Brussels climate assembly: faces and stories

01. May 2023
Missions Publiques

How can we live in the city and face the climate challenges of 2050? This was the subject of the first Citizens’ Climate Assembly of the Brussels Region, which was held from February to the end of April 2023.

100 people debated and elaborated recommendations that will be officially submitted to the government on 9 June 2023. Later, a second cycle will start with new participants on a different topic.

Who are these people from Brussels? What is their life story, why did they accept the challenge and what do they expect from this participatory process? An interview by Missions Publiques with Ornella, Stefaan, Katerina and Marteen.

“I am curious to see how and if this system can work”

Marteen is 31 years old and has been living in Saint-Gilles for 6 years. Originally from Bruges, Maarten is a performing artist. Performer, actor, theater director… his character is that of a “taster of everything” as he likes to define himself: "I never do the same things twice".

How was he recruited? The letter sent to the 10,000 inhabitants of Brussels landed in the mailbox of his house, which includes 3 apartments. His neighbors, not very interested, passed him the letter… and here he is for 5 work sessions. "It’s been said for years that participatory democracy will save democracy. So I am curious to see how and if this system can work".

Curiosity and a certain requirement

Curiosity is a constant in Maarten. A trait of character that goes hand in hand with a certain requirement. He agreed to participate in the process, but "you have to have the feeling that you can add another dimension". So there is no question of passively following the work. His trigger: the discovery of Al Gore’s documentary "An inconvenient truth" at the age of 15 at school and the feeling that since then, not much has changed.

Maarten experiences cultural diversity - a point of pride for all participants - every day: "When you live in this city and don’t close yourself off, you have easy access to this cultural diversity. It is for this very reason that he left his “province".  Bruges did not offer the university education he wanted; he tried his luck in Brussels, failed (too young to go to a director’s school), went to Antwerp for 5 years and came back to the Belgian capital "the best place for the performing arts, the cultural Mecca of the world!"

He reflects a bit to describe the negative aspect of the city. "Brussels fails to give you the illusion that evil does not exist in the world. But unlike others, this city does not hide its misery and inequality." It is both a "good thing" to confront reality, but "every day you have to turn your heart to a stone at some point".

Works in construction: Ornella

Ornella has been living in the industrial suburb of Schaerbeek, in Belgium, for 2 years. At the age of 25, they already moved 4 times to different municipalities of Brussels-Capital: Jette, Woluwe, Ixelles, Anderlecht…very often because the rent prices were increasing. Since, they are independent, Ornella lives happily in a shared flat in the city.

Currently, Ornella is training to become a sanitary-heating engineer. Working in the construction industry is a choice: "it’s not a vocation but I wanted to value something manual and pass it on". She studied literature in Montreal before working as a bookseller, specializing in comics, when she returned to Belgium. It is there that she discovered the world of construction during participative workcamps. There, she met people in training in the building trades who made her want to start her own business.

Encouraging encounters

So, Ornella changed here path for a professional training and created a network for women, trans’ and non-binary people working in all sectors of the construction industry, heating engineers, carpenters, electricians…). The objective of this network is to encourage encounters and to break the isolation of these people, who are few in number in this field: "to give each other strength".

The other stake is to train between peers and to transmit. The network therefore invests in places that have needs (renovating electricity, building supplies, etc.) and trains the public while providing a service to the place that welcomes them (free entrance fee).

Interest in linking construction and ecological issues

"I feel like I have explored the question 'how to live?' through words while studying literature and through my hands today (…) and connecting construction to ecological issues interests me."

Is this why Ornella agreed to participate in the Citizens’ Climate Assembly? In part. The decision was taken collegially with their flat mates, since in Belgium, an invitation to participate in a Citizens’ Assembly is sent per flat, and Ornella was interested in the subject but not so much in the method: "This kind of thing is not my thing, I don’t feel close to politicians and it’s not my way of seeing commitment. I’m not here to pass judgment. I stay to observe and I will make my own opinion afterwards".

