Sara Nikolić i Ema Stepanović are activists in the independent collective Solidary Kitchen that provides food and other forms of support to those in need. Grounded in the principles of solidarity and direct democracy, they conceive the struggle against hunger as part of the struggle for a more just society.
We started a program of local feminist philanthropy which is based on solidarity while constantly discovering its new forms and meanings. What does solidarity mean to Solidary Kitchen? What kind of solidarity does any movement need in order to push for a more just society? Furthermore, your insistence on direct democracy strikes an interest cord. How do you relate it to solidarity and what kind of relation is it?
Ema: Solidarity and direct democracy are not parallel processes. One does not exclude the other. Our work is based on these principles amongst us and outside of collective, whether those involved are people who struggle for a just society or people who come in for food. What matters the most to us is openness, horizontality and erasure of the line between us and them, these imaginary categories. Direct democracy – because we consider giving directly and firmly as a political act. For example, one could imagine a small group of rich individuals who, based on their social and economic status, make political decisions; they give money for a new school or factory, a political decision par excellence. It is problematic when one individual has a right to influence political decisions without democratic process. Nonetheless, giving as a political act can bring direct democracy to fruition, something I believe we, in Solidary Kitchen, do quite successfully. We aspire to have individuals who connect horizontally at the same time deconstructing every form of power. We invest together in that struggle and we decide together.
Sara: I agree, but let me take a step back. For me, the idea of solidarity is based on social justice, fairness, togetherness, and equality. If we add organizing, this is the direct democracy where we all decide together in a collective. On the other hand, the core of organization – both male and female activists – have known each other from previous work in student protests, other political movements such as squatter movement and anarchist movements where this way of organizing and value we share had already been present. We had an ideological and value agreements at the core and also when we were founding the principles. We insist, from the beginning, on these principles as something fundamentally important for Solidary Kitchen. Otherwise, we would not exist and we would be only a service for feeding the hungry. We do try to have a clear political dimension.
I started with the question of political acts and how you see it because it seems to me that it is very important to you to make a difference between solidarity and direct democracy as social change and justice, and what we traditionally call humanitarian work. Why does that difference matter? And why is it important to be perceived in public?
Sara: We were just thinking about it. It is without a doubt that philanthropic organizations have their impact and that, perhaps, without them, there would be no other interventions. The problem is that humanitarian work, or charity or work grounded in Christian tradition, work in a frame where inequality is normalized. We would like not only to provide food or other forms of support but also to deconstruct those inequalities as well as the frame in which inequality happens, concretely, to deconstruct the framework in which one continues to be poor. We insist on this difference even when journalists ask us before they cut us off. In a nutshell, we question the role of the State in producing such systems of inequality that leads one to come to Vuk’s monument and ask for a meal, or that leads one not to have a shelter. We try to provide direct assistance and put in a context.
Ema: I have nothing to add. I think that struggle over concepts and terms is not essential. It is important what we do, whether it is a story of a good Christian that Telegraf (daily tabloid) will run or will you feed someone who will end up living in a society that produces such an inequality, without it being his mistake, but a systemic one. Direct help is needed, but on the other hand, we have to speak about abnormality of all of this and not agreeing to live in such a system.
Actually, the whole time you speak about abnormality. It seems that ironic distance is an important element of your acting?
Ema: Yes, people in lines tell us this – Thank you but you should not be here. It happened many times. I think there are no social rights that are focus of this State. I think that the very concept of care needs to be expanded so that includes much more than nuclear family and women who take care of children, elderly…We have to understand that care is a wider social concept and that this crisis shows it. People notice it, and I think there is a momentum. Therefore, it is important to have these kinds of conversation and talk about what it entails – essentially, political and horizontal acts.
Sara: I am moving a bit from your initial question but I think that health and social care are ways of expressing solidarity in a community. However, there are numerous mistakes in the ways in which the system has been set up. For example, the right to social care can be claimed under certain conditions, and those conditions are often discriminatory. Our organization shows that the right to freedom from hunger is a right of every human being and that one does not have to fulfill some criteria or bring a paper in order to eat.
Ema: You inspired me to add something. There is a lot of inspiration in this momentum: movements for clean air, water…those are some basic things that shocks people that we need to defend. But it is a huge mobilizing impetus. I hope that people understand that processes of redistribution are extremely unjust, and thoughtless, to say the least. This is why we have these movements that are trying to scratch the surface of injustices and do something.
Sara: Yes, the pandemic has surely sped up these initiatives. We already have been sensitive but we understood that solidarity is a key and that we need to support each other, because no one else will. The crisis is still ongoing and our ambition is to spread the network of solidarity and organizing regardless of momentum. Solidary Kitchen, as an organization, works really well right now. The crisis made us, as a collective, grow faster and learn as we go at the same time being more responsible. It made us give our best.
Ema: In a nutshell, the solidarity we advocate does not go only externally but also internally. We also carefully eye for exhaustion and sharing of obligations and work.
How do people react to your actions? What are the challenges? Horizontalism is a great idea but the greater number of people involved, the greater difficulty of creating an infrastructure of proceduralism.
Ema: I think there is a sense of responsibility one caries. We are a large base but no one invites the other because one feels a responsibility toward the whole process. Everyone feels like that and there is no need to delegate work.
Sara: Yes, I think that the base of organization has different experiences and knowledge that activists contribute to the work (from university shutdowns, and street, to activities in institutions). There is a division of labor, there are working groups and clear ways in which decision are made and discussed, we have protocols. It is invaluable and we learn together. For example, tonight we will talk about workshop for field activists, how to avoid and deal with difficult situations. We are also thinking of how to expand so no one burns out, and how to prevent problems. Let me return to the question, what we do get from people, if we are to quantify the support, then it is donations (money or food) but also people who want to join, work in the field or would like to participate but do not know how. We have positive feedback for sure.
Ema: In the collective and among people who call us, we have more female activists than male ones. I’ve been thinking about the reasons. Traditional understanding of women (as caretakers through unpaid labor) in family and in the labor market, in care economy, and centuries old bad treatment of women has left infinite negative consequences on her independence. However, it did make a consciousness of the others’ needs. I don’t think men understand that, although it is not entirely their fault. Men are also victims of patriarchy. In our collective, we do have wonderful men.
Sara: What we need to understand is that care and care of others is equally important. And that is political.
What are the dreams of the collective and ambitions? Do you have plans on how to improve the struggle because you have a great political articulation? Are you going to address other related issues, for example, the excess of food?
Ema: Yes, we do have plans. We are pretty stable now regarding processes and institutional memory. We are thinking through the idea of spatiality; does having a food cart downtown really addresses the needs of people, are the ones who need the food the most downtown or in the periphery, informal shelters? We are thinking about the ways of including them into the struggle.
Sara: The question of excess of food we have addressed online, on social networks. It was our topic in March, we have talked about the food being wasted, the notion of “expiration date”, and how it benefits food industries and not citizens. We spent a lot of time on logistical and political everyday activities. But the question about life of Roma people in informal habitats is important. All the leftovers we have are then distributed to informal Roma settlements. However, now we are thinking about the question of support and working with people there. It remains a political question because always already endangered communities are also targets of urban pressure and ecological movements who remain blind to poverty issues. A clear reach and transparent ways of support and solidarity have to be a two-way street; not only giving but recognition that we live together and that we count on each other.
Interview by Djurdja Trajković and Galina Maksimović.