After reading Chris’s answers to this interview, I thought it would be quite a challenge to write its introduction. On top of that, Chris dared me to pick her last answer as a prompt…
“If gravity is just a theory and the center of the earth is made of strawberry jam, how would that change the way you live your life?”
Strangely or not, that prompt made my mission a lot easier. Over the last year or so, I’ve had the privilege of crossing paths with people who turned my world upside down, like Chris, and created a sense of belonging to something bigger. I call them liminal beings; the ones who live in the threshold between different worlds. I found my tribe — I’m still looking for the strawberry jam though.
Chris is an unstoppable force of nature who’s lived more than a thousand lives. So, the best I can do is shut up and let you enjoy the flow of life that follows.
Bird’s Eye View
Can you give us a glimpse of your life story?
I could start with the idea that I am from a country that is no more and never was. This has shaped me; it has informed all my ways of what came before and what comes after.
I could also spell it out with details: I was born into the margins of rural, communist East German society into a Polish-Italian-German Catholic family. We did not belong and yet we did. The long and short version of this back-story has greatly influenced my sense of belonging, identity, justice, and freedom, and thus my life story.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was just like everyone on the eastern side, stuck and unable to travel, and yet all I wanted was to leave. I desired to see places and meet people that had different lives and truths than the ones presented to me. I lived in my books, my fantasies of faraway places, in their smells, colors, and how the sunset might feel there. My world-traveling Italian grandfather, Rizzeri, who was a hobby photographer, had left behind thousands of slides of his time in Northern Africa and Southern Europe. With his heritage, I “traveled the world” beyond the Iron Curtain whenever I could. I also had the eclectic music collection of my dad and with this, too, I “traveled the world”.
Life, and the possibilities of life stories, did present in more ways to me through these means than through the narrow horizon of my daily lived reality behind the Iron Curtain. And when the wall fell, I was gone out into this world and still am to this day.
Life, my insatiable curiosity, and my desire to contribute to a more just and equal world has truly taken me places.
At 15, while setting up a Fair Trade shop in my parish, I was determined to study and work for the “rest of my life” in the global south as a human rights and women’s rights activist. Truly dedicated to this path I did end up working for NGOs, Government Agencies, and UNICEF across many countries of the global south for a good 20 years. I had the privilege to live and work in magical and yet truly complicated spots on this planet with names we all know and have preconceived images of, such as The Gambia, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Somalia, and Haiti. Moving between these at times challenging realities and European realities has often left me with irreconcilable friction. The friction of the realities of this planet. This irreconcilable friction also permeated my relationship with the work that I was doing, within the mainstream humanitarian and aid industrial complex, over the years. I wanted to make a difference and yet I felt I was part of an agenda that feeds a global system of injustice, resource exploitation, and inequality rather than truly fighting it with all its might.
I resigned and resigned again. I overused the Adorno quote: “There is no right life in the wrong life” until I could not use it anymore without losing self-respect. After 10 years of failed divorce from my “mission for the rest of my life” and re-inventions in the same system, I left it all behind in 2016. I could say I successfully “burned my bridges” just to make sure I wouldn’t return.
Four years later I am finding myself here in the south of Portugal, still aiming for a world more just and still driven and inspired by the seeds of my childhood.
Our current project, Nautiluz, is inspired and fed by the sum of all my lessons thus far. It was, in fact, born out of them.
How did you manage to adapt to so many different, and complex, environments?
I would say I have been equally mesmerized by the magical spell of each of these worlds as I have been struggling and grappling with them. They are stories that haunt me, stories I want to tell, and yet stories of the past.
There is a way, I have and still resort to when dealing with yet another friction between the inner and outer worlds, which any experience for me boils down to — this can be in the middle of Berlin or the Liberian rainforest. A disconnect is a disconnect, and an observation that contradicts or challenges my nicely constructed belief system and worldview is always met with an inner reaction and later response. So a very helpful tool in dealing with irreconcilable friction has been to become the “participant-observer”; the “ethnographer”; the “ sociologist”; the one that removes herself and yet stays but changes her glasses, changes her perspective. When I really could not handle it or say my inner reaction, this became to this day my “last resort”. And it did support me a lot in adapting and gaining deeper insights into many storylines of the same story.
