Monday, November 23, 2015

The Koko Lepo Free School Project, Belgrade, Serbia

While most of the teachers reading and writing for this column work in public/state educational systems, the importance of autonomous, independent, and anticapitalist educational projects across the world cannot be understated. The September 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is by "Ferdi", a teacher and doctoral candidate from Texas who has lived in Central and Eastern Europe for six years and Belgrade (Serbia) for two at the InexFilm squatted social center. He describes himself as an anarchist and anti-fascist and intends to stay in Belgrade for as long as 'they' let him. The autonomous, collective educational project he works with, Koko Lepo, welcomes new contacts and encourages any readers who are interested in establishing contacts or continuing the project to please get in touch (see contact information at the end of the article).

The Place

InexFilm is a squat in the Karaburma neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia–the 'White City'. For four years the place has been host to a variety of artists, 'activist' groups, concerts, and various spatially-oriented initiatives. It has no relation to NGOs nor the State and it is always under threat of falling to the tides of commercial development in the area. The latest rumor is that the bulldozers are coming for us in less than a week as of this writing. By the time you read this, a battle may already have occurred, the outcome anyone's guess.

The squat also houses an autonomous kindergarten and youth program called 'Koko Lepo' within its colorful concrete halls. Koko Lepo is a completely free weekly pedagogical program that serves the residents of a slum called 'the Dump' nearby the squat. Most of our students are the children of Kosovar war refugees from the 90s and speak Romani and often Albanian as well as Serbian. Most of the parents of these children work as urban collectors, a thankless, dangerous, and demanding job which will be passed down to our students.

A brief note about language: when speaking about our program to outsiders, we oscillate between using the epithets ‘Roma’ and ‘Gypsy’ to describe the background of our students. ‘Roma’ is an internationally accepted term which describes either an ethnic group or a stateless nation depending on who you ask. ‘Gypsy’ is typically pejorative but is nonetheless used with greater frequency within the slum itself; historically, it signals a troublesome relationship with the State and hegemonic society. So when we talk to people whose politics we are unsure about, I use the word “Roma” or say nothing at all. When I talk to liberals and NGO careerists, I say ‘Gypsy’ and watch them squirm. Incidentally, the people of the Dump often simply call themselves ‘Serbs’ or ‘Albanians’. Identity is a site of great contention as well as gaming for Roma in the Balkans; it has, in the past, meant the difference between having a job and being buried in a mass grave. People are justifiably sensitive about it.

Roma education rates in Serbia are abysmal compared to the almost total enrollment of Serbian students in the same cities. Amnesty International estimates that only 66 percent of school-aged children are enrolled in primary school while the number drops to a dramatic 10 percent for slum dwellers. Those that do enter school are discriminated against at every level. Their fellow students experiment with their parents’ racism while the parents themselves often go so far as to call school administrators and threaten to withdraw their own children if the school accepts Roma students. Members of our collective have had doors closed on their face when trying to enroll some of our students in primary school.

Koko Lepo endeavors to pass on the skills necessary for success in Serbian primary schools while imbuing a sense of autonomy and egalitarianism amongst our students. Serbia is far from a bastion of gender and racial equality despite its socialist heritage. I work as an English teacher for money in the same city. My classes at the private school I work in within a more upscale neighborhood of the White City are based largely on debates about gender parity, heteronormativity, racism, and consumerism. A critical approach to these topics does not come naturally to my English students who are typically unaccustomed even to thinking about anti-ciganism, prejudice against gypsies, as a form of racism at all. Racism is what Americans do.

Koko Lepo identifies as anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-authoritarian and as such find our key allies, as well as sources of funding, amongst the international anarchist and anti-fascist movement, particularly in Germany, as well as a bevy of radical hardcore and punks bands. We do not cooperate with NGOs or any other representative of the capitalist State. While I feel compelled to mention a couple of bands in particular who have bent over backwards for the kindergarten, such as Osnabrück's Hirnsäule and Schwäbisch Gemünde's Wasted Youth, the close relationship the kindergarten has to the Belgrade antifascist booking collectives Cherry 76 and Destroy Babylon has brought us closer to the scene than any of us could have hoped. This has also included powerful voices from the Roma hip-hop scene, like the explicitly anti-fascist Gipsy Mafia and the Romani rap legend Lord Kastro who once toured with us as a way to develop our solidarity networks and build awareness about our program in Western Europe.

The Day

On kindergarten days, at least three of us will prepare the room in the morning, text the parents that we will come to pick up their kids, and then head into the slum. We are greeted with love as well as complaints, criticisms, personal problems and gossip. All in all, the pick-up might take up to an hour on particularly chaotic days. We are now starting our third year as an institution in the Dump and the trust the parents have in us means more to us than anything. We treat it with all the care and affection we try to afford their incredible kids.

