Catering to the capital’s grass roots

You don’t need to know Amalia Zepou personally to see that the new adviser to Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis is not cut from the same cloth as most municipal officials. Her office says it all: the only decorative item is a large board with 250 photographs of activities organized by community groups in Athens.

Zepou is all about civil society. She was one of the first people in Athens to pursue guerrilla gardening – a movement for planting flowers and greenery in neglected urban spaces – in earnest, she was among the founders of the Atenistas urban activist group, she joined the “Model Neighborhood” campaign in Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio, she has campaigned for more recycling and is also personally involved in the initiatives of Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

In her appointment as adviser for networking with citizens’ groups, Kaminis could hardly have found a better candidate. Her main task is building ties between the City of Athens and the dozens of grass-roots movements that are active in the Greek capital.

“We are seeing a change in Athens that the municipality just could not keep up with,” Zepou told Kathimerini recently, in reference to the growing number of groups taking initiatives to improve life in the city. “We tend to confuse citizens’ groups with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or volunteer groups. The fact is that people involved in grass-roots movements do not consider themselves ‘volunteers’ per se and the most interesting of these groups are rarely organized as NGOs, meaning that they are not legal entities,” the adviser added.

120 groups at least

Zepou’s first task was to identify all these groups and to record what they do.

“I have been at my post for six weeks and I’m still discovering new groups,” Zepou said, adding that so far she estimates their number at around 120.

“There is one basic criterion: that they have developed their campaigns on their own,” Zepou said, explaining in response to criticism that municipal authorities are looking to capitalize on citizens’ movements in order to build a pool of volunteers that the City of Athens’s intention is not to usurp their activities.

“The City wants to help citizens’ movements first by putting them in contact with one another and, secondly, by offering them municipal services that could help them,” she explained.

Zepou is also building an online network to help these 120-odd groups get in touch, to promote their actions and to inform the public of what they do and where they do it. She is also planning to add a diary of actions. The platform is expected to be ready by mid-July.

“Our aim is for the City of Athens to have a discreet role,” Zepou said. “The problems that the city faces need to be highlighted through their solutions, sending a more positive message to the public. The role of the City is to promote civic responsibility, but not in a tone that can be construed as being didactic.”

The most interesting part of the job, Zepou said, is meeting with the people who organize citizens’ groups and campaigns.

“We go to them; we don’t expect them to come to City Hall,” Zepou said, adding that she did meet with some skepticism at first.

“Though this is not some kind of hard and fast rule, the truth is that the more reserved a group is, the more interesting what it does,” the networking adviser said. “Their greatest grievance is against the state and the municipality because they have taken on the task of filling in the gaps where they are lacking. So their skepticism is entirely understandable.”

Zepou added that “many of these groups have already amassed a good deal of experience and they know that the relationship between the state and the citizens is a complimentary one.

“Acknowledging this simple fact immediately shifts the balance of the relationship and sets it on a new basis,” she said.

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