What does diversity mean for you?
My response here can be shaped by two things: As an ethnographer that will always embrace life’s diversity with curiosity and as a woman that has had the privilege to give diversity trainings in organizations that lacked “joy & spark,” where the concept itself felt devoid of meaning, if not hollow.
As a passionate ethnographer, I think of what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the multitude of “ethnospheres” on this planet. It fills me with sadness to know that every day, every week, every month our world loses another “ethnosphere” with yet another language dying, as another tribe becomes extinct. It’s not just the tribe and the language that dies but with it an entire cosmological, psychological, emotional, narrational human landscape: it is an “ethnosphere” that dies. Our planet is losing diversity in species of all kinds, cultures of all kinds, and “ethnospheres” of all kinds. We are moving in great strides towards a global monoculture.
As organizations, we can ask how much space we can possibly create for a multitude of “ethnospheres” within our midsts to fill the concept of diversity with life and meaning.
Being a feminist since ever, how do you see the current state of feminism?
It is hard for me to speak of feminism when I see “feminisms” and “intersectionalisms”. That possibly begins to describe how I perceive it from the inside: a movement that is one, yet is many: white “western” feminism, black feminism, heteronormative feminism, LGBTQ inclusive feminism, feminisms “of the global south”, Arab feminisms; together with our respective male allies and without them. We speak in many voices and we don’t always agree because we don’t always see and hear each other. But these many voices are being heard more and more. Being defiant, I will say at this point it’s impossible to silence us again, at least as a feminist collective, despite the rise of femicides (e.g., Mexico and Turkey) and the ongoing murders of feminist and LGBTQ activists which are evident active efforts of silencing. And yet, I will almost polemically call all global “feminisms” the biggest, longest-lasting global rebellion and/or revolution since the beginning of patriarchy, a beast which is fighting for dear survival with all its might. The current backlash towards LGBTQ & women’s rights by autocratic leaders and governments such as, for instance, in the U.S., Brazil, and Poland to name just a few of a long list, deeply concerns me. When Poland as a member of the EU is attempting to decriminalize violence against women and backs out of treaties, then it is hard to talk about the state of feminism without mentioning that I am observing a strong global patriarchal resurgence, while also observing a strong, highly diverse global feminist movement. We have come a long way but we still have a “complex” road ahead, without wanting to call it “long”. I wish misogyny, daily doses of sexism (and other oppressive and demeaning ‘isms towards any human), structural inequalities and so on would soon end up on some “red list” just like a species or language as an “ethnosphere” that is about to go extinct. However, realistically speaking my sense is that this might still take some deep self-reflection, courage, effort, joint activism, and rebellion from all of us.
What about leadership? How do you see the leadership role in this uncertain world?
There has been a long and ongoing process of “peacemaking and coming to terms with” the idea of “leaders” and “leadership” for me personally. Whether this stems from my own personality, which has the tendency to reject outer authorities and simply refuses to “follow” anyone, or if this stems from my experiences of extremely poor leadership, my own and that of others, it is hard to say.
But for every poor leader there has been an inspiring one. What made them inspiring for me? Their courage, vulnerability, grace and flaws, their failures, service, insight, dedication, and their passion and vision. In my teenage years and youth, I was hungry to read biographies of leaders, above all female thought leaders. Rosa Luxemburg, Sophie Scholl, Virginia Woolf, and Frida Kalo were my ultimate heroines in my family of many chosen heroines. I understood early on that in order to achieve the high ideals of global justice, equality, and making unheard voices heard on both small and grand scales takes courageous and brave leadership as opposed to spineless fellowship. Uncertainty is a given — it was in the past, it is today and it will be tomorrow. Whatever we set out to achieve or stand up for, the outcome is beyond our control and so is the environment in which we operate. And yet as leaders, it is our task to hold whichever purpose or vision we pursue, dear and in focus. I think when it comes to leadership styles, I still have more questions than answers and somehow I feel that is a good thing. The world truly does not need another leadership book or course full of answers and “how-tos”. I would love one full of questions.
