Breathing new life into an almost forgotten Latvian tradition, Vakarēšana are spaces for learning from each other by engaging in respectful dialogue. Initiated 10 years ago by Laura Bužinska, an always changing group of people has been meeting in her flat on a regular basis to share food and thoughts. During a session, 5-20 participants, often strangers, engage in a facilitated process to discuss existential and controversial topics. Learning to listen to each other is as important in these gatherings as becoming confident to express oneself.
A healthy addiction
“When I was at university, I felt that there was a lack of space to engage in meaningful conversation about the things we learned”, says Laura, PhD researcher of inclusive intercultural education at the University of Latvia. “Out of my own need to go deeper, Vakarēšana were born.” Starting with friends, who spread the word and in turn invited their friends, the online community linked to Vakarēšana now counts over 500 members. It is a mixed group made up of people from different backgrounds, aged around 18-45 years old. “For me, each time a Vakarēšana happens is like a big miracle. But for others it has already become normal. People got used to these meetings, they are just another event. But when I started, hardly anyone remembered this pre-radio tradition of taking time to eat together and learn from each other by listening to people’s experiences and stories.” Unlike many social gatherings, Vakarēšana doesn’t rely on alcohol to create openness between people. Still, many participants report that the meetings evoke a special feeling of presence and connectedness. “I get addicted to it in a good way”, laughs Laura, “it can really be like magic!”
Whilst every session is different, depending on who comes, how much experience they have, and the extent to which they are prepared to go with the set-up, the process creates continuity. Usually, the topic has been decided on in advance, by the host or the community. The Facebook group acts as a platform where people can propose and vote on different themes. Recent ones included mental health, jokes and political correctness, sexual harassment, feminism, and suicide. When everyone has arrived and is sat down in a circle, the person who facilitates explains what is going to happen. The first round acts as an icebreaker, giving space to everyone to introduce themselves. Then, there are 2-3 hours of conversation. Depending on the group dynamics, a talking stick is used to ensure that only one person speaks at a time. Finally, everyone shares what insights they will take home from the night.
Modelling a way of living together
What makes up the magic of a good Vakarēšana? First of all, it needs to be free and welcoming. That is why most meetings happen at someone’s home. Then, Laura thinks that it is really important that participants can feel the motivation of the host. “I really want to do this work, because I am interested in the topics, and I want to create a space for learning and growing as a community. Why should we suffer alone? In a way, we are modelling a way of living together.” The quality of the dialogue is also shaped by the nature of people’s contributions: “To me, it is most interesting if people speak from their experience, rather than about something they have read. In the past, we experimented with preparing a presentation or input, but we noticed that these sessions were less popular. People want to speak from the heart. Also, it is amazing to have space to think, when you realise that you don’t have to constantly react like in a normal conversation. You can also participate just by listening.”
Although there are similarities to established dialogue formats used by people all over the world, Vakarēšana doesn’t work with one particular methodology. Her experience with non-formal education activities helped Laura launch these sessions, but as she went along, her approach grew organically. “Now, other people are also starting to facilitate Vakarēšana. It is great to be able to share the responsibility, so it doesn’t start feeling like a burden on me. This new development also makes me realise, though, how much depends on the host and their character. That has been a real eye-opener for me. It poses a question about multiplying, because it’s not just about passing on a method. Although the basic process is simple, there are so many variables that influence the quality of the space! And everyone works with them in a different way. Realising quite how much a process is influenced by the person working with it makes me wonder about what happens with school curricula designed with particular objectives in mind. If it always turns out different depending on who delivers it, how can we still act on the premise that we live in a shared reality?”
A short introduction to the Living Libraries project
Creating spaces for encounter
As weekly Vakarēšana continue, there have also been parallel projects. One of them was Living Libraries, which was co-created with the movement I want to help refugees. There were already socialising events for refugees and locals, but a space for conversation was missing. Someone came up with the idea to try out the Living Libraries method, and Laura and others helped to make it happen. Later, Laura stepped in to organise further sessions, and finally Agnese Freimane managed to secure funding from Riga city council to continue the project. Together, they organised 11 events bringing together locals and refugees to share their stories and “jump into each other’s realities”, as Laura says. Conversations around issues related to human rights and land grabbing, which came up in the Living Libraries, were continued during Vakarēšanas held in English. Responses were overwhelmingly positive: one person’s feedback was that “it is in a space like this where I feel most at home”. Laura: “To give people a sense of agency, the feeling that they affect things and events around them and that their choices make a difference, is what I hope to achieve with this work. What we do is an example of that: if it wouldn’t have been for us creating these initiatives, these precious and unique spaces simply wouldn’t exist! What we do is creating reality.”