What connects us? EMPATHEAST 2016 in Vratsa, Bulgaria gathered answers

EMPATHEAST - the forum for empathy-driven social change - is the powerful answer of Ideas Factory Association from Bulgaria to the question how empathy, creativity and local and international social innovations can form a joint and an adequate answer to local socio-cultural challenges.

Each year the forum is in a different Bulgarian city and seeks to tackle its cultural, economic and social specifics.
The third edition of EMPATHEAST took place between 11-13 of November 2016 in the town of Vratsa, located in Northwestern Bulgaria -  known as the poorest region of EU. And we proved in practice, being supported by the local community - mainly students as volunteers and cultural institutions - and social innovators from around the world that the region is full of potential. The forum gathered around 300 foreign and local guests in search of innovative approaches to break the noxious stereotypes of the region.
The topic this year was What connects us? As humans, between sectors, professions and cultures, between generations and different economical conditions…?
The forum started with an opening of an exhibition called “Barefoot love”, picturing elderly couples from villages around Vratsa that are still in love with each other and share their raw and genuine stories of long-term loving partnership. These old people were part of Baba Residence project of Ideas Factory, during which young urban people share the homes, stories and dailylife of old village people for a month. It was a warm welcoming where Yanina Taneva of Ideas Factory and the mayor of Vratsa Kalin Kamenov invited everybody to participate in the forum and immerse themselves into the creation of EMPATHEAST 2016’s spirit.

Digital Sedyanka was called the space where the story-gatherers from “My Bulgarian history” gathered old local people of Vratsa region to record and share their personal stories, thus creating an alternative historical digital map of Bulgaria. Another event which took place on Friday was the “Center - Periphery” interactive panel at which people from different backgrounds presented specific ideas and initiatives from the field of education, economics, culture and media, aiming to create a new outlook on less populated areas of Bulgaria. Also a cross-sectoral partnership panel was taking place almost at the same time, where examples and challenges of collaboration between business, government and the civil society on common social issues were discussed. Meanwhile, the other heart of EMPATHEAST - Art Innovation Challenge - brought to the city artists who answered through their own skills the question What connects us?. One of them were the artists from “Combino circus” who made an interactive acrobatic performance on the main pedestrian street of Vratsa!

The first forum day was garnished with an EmpathEAT dinner - our unique networking event that brought all people somehow connected to the forum together and involved them in a culinary play: every person belonged to a team which had to make its own dinner with the provided products. The most challenging aspect was that in the middle of the food preparation process, electricity was gone for a while. One more condition to help us extend the perspective of what really connects us, even in the dark ;)

The first half of the second day of EMPATHEAST 2016 was fueled by the speakers’ panel. International and Bulgarian social innovators presented projects they are working on in their home countries: Argyro Barata (Greece) talked about Feast Thessaloniki events of live crowdfunding, Adeshola Adetunde Adefioye (US) presented the participatory and inclusive activities of KVS - The Brussels City Theatre, Lilia Haralampieva (Italy) talked about the so called “augmented reality” of participatory architecture they do with BEPART, Ed Santman (Netherlands) shared his experience how arts can be used as a tool to work with prisoners, Jason Nardi (Italy) introduced the different alternative economic and exchange systems, George Sachinis (Greece) talked about Ohi Pezoume and its participatory practices and performances in Athens and finally Neda Sokolovska (Bulgaria) introduced the potential role of documentary theatre as a truthful media in the society and the main mission behind VOX POPULI studio for documentary theatre.

People of Vratsa and the guests of the forum had the chance to see the documentary performance of VOX POPULI “Peace to you / Мир Вам” in the Drama theatre of Vratsa. The performance is based on the real, heartful and hurtful, stories of refugees living in Bulgaria.

The day finished with CATAPULT - a public presentation of the ideas of young social entrepreneurs - participants in Social Innovation Challenge and Baba Residence projects of Ideas Factory. It was combined with a live crowdfunding (applying practices of Feast Greece). The main idea of this offline crowdfunding practice is a community to be able to support directly with a certain sum of money a project which it finds the most meaningful.
The food which flavoured the CATAPULT event had been cooked by the grannies from nearby villages. It is a great way to support the local production and and their amazing culinary skills and, of course, an additional source of income for these old local women.

The last day of the forum was focused on unlocking personal creativity and connecting it to social issues around. Stories of Concordia workshop of Georges Sachinis shared the powerful empathic method of community-mapping entwined with performing art. Adeshola Adetunde Adefioye took up the theme of theatrical empathy and what is meant to be a city dramaturg. He presented very interesting projects from KVS theatre such as Poetic Pilgrimage - a hip-hop Muslim poetic duo which gives us a fresh and peaceful perspective on important contemporary issues concerning religion, politics and personal identity. Theatre director Neda Sokolovska’s led guests with her workshop through the process of creating a documentary performance - making interviews with people of Vratsa; another workshop was “Find your voice” by Konstantin Kuchev who as a magician of the improvisational communication through music created with all participants a common song about Vratsa and empathy.

Inspirational talks with people who nourish the spirit of small Bulgarian towns and villages with cultural initiatives combined with brunch of local foods was also part of the last day. The event was closed by making a circle of all participants and guests of the forum - coming together, singing and highlighting the important future steps on how to stay interactive and help smaller towns and villages flourish with their potential.

As Jason Nardi said: “The mixture of entrepreneurial spirit, the creativity, the artistic vein and social connection is a very special mix I found that EMPATHEAST has as an approach.“