Maybe hard questions like: Are we/Am I ready to be brave and vulnerable? Are we/Am I ready to stand alone in the wilderness at times making hard choices with no one to ask but the inner compass that knows no map? What does it truly mean to lead oneself, anyone, a team, a country? These are questions I ask myself often and their answers are ongoing explorations of my daily challenges and past experiences of leadership. I often think of two things: 1. “service leadership” and how this might come into form without clearly wanting to define it and 2. “emerging leadership & leaders” in a living (emerging) system and how do I or the system/the team act as an enabler and facilitator of that emergence.
Learning and Reinvention
What does learning mean for you? And how do you learn?
I am infinitely curious and the infinity of knowledge and wisdom fills me with great excitement. It always has, mostly. Whenever there has been an absence of curiosity and excitement about the sheer endlessness of knowledge and wisdom in this world it has been the cause of great worry about my own state of being. Learning is my everything. While externally appearing calm I am a restless human being on the inside. I want to move forward all the time, I want to evolve, I want to know more, dig deeper; seek the better, more beautiful questions to ask myself and others, to explore and explore more.
Do I always go there? No.
I think the image of me as a child just going into the public library close to our school and sitting there among all these books, with no intention to actually read them (all), says something. Sometimes I would just sit there and inhale all that book-smell and imagine it is the knowledge in them I absorb while wondering if other people might do the same. I understood later, that’s not how I learn. Sitting among books does not cut it. Smelling them does not cut it. The same goes for watching the lives of others instead of living a life of my own. I suppose that’s how I learn: through reading, observing, immersing, asking questions, seeking questions, trying, failing, falling, reflecting, integrating my learnings, repeating my mistakes, and getting back up. Every hour, day, week after week, month after month. Driven by my curiosity and by the desire to protect my curiosity at the same time.
How many times did you reinvent yourself?
My melodramatic self laughs at this and says what are you talking about? I die daily, I can not count the many mornings I woke up and felt like a new me and forgot who the old me was, yesterday is gone and tomorrow might not be!
There are these big reinventions and the smaller ones in life, right? The ones where I have hit a wall with no door close by — honestly there have been many of those. However, my personality is such that I still think “THERE MUST BE A DOOR; I WILL FIND IT!! I just need to change my strategy.” Sometimes this worked, but often it did not.
I would say one major reinvention has taken almost a 10-year process of letting go of an identity and vision of myself in this world that truly did not work anymore, a process in which I had lost my curiosity and recovered it. A process I am still in the midst of, with an unknown, undefined outcome of infinite possibility.
How do you know that it’s time to start again?
Spinoza said: “Joy (Alegria) is that which enhances our capacity to think and act.”
When my curiosity is gone, when my joy is gone, when I feel stuck, and when I have lost my passion as well as my vision, that’s the moment I better send in the rescue team. It is then that I have lost my capacity to “think and act”.
Portugal, Education, and Nautiluz
Why did you fall in love with Portugal?
Why? Oh, the reason why is unbeknownst to me as far as mysteries go. What made me rise out of my love for Portugal? So many things and yet it boils down to a feeling and a sensation. Of course, I have a lot of very rational reasons to present to make it sound logical for lovers of logic and rational decision-making. I can come forward with the most rational and reasonable explanation when truly it was a feeling. A very strong sense of calm, home, and belonging. Caused by light, colors, ocean, red soil, and the sweet sentiment and simplicity of people. Caused by it being Europe but not feeling like Europe. The vicinity of the African Continent is felt here in the Algarve.
It is the first time and the first place my whole being just wanted to stay and not move on, something I am still equally puzzled and intrigued about.
It is, of all places I have lived, my first choice, yet the hardest and at times loneliest.
What made you decide to work in education?
For many years I have asked myself a number of hard questions, the biggest of all being “How does change happen?” I have been seeking an answer to it in numerous ways. Learning and education were always areas where I saw a lot of potential for creating the kind of change towards justice and equality I wish to see in this world. However, I observed more limitations than inspiration in existing education systems and this led to more hard questions. For instance, if curiosity and the motivation to learn are built-in life-long capacities of humans, why do current modes of education so successfully kill it? How come current mainstream public education takes the joy and play out of learning? And how come education systems are mainly geared toward maintaining the status quo at best but certainly do not encourage a deep questioning of it? What would an education system look like if it were to keep the learners’ innate motivation to learn alive? What would it look like if we were to support learners in unleashing their creative, autonomous, interdependent, and critical thinking selves? What would a learning environment look like if we were to bring life back into it and it back into life? The search for answers has brought me deeper into my desire to explore, innovate, test and create while searching for answers; intending to bring “joy (Alegria)’” into my life and that of others, for a more “enhanced capacity to think and act”.
