in 2012 it got to the point where it was big and popular enough to require a separate space. They renovated an old abandoned photo production laboratory and turned it into their box distribution centre and shop. They started with a small network of producers, but they’re working with 30 or 35 producers now and probably hundreds of families. A lot of the locally sourced products are organic and they have their own kind of certification system which is based on transparency and not necessarily the label that the agricultural sector provides. Besides being a mechanism for people to get food boxes, they are a useful communal space. They reach a lot of people: youngsters, new families and people with young children which are all important target groups to reach.

 

I don’t think they have one set vision, let alone a political one, but I think it’s about the right to know more about your food, the right to have access to healthy food and the right to engage in a solidarity exchange with people you want to know and care about. None of these are possible in an exchange which takes place in a supermarket. The transition after the regime change in less than fifteen years completely changed the way people buy food here in the country. This was all made possible by the opening up of foreign owned food companies and this allowed the mechanisation and supermarketisation of the country to take place. Thus, a group like Szatyor its activity is just a basic activity to make it easier to access locally produced food, but also re-appropriating or giving back the – I don’t like to use the buzzword ‘sovereignty’ – knowledge to the people.

 

Personally, I would describe it as ‘commons’ in a way, but Szatyor is a pretty open space. When I think about the themes of commons and food, I come to the conclusion that there should be more commons. Szatyor has a perfect model set-up, which has great benefits in its community. If there were common spaces in every district, something like this could be replicated. Now, the people who manage Szatyor take all the risk to make this place possible. For example, it was not supported by a governmental grant, the people who manage Szatyor paid for the place with their own money, they did the renovation, they have to worry about balancing the books and they have to stay in competition with all of the shops who don’t care at all about social benefits or the origins of the food. When I think about a good argument for commons, it is the argument for guaranteeing this type of place for exchanging local products.

 

“I want to give [Szatyor] credit for upgrading something in a completely commons format and doing it also within the system, but having at the same time completely stepped out of the system.”

 

Szatyor is certainly ran in as a solidarity community while also having a lot of pressure to exist legally and functionally within the official system as well. They’re doing everything from reporting their taxes to doing everything according to the health code. So by saying commons, I don’t want to have the context that they are just doing everything by themselves with no oversight. I want to give them credit for upgrading something in a completely commons format and doing it also within the system, but having at the same time completely stepped out of the system. This gives them stability, because if they weren’t doing any of these things, someone could come and shut them down. They consciously took this into account during the development process by registering themselves according to all legal requirements. They’ve taken all the steps to secure that they can keep working, so that they are not a fleeting short-lived mirage for one year and then disappear. I think in an ideal world we would make it easier for people to access space to do this type of activity, because even though organisations like Szatyor don’t want to be political, they are viewed as political by others, because they work outside the system. If we’re talking to somebody planning the future of the city, these types of spaces should be provided, I think. And it shouldn’t have to be a struggle.

 

“Other organisations doing very inspiring work are AVM and The Street Lawyers.”

 

Another organisation doing very inspiring work is AVM (A Város Mindenkié), The City Is For Everyone. They provide a voice for the people who are here in the city and who don’t have a voice: elderly, people getting evicted from their houses, homeless people, and people recovering from certain ailments. I think this type of work and these people are the unsung heroes by providing the social backbone of society which isn’t delivered by the state supported structures, so there’s a whole gap of people left behind. I know this organisation and its work. This group is dynamic because it’s run by a bunch of incredibly intelligent people who are very committed and well-educated. They have worked very hard to get the organisation to where it is. But I’m sure there are a number of similar organisations who have more traditional social support activities and who do just as inspiring work which I might not know about because I’m not directly working in that field.

 

The last inspiring group I want to mention is called ‘The Street Lawyers’. They are all law students, either finishing or still going through their education, who provide free legal counsel for people who either can’t afford it or wouldn’t be represented by traditional lawyers. I know a few people who work with the organisation, and their work is really grinding. They might only get to know the day before they need to go on a bus and go to Debrecen, Miskolc or somewhere else to represent someone during the day. It’s hard and mentally challenging work, they’re definitely not in it for financial compensation. I find it quite inspiring as well.

