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On the occasion of VUBrusselt Pepijn Kennis talked about his engagement at NGO Toestand, where he started volunteering in 2012. This young organisation in Brussels transforms forgotten sites or empty buildings into creative cultural centres. As a sociologist and recent alumnus of the Urban Studies ‘4Cities’ programme, Pepijn seemed the perfect candidate for the position of coordinator when the initial collective of volunteers evolved into a sustainable organisation. In this way, his job allows him to combine his passionate volunteer work and studies at VUB. We visit him on the eve of the Volunteer Week.
Toestand was not founded by Pepijn. Rather, Felix Aerts and Niels Coppens of the legendary 54kollaktiv established the NGO. As they were ever more inventively hunting for affordable locations in Brussels for their equally legendary parties, they came up with the idea of giving empty spaces a second life and the originators soon shifted their focus to social activities in general. When the city of Vilvoorde provided them with an abandoned school at Avenue de Schaerbeek (Schaarbeeklei) for the duration of the summer in 2012, Plek 322 came into existence. Just like so many other Brussels youth, that summer Pepijn collaborated on the building of that lovely place situated in the forgotten shadow of the viaduct.
Allee du kaai
Despite the success of Plek 322, many proprietors were reluctant to give away their deteriorated properties to the creative hands of local youth. After some wanderings and through dogged perseverance, Toestand was presented with a unique opportunity in the canal district surrounding Tour & Taxis in 2014. Environment Brussels was looking for a temporary, interactive realisation of the site near the Quai des Matériaux (Materialenkaai), where they want to set up a park in the long run. The city wants to involve its residents in the realisation of this public space.
For almost four years now, Toestand and local residents have been giving a foretaste of what the park could look like in the long run within and around the old sheds. Every day, ongoing work is actively carried out and activities take place in collaboration with local societies, including taekwondo, a bike studio, jam sessions, and a soup kitchen. ‘Allee du kaai’ has become a household name in Brussels. It is rated as a successful social neighbourhood project.
New projects within a sustainable structure
‘Allee du kaai’ initiated Toestand’s transformation towards a sustainable structure. Pepijn’s academic background in sociology and urban geography was instrumental in the development of a long-term vision and its implementation. In 2018, 14 people have been professionally co-ordinating the projects and assisting the numerous volunteers on a structural level. With Biestebroek in Anderlecht and Marie Moskou in Saint-Gilles, Toestand is now pursuing two additional projects for four years.
Furthermore, the organisation goes abroad with some thirty youths every year to give new life to unused urban space. Following Kremenchuk in Ukraine, Pristina in Kosovo, and Granada in Spain, Toestand is heading for Macedonia this summer with some thirty-plus motivated ‘transformers’. “The international projects are a very special experience”, says Pepijn. “The amount of energy and engagement that is released in such a short period of time is enormous. What we achieved in Pristina in six days’ time is almost unbelievable.”
Chances for Brussels and its citizens
Volunteers play a pivotal role in organisations such as Toestand. VUB students looking for a commitment outside of traditional student life too can become committed to their student city at Toestand. “You do not have to be a ket (a real inhabitant of Brussels) to be able to lose yourself in the city’s atmosphere”, says Pepijn. “Approximately half of the employees were born and raised in Brussels. The other half has made the city their own. Our organisation represents numerous nationalities and we speak many languages. What does it take to be considered a resident of Brussels anyway?”
“The creation of chances lies at the heart of our organisation”, says Pepijn. “The city has been claimed by big business, as a result of which the city is now inaccessible to many residents. In this regard, the empty spaces are an opportunity for the city and its inhabitants. We want to make room for initiatives and want the city to reclaim its public space. Out of an inner search for personal space, Toestand grew into a search for public space in general. We became adults, so to speak, and evolved from a group of motivated youth into a socially relevant project. Above all, we now want to support other projects as well. As an organisation, our main challenge is to become more autonomous. In addition, we have to exploit and share our expertise. But mainly we also want to keep on doing what we are doing now.”
Want to go on an expedition yourself?
Volunteer work can help you discover your real professional passions. Students who want to discover Brussels outside of their student bubble should definitely visit Allee du Kaai or any of the other projects organised by Toestand. “On the first Thursday of every month, open volunteer meetings take place in order to get to know one another”, Pepijn adds.
He concludes by offering some advice from his own experience. “Leave your room. Literally. I saw myself how many students’ lives are restricted to the confines of their room, while Brussels has so much to offer. The possibilities for engagement are endless. By just giving it a try, you will definitely come across something that suits your interests.”
You can find more information on: www.toestand.be
The volunteer week (https://www.vrijwilligersweek.be/) runs from 3 to 11 March.
Discover our volunteering opportunities on the student portal (https://student.vub.be/vrijwilligerswerk).