Academia Cidadã – Joana Dias

Academia Cidadã (Citizens Academy) was founded in 2012 by a group of graduates in Lisbon. Although mainly active in the capital, it seeks to educate and empower citizens across Portugal  – especially young people and marginalised social groups. They do this through educational workshops in schools, direct action protests and forms of artistic activism.  Some projects and initiatives have small amounts of funding (Academia operates a not-for-profit association) but the organisation runs on the commitment and trust of organisers and volunteers.

‘Geração a Rasca’

Academia Cidadã was founded in the wake of 2011’s anti-austerity protests, the biggest in Portugal since the Carnation Revolution in 1974. According to Joana Dias – a co-founder ofAcademia Cidadã – this was an ‘awakening’ of civil society that formed the identity of a generation of activists.

During the protests they marched under the slogan ‘Geração a Rasca’ (The troubled generation)‘ – a play on Prime Minister José Sócrates’s reference to young people as Geração Rasa (Generation Trouble). Citizen’s Academy aims to carry forward the spirit of these protests and the words of Portuguese novelist José Saramago, referenced during the protests, to ‘make every citizen a politician’.

Joana says that they want to provide a counterweight to a culture of people ‘not taking the initiative’ – a mentality she believes has its roots in the long years of the Estado Novo when independent thinking and civil society were repressed.

If it is helpful to understand Academia Cidadã as ‘reclaiming the commons’, it is a commons of the most fundamental (albeit quite abstract) kind: the places citizens inhabit that enable them to influence decisions which affect their lives.

No structure. But power doesn’t go away.

Academia Cidadã likes to think of itself as having a horizontal structure which is true to the egalitarian, democratic values it spreads through its projects. What it has in reality is an informal structure. At the centre are 12 coordinator-administrators who initiate new projects and decide what the academy will focus on. Outside this there are approximately 150 people on an email list who are invited to assemblies where ideas for new projects are discussed, suggestions for improvement made and levels of enthusiasm gauged. Because their voluntary work is important to making a project happen, they effectively have the power to stop or advance projects and are ‘members’ in all but name.Academia Cidadã also has a facebook page with 5,000 likes – which is an important for publicising projects and actions.

Navigating difficulties

Academia Cidadã faces difficulties common to all organisations in Southern Europe trying to find funding, pay rent and cover costs during an economic crisis. But some difficulties it faces are more peculiar to organisations which aspire to be horizontal.

Wages are an issue. Academie is powered by commitment, enthusiasm, trust and a desire for change. But not all of this work is glamorous – maintaining lists of contacts, keeping financial records, looking after equipment, arranging meetings etc. Joana thinks it would be much better if someone could be paid to do this unseen, unrewarding work. But it has to be managed carefully. If some people are being paid to do things others aren’t, the risk is that some may stop seeing themselves as volunteers working for a cause and more as people who are working for free.

Participation can also be problematic. Academie used to have assemblies of ‘members’ every two weeks for four hours. This became difficult to sustain – the assemblies always well attended and sometimes the attendees were not the most engaged or interested people in the project. This year the assemblies are only held when they are needed for approving or improving projects.

These two difficulties, perhaps, should be seen as part of being an open organisation, rather than ‘problems’ which need to be or can be ‘solved’.

Academia & Other Projects in the Encounter

As well as Academia, The Encounter featured many projects which could be said to be ‘citizen driven’. That is to say that they were created by people acting as citizens, rather than as employees, rent-seekers or servants. These projects also required these citizens to cooperate with one another to achieve something they couldn’t alone.

But that is probably the limit of what they shared.

A project like Montenoso is a way for a small community to manage something (a mountain) that they already own collectively. Solidarity Clinics were a way to communally produce a public good (health), which they didn’t really own. Projects like the Civic Participation and Innovation Area from A Coruña Council were maybe somewhere in between as they sought to create new governance arrangements, which created more control over something citizens already technically controlled.

Perhaps when we talk about commons projects we should look specifically for projects with a clear idea of what is, or should be, owned in common and a legal mechanism or process by which it should be governed. Montenoso and the Civic Participation and Innovation Area seem to have this. But seeing Solidarity Clinics as a commons project requires us to reconceptualise the health of people as a kind of ‘commons’ – like a fishery or village green and the ‘solidarity clinic’ as a mechanism for governing it. But is this really useful? Surely it’s easier to see health as a public good citizens co-operate to produce, rather than something we collectively own and govern. Especially when Solidarity Clinics in Greece – like the UK’s Foodbanks – are an option of last resort rather, not a preferred model to the state.

In this sense Academia Cidadã has more in common with the Solidarity Clinics than it it does with the other projects. Like the Solidarity Clinics it is also producing a public good – educated citizens – and also it is not really a way of ‘governing’ it. So without an idea of what should be held in common, or how it should be governed, maybe it’s not helpful to see it as a commons project.

But this could change. We discussed several organisational forms that The Academy could use in the future. One suggestion was that it could situate itself between city governments and people, as a kind of laboratory for citizen engagement – maybe with its own physical space. This would effectively turn it from being a mechanism for educating citizens into a mechanism for citizen representation.