 

“I give a lot of credit to my professors for my education, but I learned just as much from my classmates”

 

But back to CEU. So the university has students from a 100 different countries. There is no overwhelming majority, but the highest percentage of students is Hungarian. However, it’s still only 15-18% in any given year. Then you might have Russians, 10%, people from the US, 10%, usually there are quite a lot of Chinese students. So the dominant majority of nationality might be only 15-18%. The professors are very international as well, but probably above 30% is Hungarian. It’s very international, which results in a great environment to study in. I give a lot of credit to my professors for my education, but I learned just as much from my classmates when I was studying here. When the discussion keeps going after the class period and you want to know about the reality in a completely different space, you talk to your classmate from Somalia or your classmate from Bosnia or South America. You’re working together on these projects, you’re discussing different topics, you do a lot of group works and one of the most rewarding experiences is learning how to function in an international group of people and learning how to do group works, how to communicate, deal with conflict and with success as well. It’s one of the main selling points of the university but it also is what makes it unique. Balancing between thinking and reality always catching up would be one of the university’s catchphrases.

 

“This is the first case of a direct attack against a specific university in a European context, so that’s why it’s significant.”

 

If you want to hear about the political contestation of the university, you should go to much smarter people than me to give you all the political science background why any of this happened. But I will try to give a short summary. So protests started last year during spring time with a quick fast track change in higher education law, which was not deliberated at all but fast tracked through parliament because of the Fidesz majority. It made the operation of CEU not possible. Until then the university had done everything it was asked to do, which took a lot of effort, time, resources and people. What I can say is that when a place where many people have worked is jeopardised for more than a year, it obviously impacts a lot of people’s mental states during that period. I think the university has shown a lot of resilience, because people know what is going on. I think it has been quite amazing that the student activity, the teaching, learning, studying, the writing of theses and research papers has carried on. That is a good sign. I would rather not comment from the perspective of the university, because I’m not the university spokesperson. I would rather speak as somebody who lives here in Budapest, when you see the time wasted by the side of the government into this type of strategy which could have been directed towards actually improving the case for people here and improving Hungary’s relationships with other partners abroad, it’s just another example of an incredible waste of time and resources. And for what? All part of basically a political chess match.

 

It is the focus of loud social discussions, because they fast tracked the law through the parliament which deliberately targeted one university in the country, that’s why it’s controversial. Turkey has closed down universities which have produced any sort of counter-thought compared to what the ideology is. The university in Saint Petersburg was closed down because they were producing work that wasn’t favourable of the Russian government. So, this is the first case of a direct attack against a specific university in a European context, so that’s why it’s significant. People from all over the EU wrote about this quite extensively and I’m happy that they brought the attention to this issue. As somebody living here day to day and knowing what it’s like and knowing the way that most people can’t believe how the government could be so bold to waste so much time, resources and opportunities to engage in this mudslinging match, that’s the disheartening thing. I’m not going to go into my thought why Hungary plays this kind of resisting role in European politics, because that is a lot more complex than it seems and requires a lot more looking back into the last twenty years of Hungary’s relationship to the EU to understand this. I just think that it’s just an incredible waste of time and resources.

 

“The operating environment for NGOs and civic groups […] are actually targeted as opponents or adversaries, especially if they were successfully enough to receive at some point in their existence financial support from a foreign country. So these groups were the next people on the chopping block.”

 

About the projects sprouting up in the landscape… The city is definitely evolving. I think there was a wave before I was here: in the early 2000s, the birth of what is called counter-culture. If you take a walk around in the most popular districts you see the aesthetic of it, this kind of turning Budapest into a new useful space. This wave of business people and mostly young entrepreneurs who took the abandoned parts of the city and turned them into something lively. Sometimes by not even having a direct plan but basically by occupying spaces, transforming them into cafes or social meeting places, and having this developed into this ruin pub culture. And I’m not saying that the ruin pub culture represents the social movement, but during that period, space in the city centres was still quite accessible. The rise of the ruin pub culture is an example of the creativity of Hungarians because they took spaces nobody else wanted and turned them into the most hippest places where you have all of these people coming from all around the world to immerse themselves in this aesthetic which was basically taking exactly what you had because you didn’t have anything else and rearranging it to make it look nice and finding a new life for a space and making something out of it, which is a gift from the Hungarian creative spirit.