Can you give us an overview of Nautiluz and the experience of creating it?
Nautiluz is meant to be a playground for us all: the laboratory of our dreams, desires, and learnings. While primarily having learning at its center and it being a space for children and young people to learn and create, its vision is to provide this space for ALL ages. The idea of Nautiluz becoming a hub aims to bring life back into education and education back to life, by bridging a number of existing divides on several dimensions: Bridging generational divides, bridging socio-economic divides, bridging arts & science, ecology & technology, and bridging urban and rural divides, to name a few. It is the reimagined, if not reinvented image of what we used to call “school”: a word that does not do Nautiluz justice in its vision and form. What might this look like in practical terms? While starting in its first year as a learning center with a limited number of learners, we aim to offer creative spaces for artists, makers, digital creators, young and old people, as we grow in the years to come. We have been blessed with a very wild piece of 16 hectares of land, filled with nature, in which we are currently creating a number of safe outdoor learning spaces, to accommodate our first learners from September onwards in times of Corona.
The pedagogical foundation of our learning center will be the Lumiar Methodology which has a strong focus on learner autonomy, competency-based, and project-based learning.
The creation of Nautiluz in the last one and a half years has been an incredible journey of reinvention in itself so far, both frightening and enlightening. Whenever we think we hit a wall, another door opens. It’s been a journey of upholding the vision and yet leaving enough space to navigate the uncertainty such a project brings along in and of itself, on top of the uncertainty the global corona crisis has delivered to each and everyone’s doorstep. It’s been a journey for each and everyone who has joined it, pushing each and everyone far out of their own comfort zone. Making it a magical and deeply vulnerable process for all as individuals on their own journey of reinvention. The team we have now I could not have dreamed of and its diversity fills me with such joy. We are all scared in the most beautiful of all senses and so in love with what we do. Edges are those places that we seek, the edge of our comfort, the edge of our knowing, the edges of the possible and impossible, this is where I find myself with Nautiluz, this is where we find ourselves as the Nautiluz collective. I can not but love it all, it’s most likely the dearest, yet most frightening project to my heart so far.
Past and Future
Can you share some of the major lessons you learned in life?
Whenever I meet life with my very own overdoses of pride and vanity, it teaches me humility and grace. Yet while I am using these vast words I might so far have only briefly brushed the outer margins of their peripheral meaning. I might by now be able to recognize a humble person and know how to maintain my humble self. Do I know grace? In those times of a felt eternity of life hitting me hard with its lessons, grace came along, because pride and vanity had finally left the room. And yet, I won’t be able to define grace to anyone. It sounds so pretty but let me tell you, that’s just not how it feels. Life brings us all to our knees over and over again, the number of times this happens doesn’t matter that much. What truly matters is the getting up part, not just how often I get back up but what I will change in how I approach life, and my whole being. I have had many hard lessons running on repeat in my life like a broken record, knowing very well the ins and outs of what I was creating for myself. I have learned to ask myself questions, hard questions, knowing full well that even to understand my own inner workings might take longer than a lifetime. What I have learned is that we as humans are infinite beings, and I continue to encourage myself to look at myself, and others, from this perspective only. Life is an absolute magical mystery to me and yet nobody gets out alive. A blunt and incredibly liberating fact that often guides my choices.
Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?
I truly wonder what the world and life will look like just a year from now. It excites me. There are no big questions beyond “How does change happen and how do we shape it and how do we respond to it?” These are lifelong questions and daily ones.
How do you face the future? Do you make plans for it?
I cannot remember myself ever planning my future. I dream my future and I dream what I imagine myself to be. I come up with visions of myself and the future and then I embark on a journey towards it; often I get diverted along the way, but then get back to focus. It’s a mesmerized meandering. I know the “now” is what I can plan, and I work with that towards something, (e.g., Nautiluz) otherwise my “now” would feel empty and meaningless to me.
What should I have asked, but didn’t?
If gravity is just a theory and the center of the earth is made of strawberry jam, how would that change the way you live your life?