What Ornella appreciates in Brussels: its neighborhood life. They are less fond of the mobility, the constant construction work that lengthens their daily commute. Her dream? "Not sure if it is in the city”. What is certain, however, is that there will be "life in a group and the transmission of knowledge".

A happy early pensioner: Stefaan

Stefaan is a happy early pensioner. At 61, he finally has time for himself (and his garden) after a professional career that started at the age of 17. His children, from his first marriage and those of his second wife, are now grown up. His wife, on the other hand, works as a cleaning lady, in spite of her two university degrees in journalism obtained in her country of origin, Georgia.

Stefaan, a worker and later a representative in the bodywork industry, comes from Merchtem, a small village in the Flemish countryside, and moved to Brussels when his parents divorced almost 50 years ago. After having lived in several municipalities including Schaerbeek, Brussels-Capital, Laeken, he bought a house in Jette in 1999. He appreciates the green spaces, the proximity of the forest and "the warm contact with the neighbors".

"A way to contribute to a better world"

Although Stefaan was put on the reserve list for the Citizens’ Climate Assembly, he did not hesitate for a second to say "yes" because he considers it "a way to contribute to a better world. It may be a utopia, but that’s what’s at stake".

Direct, subtle in his use of humor, thrifty with words… Stefaan is present at each session. He is interested in everything: there is no subject that is more important to him than another. "We have to learn every day, knowledge is power", says this self-taught man who skipped a lot of school when still at school in his teens; a few "mistakes" here and there and a great thirst for knowledge mark out his path.

More aware of biodiversity

Committed to the end, Stefaan was also one of the citizens drawn at random - on a voluntary basis - from the support committee. This group, composed of people from the administration with expertise in participatory democracy, inclusion, climate and housing, supervises the smooth running of the Assembly, both in terms of content and execution.

The support committee helped analyze the Assembly’s first recommendations. And even if those around him gently tease him, he recommends that everyone participate in this type of process: "we come out of it more aware" of the issues of biodiversity as far as he is concerned. His regret? Like many, the fact that the North African and Turkish minorities are not present for this first cycle, "difficult to imagine solutions without them". A challenge for the next Assembly.

Incorrigible optimist: Katerina

Katerina had never imagined that she would make her life elsewhere than in Greece. Belgium was to be a temporary stopover while the young student finished her doctorate in chemistry. She finally settled in Brussels in 2006 for love. "My life choices have always determined my work choices… and not the other way around", she says with a smile. At 47, Katerina lives in Jette with her two daughters.

This incorrigible optimist has completely changed her career. Her pregnancies have kept her away from the world of research. However, she reinvents herself and now works in the press department of the European Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC) and follows, for the institution, topics related to food waste, sustainable development, artificial intelligence, organic food, etc.

Very excited about the climate assembly

Katerina is very excited about the participatory approach of the Citizens’ Climate Assembly. However, it was her youngest daughter, 10 year-old-daughter, who excitedly opened the letter informing her that she had been selected. "Mom, it’s worth doing it" … and filled, in her place, the registration form on the platform!

Her two daughters are now very proud of their mother and follow the progress of the work. "I recommend this kind of approach at 100% (…) at the EESC, we had followed the Conference on the future of Europe and I had found that citizens had little time to respond to extremely broad topics".

"A big step in moving our society forward"

What she appreciates about the Assembly is that it gives her time to discuss in small groups. "Even if "the government doesn’t do anything about it, the opportunity to bring together 100 people with different backgrounds, who are committed to thinking about and building their recommendations, is already a big step in moving our society forward".

Learning to listen to each other, discussing disagreements but "always with respect" are the ingredients that make Katerina believe in the exemplary nature of this kind of process. She was the first to be surprised by the "political maturity" of the participants. She was also surprised by the interest of the citizens for their city, and by the involvement of the elderly. Her only regret at this stage is the lack of representation of veiled women for example, who are a component of Brussels.

A wish for the future

For Katerina, the Citizens’ Climate Assembly will be successful if all the recommendations show social justice. Her wish for the future? "That children are not afraid and do not carry the weight of our responsibilities on their shoulders. It’s up to us adults to do better".

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The article was published in the original by Missions Publiques