 

Starting in the early 2000s, there was also a wave of environmental and social NGOs. They were a more traditional style of foundation, since they were getting support from the government at that time. There wasn’t yet this ‘ostracising’ of NGOs, there was support for them. This wave peaked in the mid 2000s and then went down again. You had a lot of people leaving and a lot of organisations lose their stable financial backing. The operating environment for NGOs and civic groups now is much worse than it was back then, because they are actually targeted as opponents or adversaries, especially if they were successfully enough to receive at some point in their existence financial support from a foreign country. So these groups, like CEU, were the next people on the chopping block, who were already openly criticised or attacked.

 

“[Tourism] is changing Budapest by making it more like a carbon copy of all the European cities where the centre is exactly the same.”

 

But as one of these groups operating in Budapest, one of the things that makes it a bit different, is that it’s changing quickly. Five years ago it was still quite affordable to find a place to operate. So to make a HQ for your organisation, you didn’t need €200.000 or €500.000 to buy and renovate a space in the city centre. The tourism has been slowly building, but the drastic change in rent prices came because of Airbnb, because of landlords deciding it is not worth it anymore to rent your flat or office to a person, because it’s much easier just renting it out as an Airbnb. This has drastically increased the rental cost. Increasing tourism and increasing the amount of plane flight is a financially supported goal of the government as well. They are banking so much on increasing the amount of tourism each year. And you see it publicised in the newspaper: Liszt Ferenc Airport breaks June record for the amount of flights that come through, breaks the October record. It’s a constant expansion of the airport now, they are basically planning the whole next ten year of the urban policy to improve how lucrative Budapest is as a tourist stop for people. This has put pressure on the existing civil organisations, but also on the ones that may have come up. In the past you could usually find a space which was your own and also affordable, even if your main activities weren’t profit driven. I also fear this besides the political pressure on civil organisations. This is changing Budapest by making it more like a carbon copy of all the European cities where the centre is exactly the same and has the same shops. Wherever you go to the same type of things, you drive around in big buses ran by the same company. This happened slower here but it has taken off.

 

“The missing point is the upscaling of the impact of it, which is still something the people living here still need to figure out.”

 

So this is happening when at the same time there’s pressure against anyone trying to create self-organised civil support movements. So it is not a very good combination of things happening at the same time. But then again, I don’t want to come off by saying: “Oh, it’s so depressing here, nothing works right”, because it still is a wonderful place to work, to volunteer, to collaborate with people and there still are a lot of people doing it, and there are still many good things happening. The missing point is the upscaling of the impact of it, which is still something the people living here still need to figure out.

 

I wrote a paper about this. The conclusions of that research paper were that obviously the upscaling of impact could happen the most efficiently and fastest if there was more interest and participation by decision makers at the municipal, city and higher level. It would be a waste of time for me to suggest that the civic groups should stand around and wait for that to happen, because it’s not going to happen on its own. What the research also suggests to do was to work and use the time when financial support exists to create forums, to bring together these pioneers, to get them to start thinking about how to work together, how to support each other, etcetera. The green movement and the social movement in Budapest is very dynamic but still small enough so that everybody knows everybody and is aware of everyone’s activities, but it doesn’t mean that they always get together and plan events together to find efficiencies and to share their resources and platforms. What we tried to do throughout the time and the project was try to get people together to work and to come up with their own projects and collaborations between districts or groups in the same area. While doing this, at least we tried to find two or three pioneers or forward-thinking local municipal representatives who said: “I want to make my district the landmark district in Budapest”. This happens a bit in some of the districts, like the thirteenth district and the district of Zuglo have a lot of positive projects. It’s basically by a municipal decision maker who decided to take advantage of some of the unique, creative and active people who are already in the district. So a municipal decision maker is very ignorant if he is not trying to find out what is already happening in their district, not trying to support them and increase the impact.

 

“This is the problem: how do you know what to support as a good practice if you don’t have any idea of what’s happening?”

 

The support by the local district politicians and political structure is crucial, at least for incorporating the ideas, which were set by the groups working on their own resources, into urban policy whether it’s connected to food, biking, education or social support. It would make things much more effective and it would make them be able to design and plan programs for the next ten years with things that already work, instead of wasting all their time by writing some ten year plan, not doing any of it, figuring out a way to blow resources on nonsense projects just as they arrive. There are tons of structural support funds which come and pass through, not just in Budapest but the whole country. If you’re looking for good ideas on what to support, you already have all of these things happening which you can support, but there are many representatives who don’t have any idea on what’s happening in their district. This is the problem: how do you know what to support as a good practice if you don’t have any idea of what’s happening? It depends on the district but it is the most top down type of governance which I can only compare to the cities I lived in or the cities I was a project partner in. Someone in the city has a vision set, everyone has to abide by it: that’s the vision, there is nothing coming from the other direction. Where in the other cities it starts with a dialogue here and then it goes to another dialogue there and finally it’s connected to the person at the top.