Class consists of a warm-up activity, usually with singing, before moving on to a (more or less) voluntary calendar lesson where we focus on numbers, letters, colors, time, and seasons. After this, we have free time where the kids play with the mountains of donated toys and art supplies given to us by our solidarity partners the world over. We have a hot vegetarian lunch which we cook everyday, often with the kids' help, and then play some games, perhaps do some directed educational activities, sing some songs, and then get ready to walk back home.

On youth program days, which we call Školica, or “Little School”, we typically take between twenty and thirty kids between the ages of 8 and 14 on field trips around the city. We have taken over parks, pools, cinemas, youth theaters, and other places in Belgrade that our kids might otherwise feel marginalized in or at best see as extensions of their workplace as collectors. When Školica uses the city, our kids own it. When such trips aren't possible, we tend to do some modest program in the anarchist infoshop 'Furija' in the same squat. Our two collectives share several members and, for the most part, the same ideals of autonomy, equality, and direct action.

The program is exhausting and addictive. There isn't one amongst us who hasn't felt the sense of satisfaction that can only come with doing something you are proud of for people you adore and all on the basis of voluntary association. The total absence of any monetary consideration or valuation of our labor allows the project to be valued only by its effects. We see the value of this program in our student's development and, in some key cases, eventual success in their official primary school programs after graduating from ours. We count our losses in missed days, disappointing our families through broken promises and an all-too-often surface level commitment to their daily struggles. Each day ends with a tally of both and far too many of them have ended with our accounts in the red. The long arc, however, bends towards victory. Each loss is a lesson and each success a precious reminder that this whole thing could actually mean something to someone in the end.

The Paradox

Of course, the paradox of training our children in our autonomous alternative program so they can better integrate with an inherently exploitative and often soul-crushing State education system is never far from my mind. I won't speculate on the thoughts of my comrades in the collective, but I have never seen our mission as strictly one of integration. For me, we are arming our children to meet the system that hates them with a slightly better footing than they might otherwise have without us.

It is important to me and others in the collective that Koko Lepo never become merely a DIY version of a mission trip. We cannot be some teenager's Guatemalan summer where the deep inequities and structural violence of global capitalism are boiled down into a few selfies and the phrase, “I think I really did some good down there”. How we maintain and materialize this separation is never entirely clear and we try to be vigilant of it. Sadly, we have failed miserably at this from time to time. One ex-member would even occasionally do tours of the slum for guests before he was kicked out of the collective for even worse. To help combat these tendencies we've made rules about photography in the program, try to keep the topic of race and class alive in our meetings, and have experimented with integrating members of the settlement into the program to help 'offset the white balance', so to speak. This last task has proven prohibitively difficult as those who are old enough to help out with the kids but are not yet working full-time for the family are generally supposed to be in school. We decided early on that Koko Lepo should not be an excuse to skip school even if we don't like the system: the paradox again...

Our program is far from perfect. We are constantly tackling issues of race, gender, tradition, inequity, and all the myriad problems one might expect from such an effort. Our meetings are often sites of heated and mean arguments, tearful accounts of our failures, gallows humor, etc. Despite this, I doubt there is one amongst our members who has not felt, standing at the open door of our colorful kindergarten that we built with our own hands, that there can be nothing in this world more worthwhile or more necessary. Moreover, there is nothing in this world that will stop us from seeing it through.

The Lesson

It took only three people and safe space to make this happen initially. Since then, members have come and gone but the consistency of our program and the consistency of its message, at this point, might outlast all of us in the current collective. We are a consensus based group with no distinction between workers and members. Anyone interested in committing their time to the program who is in line with our basic principles is welcome to participate. We do take care to pull, in a general sense, from our existing affinity groups–or at least make sure we can find someone who can speak for new members as a way to protect ourselves from possible infiltration by the police or worse. In fact, we have suffered worse and have survived, learning all sorts of hard lessons along the way.

It is important to us that our lessons be your lessons; I can promise you, reader, that yours have been, and will continue to be, ours. Regardless of the fate of our beloved Belgrade squat, this project is far from finished. More importantly, there is little in it that is not replicable in some way or another in your own neighborhoods given the right space and the commitment of a handful of individuals. Mutual aid is how we express solidarity for those with whom we seek equality in our common struggle for both survival and significance in the face of exploitation, hatred, and systemic violence.

Thanks for paying attention. – ‘Ferdi’

For more information:
Other links:
Infoshop Furija:

Cherry 76 booking:
Destroy Babylon booking:

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