The Berlin Experts: Give Something Back to Berlin

Volonteer Alejandro Martha Gemeinde

photos: Kalle Kuikkaniemi

In our time it’s increasingly important that we all work together and no matter where you come from – humanity is of great importance! For our next edition of The Berlin Experts we interviewed the makers of a great platform that offers a variety of social projects in Berlin. Everyone can join the projects and “give something back to Berlin”. There is already a huge amount of hard-working volunteers and since 2012 the platform organizes community projects that aim to better the lives of many different groups of people in Berlin. There are language courses for foreigners who migrated here, creative evenings, workshops, food events and so much more. Since 2013 there are also many projects to help refugees and other people in need.

Read the interview after the jump and have some impressions from the work of Give Something Back to Berlin.

How did you come up with the idea for Give Something Back To Berlin?

GSBTB started in 2012 with a spontaneous Facebook post that went viral. In the two years since our official launch, we’ve developed into a huge project platform aimed at creating social impact and fostering community integration all throughout the city. We bring together different worlds that don’t normally meet and make them work together for a better city. We enable international New Berliners to participate in local social projects and create networks of participation and solidarity.

Before GSBTB started there was neither a tool, platform nor real offline community to facilitate and mobilize this kind of engagement for people who didn’t yet speak perfect German. With 16 percent of all the Berliners being ”Ausländern” that just didn’t really make sense. As migrants we quite obviously have skills, energy and ideas to share with the city and our neighbourhoods. In our opinion it simply shouldn’t make any difference what your birth certificate says and whether you’ve been here your whole life, five years or eight months: while we are here we’re all Berliners and should have the chance to participate!

Creating a tool for that kind of socio-political engagement also felt relevant because we were starting to hear xenophobic rhetoric around Berlin like “Spaniards go home”, “Touristen Raus”, stuff like that. Meanwhile, nationalistic ideas and racism had been spreading like a virus all over Europe, making the lives of refugees, Roma and other migrant groups more difficult and creating a cold, unwelcome feeling.

Migration has always been a big part of Europe, Germany and Berlin’s history so, at a time like this, it feels extra important to come together to create positive solutions for living together. That’s why we’ve been working very closely with different refugee groups and projects since 2013, long before this broad movement (and media trend) of ”refugees welcome” that we’ve seen over the last couple of months.

Who can join your project and why should they do that?

I think contributing to society feels very fulfilling for most people. As a New Berliner it can also makes you feel a bit more “at home” joining in and knowing what’s going on in your new city and country. Anyone can, of course, join our network and projects as long as they are open and up for doing good! We also have a lot of Germans in the project. For two years now we have run a collaboration for teaching German to refugees, for which we have found many eager German teachers for shelters all over the city.

Up to today we have had more than 600 volunteers from 45 different nationalities participate in 60 projects across 10 Berlin districts – but it’s becoming more difficult to keep count because it all grows rather organically and, right now, very quickly.

What different projects do you currently offer for participation?

We regularly post new short and long-term projects and collaborations so keep an eye on our Facebook page and website – it changes every week and they get filled up fast! It can be anything from sharing your creative skills with kids in Kreuzberg or Neukölln, to giving English classes for refugees (yes English – most of them don’t know if they can stay in Germany or are simply eager to learn both), social activities like cooking or welcome picnics together with refugees, mentoring in social centres, urban gardening projects, working at homeless shelters and much more. You can also post your own offer of skills on our website we’ll send it out to our partner organizations who could use your help.

Each city would be thankful to get something back from their citizens – why is Berlin specifically ideal for projects like this?

GSBTB is very much a child of both Berlin’s idealistic, DIY, fuck-the-system-let’s-create-something-new culture, as well as its vibrant cosmopolitanism where people from all over the world come together to create new ideas, cultures and ways of living. People tend to come here because they love Berlin – GSBTB wants to channel some of this love to create social good! The world also looks towards Berlin for new ideas. We’ve had people contact us from Buenos Aires, Dubai, New York and Taipei wanting to learn from GSBTB’s way of doing this. Good ideas spread from Berlin!

What are you planning next?

At the moment we are running a crowdfunding campaign with the aim of boosting our local refugee work even more. We are drowning in hundreds of people who want to get involved in different refugee projects, but to coordinate that work takes time if it’s to be done well and made sustainable long-term. A LOT of potential is going unused simply because GSBTB (and many other organizations and refugee shelters) simply can’t deal with the two big influxes: refugees and volunteers. Dropping off clothes donations might feel good, but please consider giving 5 EUR to the organization actually taking care of all that work! GSBTB is also looking for more long-term partners interested in boosting great “think global, act local” work all over the city.

Which other sustainable projects in Berlin do you know and like?

Uff, so many… I like Folkdays sustainable fashion, The Changer platform, Sharehaus, not to mention all the Moabit, Neukölln and Kreuzberg Hilft groups! There are also heaps of GREAT smaller projects that aren’t so well known because they don’t fit the more regularly updated, social media savvy profile. All the people just MAKING CONTACT with refugees, taking them for picnics, having a coffee and creating meeting points on an everyday basis are UTTERLY important. It doesn’t have to be all that hard!

What recommendations can you give someone who wants to start a sustainable business?

Build a great committed team and community who really believes in the idea from the beginning.

Have fun and be truly passionate about your topic because you might want to give up several times on the way and the passion will draw you back in.

Know your “theme”/ market well from the beginning but learn a lot on the way.

Stay true to what you are trying to do and do it with integrity.

Network, but not only in the obvious places you think you should – help and ideas might come from unexpected places.

Be kind to yourself (and other people) – there’s always a lot of trial and errors before you find your right formula.

Stay calm and be patient – remember that building something of your own takes time, energy and serious commitment.

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A big thank you to the guys from Give Something Back to Berlin for taking the time for this interview!

Olga by Olga
on October 6th, 2015
updated on October 19th, 2015
in People, Stories
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