 

Especially with this top down governance, you could imagine that it would really make sense that the people of civil society self-organise their own assembly of the commons, where people set a kind of formal structure so they can find a common voice. It sounds good in theory here, but you have to take into account as well that the people forming these commons in the places where it works, probably have the time in their day and financial security to come together and form the commons. When you have people here with two or three jobs and then still going and maybe managing their civic organisation which tires them out and doesn’t earn them anything: that hurdle needs to be overcome. Taking into account this unfavourable situation and the fact that the average income here is much lower and they spend more of their actual income on food and things like that, I still have positive feelings because I just see creativity here which gets things done. The way people can come together at the last moment, the way people can combine their different capabilities and skills together to make really meaningful projects, the way that they are not jaded by just doing it because they have some job that they don’t feel good about because of its moral repercussions and that’s why they volunteer, it’s not like that, people are in these organisations because they’ve invested in it and because of where it’s going and what it can do. I try not to be pessimistic, I don’t see like this huge wave of bottom-up counter revolution, but I think that it is the role and duty of people who live in the city to be very aware of these things and find out citizen to citizen how to find the group where they can give their support to. And that is what I would target, instead of waiting around for the government to change. We can challenge or inspire people because they have a responsibility as well.

 

“My passion is working to mix what I do outside the university with what I do inside.”

 

So, as you already know, I work at the university, but my passion is working to mix what I do outside with what I do inside. When I don’t work at the university, I work at an organic farm doing whatever is required: planting, weeding, working with the horse, preparing soil and sowing seeds. I started working at the farm because I did my thesis research on chronicling a citizen’s initiative where people generated local food movements in the city. And I had to see the other side, so I started spending time on farms and working there for a day. I ended up on this farm where I really liked their holistic philosophy to what they wanted to farm and represent. As hard as they worked to produce high quality products, they worked to make the farm an asset to the community and also to the extended community, by allowing people to come  over there and using the farm as a crafts room. They are constantly hosting children, adults, growers who want to convert to growing organically. We do it because it’s part of our responsibility to educate people and we feel like that there aren’t a lot of other people speaking on behalf of organic producers, especially small scale producers. The other reason why I wanted to stay working on the farm is because they are really committed to using mostly human labour, and as much as we can, we use our horse preparing the soil instead of machines. Obviously, we are organically certified so we can’t use chemicals or artificial fertilisers, but there are steps far behind what is the baseline level for organic which the farm is really committed to: maintaining the diversity, the maintenance of the nutrient level in the soil and the making of our own compost. That’s one part of my projects. I’m very happy bouncing between working on a farm and being here in the city.

 

A whole other project I do is also one of the reasons why I like living here: I work with people who are all quite committed to trying to inspire positive change in the community with some friends I met around the green initiatives in the city. We thought about making a degrowth centre but didn’t really know what that was. We then tried to define the crossover point between all of our activities and we made a space that is a community cargo bike centre, local food box distribution point, open space for events or workshops, dispatching centre of a bike messaging company, delivery point of food boxes… We used the space to plan the degrowth conference in 2016 and now we have designed a number of environmental education workshops over the last few years. We’re trying to design an open source community cargo bike system.

 

At the university, we have a weekend program where we’ve been helping refugees and asylum seekers who want to pursue further education. It has been going on for already two and a half year now. After the first year a number of the students were accepted in Master’s programs, not just here, but also in other universities in Europe. It’s all volunteer driven, so you have PhD students, professors and master students in here, which is pretty admirable. It is still a little bit an experiment from our side because you have to try to design something what is the best for everyone. Do you want to push them all towards higher education? That’s not the best for everyone. Do you want to train them to get a job in Hungary or elsewhere and teach how to design a program which is right and good for all of these tasks? We’re in existence for two years now and it has been going well so far. We’re happy with the results.”

Interview by OIKOS
Photos by Sonderland