Mas Franch is a beautiful environmental education centre (and more!) based just outside Girona. The project is in a moment of change and there are lots of new possibilities. In my very brief visit to them before leaving Catalunya to head down south, I got to hear a bit about the history of Mas Franch, some lessons learnt and hopes for the future, as well as getting to help out with the cleaning out of the fresh water swiming pool (though sadly it was a bit too nippy for a dip!).
Originally Mas Franch was run by a local business man, mainly used to offer schools outdoor activity holidays with an environmental angle, but also used by other groups (including Peace Brigades International trainings). In 2006 he contacted various people who had come into contact with Mas Franch over the years to say that he was going to have to sell up.
In 2006 a group of about 10 or 12 people came together, who had in some way been involved in Mas Franch. They didn't know each other, but all felt that Mas Franch shouln't be sold commercially - and so a co-op was formed to saved Mas Franch.
In the end the Co-op wasn't able to buy Mas Franch, but just as they were about to either give up or embark upon an enormous door to door fundraising effort, Fundacion Andruxai agreed to purchase Mas Franch and rent it to the co-op (who would manage the project), and use the rent to fund its educational projects in Columbia.
Of this group two members (Nur - on right in photo by pool - and Juan) are still involved in the running of the centre (with their baby), and they were joined by another family (Caroline - on left in photo by pool - and Carlos and their 4 year old Itzal) in July.
What they do at Mas Franch:
They now do work with schools on conflict resolution and how to work in groups etc. as well as doing some work in the garden. A lot of schools came initially but with the change in focus (to ways of working rather than outdoor pursuits) less schools come (as this is harder to fit in to the cirriculum apparently - which is a shame as they seem like a really important issues and useful tools to me!). However the ones that do come keep coming back for more, so that's a good sign.
They do eco-build courses - if they want to build something there - be it their amazing strawbale meeting/activity space - see photo, or the big oven/heater that will heat it, or clay ovens, or the fresh water pool they use it to learn and teach other people the skills to do it (about 300 people have been involved in constructing the strawbale building all in all over time!). They try and make sure that they can take part in the courses so that the community always learns some skills (so they take it in turns – some of them cooking, some participating). They also run permaculture courses.
They provide eco-friendly accomodation and meals (it is a really beautiful place - and the fresh water pool must be amazing in the summer), though I think it's probably their least favourite bit of what they do for them - as their motiviation is the educational trips and courses, and living in a different way themselves (but it helps them to pay the rent).
Volunteers are really important – at first (e.g. with wwoof volunteers) it could end up being more work for them than they got out of it, you never knew what skills/experience people were going to come with. Now they have a pool of volunteers in Catalunya who they can call on if they have a big job for example and who know the project. It's two way – the project gets loads out of volunteers, but also they have a good experience that they can take and use elsewhere.
They used to make all decisions by consensus in the bigger group (we try!!!, writes Nur, it's not always possible), but sometimes what this meant in reality was different, people could just agree something because they were tired of talking about it but not really be committed to it. Now as there are two of them with the longest term experience and the other three are very new, Nur and Jose make proposals and they discuss them between them.
The original group who took on Mas Franch developed a strategic plan for the project, but it makes sense to do a new plan with this new group of people. The idea is to grow the community with a few more families - having children around has really changed the pace of the project, they make you slow down a bit.
A coach came and did visioning with them 5 years ago when the project began, which was really useful. When it came to the conflicts they had no money to pay her to come so they had to sort it out themselves. Some of the members who were trained and ran courses in said it's very different sorting out your own conflicts then running a course on it!
They have systems in place for people joining but it depends - if it's right for people sooner they can join. One of the members is a mentor for the new member to acompany them in the first 6 months to a year of joining the project.
The project makes money through it's different activities:
- school visits – from a day to a week
- tourist accomodation and meals
- courses (though they really cover costs with the courses – if they run them themselves they cover costs of meals and alojamiento)
- donations that people can make through the foundation that owns Mas Franch
They use this money to pay rent to the foundation and cover their living costs. They don't get a salary but dont pay for living or eating here either. They used to pay themselves 'pocket money' of 200 Euros a month, but when there is less money they don't do that and if you need money you ask.
It was hard when they realised that people wanted to leave who had been involved from the beginning – that it wasn't their life, even though they were going on to do other things and were committed to creating social change elsewhere.
They haven't spent time getting to know properly what's around them. They have schools who visit them regularly, but not the local schools, or volunteers and visitors who come back, but they aren't from the local community. They feel really unhappy with that aspect of it and want to change it and have plans to do so (e.g. to create allotments for local schools or use the meeting space for local talks and events), they just haven't had time. They have been very been very focused on the construction and internal things, but Nur feels it's a really important aspect to change.
If we are the group first and then looking for the land, we need to be careful not to become to rigid in what we are looking for - they were the other way round - the group brought together by the place (which brings it's own issues too!).
Some lessons to pass on...
I also got to listen in to an interview that a student was doing with Jose, having participated in a permaculture course that Jose did the bio-building bit of. It's always interesting to listen to the story of how someone came to the point they are at (especially when it involves leaving home at 12 to do a building course because you realise intellectual/academic persuits aren't very socially useful, and then living in the forest by yourself for a year with very little resources!). A couple of thoughts about ways of training that I thought were interesting (and also similar to some of what I have been hearing in the foro) included:
The importance of making people feel comfortable when the arrive to do a course. Acknowleding that people feel quite insecure when they are somewhere new and no-one knows them. Interestingly he said that often it is just that people on his bio-construction courses just need to say that they are an architect. Other times it can just be that they need a bit of attention, or that they need physical needs dealing with (so just showing them round - loos and bedrooms, and telling them when they'll eat). Simple stuff - that we often do without thinking, but it was good to hear why that can be so useful.
Another point was that people learn in different ways. About 250 volunteers have come through Mas Franch and he has probably explained the same things in 250 different ways. Something Jose feels is important in this respect is not to tell people how to do something, but to say I do it like this (or I like to do it like this), but leave room for them to do it in a different way - to find their own way that suits them.
Due to the timing of my visit - there have been big changes in the last year, with original members moving on and Caro and family arriving just a few months ago - everything is a bit up in the air in terms of how they will work and their plans for the future (they are going to re-do their strategic plan with Caroline and Carlos). When I asked if there was anything Nur would like to have done differently, she said they feel that they don't want to repeat mistakes they have made, but that she wouldn't really change things - or they wouldn't be where they were now.
I also got to chat to Jamie (one of the early members who is now building a cabana in the woods near by). Though he seemed to manage to get me to do a lot of the talking about Kindling (which I'm sure you'd agree is strange as it's usually hard to get me to say anything (-;), I did manage to stop talking for long enough to get him to give me a fair few pearls of wisdom.
So I'll leave you with a parting thought from Jamie that I thought would be really useful to pass on. Consensus decision making is great, but how you do it is crucial. If people feel they can't say what they are thinking incase it's too negative, or think that they all have to be in agreement and positive all the time, it won't work. Issues will bubble away under the surface until it all explodes. It is really important to create an atmosphere where people can acknowledge conflict and deal with it, and not be worrying about whether something's pc or not. Very good point I think.
Many thanks to all who were at Mas Franch for their time and for looking after me - and good luck with all your future planning and activities - I look forward to coming back to find out how it's going one day (and for a fresh water dip!).