Board Member, Community Development Centre
Zugdidi, Georgia is a small city bordering the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. Until 1991, the wider region belonged to the Soviet Union, and geopolitical instability since then has had an impact: more than half of Zugdidi’s residents of are internally displaced people.
Displaced persons and other vulnerable groups like young adults, the elderly, former political prisoners and the rural population are less likely to know their rights, be aware of resources and possibilities in their community or feel empowered to be involved in civic life.
To empower these groups in a meaningful way, Team Zugdidi had the idea to create a convening space for community activities.
This space, a community center known as the “Open House”, would host activities for and by the community: playgroups for young families, coffee gatherings for the rural elderly, movie nights for young adults, round tables with former political prisoners, workshops and English courses and viewings of football matches. A wide array — the unifying concept was that the space and its programming was a project of the local community, and that the key to the house would be handed over to the participants. In this way, the patrons rather than the organizers became the stewards of the space, motivated to propose their own initiatives, get involved in strategic decisions for the project and to translate the experience into a more active role in city life.
A key success factor for Team Zugdidi: Being brave enough to step back and let the project take on its own life.
The Open House was founded on the ground-floor premises of a former Soviet pottery manufacturer. On the upper floors, internally displaced persons live under precarious conditions and the facility had to deal with burglaries and flooding. But close cooperation between the city council and local activists from different sectors meant that this project has lasted longer than any of its kind implemented in Zugdidi.
The project was the first joint initiative between different sectors in Georgia. It introduced a new type of collaboration to the country, where very clear divisions and barriers between the sectors is the norm.
The project created a learning opportunity for the local municipality. Recently elected for the first time as a result of nationwide political reforms, the nascent public sector gained important experience through the project: becoming better acquainted with the project’s target groups, learning about cross-sectoral cooperation and gaining supportive partners in other cities from across Europe. The Actors of Urban Change Academy Meeting hosted in Zugdidi played a crucial role. Team Zugdidi was able to build relationships with other cities and to share strategies for meeting the needs of a diversifying population.