Edinburgh DO: not just a bunch of hippies

I’m engaged in a long-distance love affair with Edinburgh (having worked at the Fringe in the summer) and got the excuse to visit again in the form of the Edinburgh DO, a “skills-sharing collective” lasting three days. Never mind that I didn’t really know what a skills-sharing collective was (having never knowingly been to one before) – the website looked interesting, I was bored, and the word Edinburgh was in the title. Standing at a bus stop in Birmingham City Centre (anyone living in the south shudders) at 6.30am (all except rowers blanch) in four inches of snow and a freezing cold wind (who wouldn’t be shivering,) I couldn’t help but feel I might have made a rash decision. In the coldest March for over fifty years, was it really a good idea to travel 300 miles further north to attend an event at which I knew less than a handful of people?

As I really didn’t know what to expect, I arrived at the DO with an entirely open mind (a pretty rare occurrence), which proved both necessary and sufficient for the weekend. The website promised “a space to share zany ideas and collaborate on new initiatives”. What this boiled down to was an attempt to inspire and support change (however big or small) and have a good time doing it. Straight away, I can wholeheartedly confirm it fulfilled this promise. Words like “sustainability”, “environmentally-friendly”, “community”, “freedom from oppression” and “rights” littered the pages of description of the many workshops and activities that were being offered. Whilst most of us are aware of these concepts, the difference here was the focus on DO-ing rather than sitting around complaining. The creator of the event explained, “young people are passionate and bold and creative. We want to take hold of the direction of our future and this is an opportunity to learn new skills, gain confidence and make new links for collaboration.”

The sheer number and variety of workshops offered something for everyone; here is but a small cross-section. The braver and more intrepid (or masochistic) ventured out into the cold to learn to forage, help build a roof-top garden or transform an area of wasteland close to the castle. For those interested in activism and demonstrations, there was legal observer training and a ‘know your rights’ workshop with the Green and Black Cross. Rhythms of Resistance London, a politically-orientated samba band, and Rebel Clowning shared music and skills as well as explaining how it can be beneficial to change the mood of a demonstration in the face of confrontation with the police. There was ‘flash mob singing’ and an acting workshop. You could learn to make your own solar panels, or how to repair and maintain your bike with the Bike Station. I found the latter particularly useful, having been woefully ignorant of the workings of all things two-wheeled for the last couple of years, despite riding a bike virtually every day. Eighteen-pound puncture repairs, no more! 

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Food-orientated activities – always good in my book – included the laying out of a mandala, a spiritually-significant pattern from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, comprising solely of items salvaged from local grocers that would otherwise have gone in the skip. This provided enough ingredients to feed, or rather stuff full, more than a hundred people at the dinner on Saturday. The menu was the following: a salad with beetroot, carrot, spinach and orange; Bombay potatoes with parsnips; green vegetable curry; red lentil dhal; aubergine chutney and for good measure for afters, a banana and apple cake with red fruit sauce. All for free. Interestingly, the food was all vegan; it was actually very tasty. That’s not to say I didn’t get the dairy munchies and consume an entire block of cheese in one sitting on the Monday. As far as I’m aware, no-one died from eating the dinner (even if they did, we’d all signed a disclaimer in the morning). Volunteers from Bristol Food Cycle had come up to lead this mammoth task. Food Cycle groups around the UK redirect food that is thrown out by food retailers (more often than not due to overstocking) to be used to cook free vegetarian meals once a week for people in the local community.  Putting aside the fact that as impecunious students we all love a cheap meal, there’s plenty of food for thought (excuse the pun).

When mentioning the DO to friends, I’ve had the inevitable questions: Have I become a hippie? Am I going to join a commune? No, and no. The fact is I’ve never felt more welcomed by a group despite knowing virtually no-one. The idea behind it all, that we each have something to teach others, and that we’re better off co-operating (that highly novel concept), makes complete sense to me and I suspect to most. However, it wasn’t all worthy do-gooding.  Breaks were filled with music and circus skills, again with the most experienced always happy to teach. The final night Ceilidh was my first and it was so much fun I wouldn’t mind if it was my last. It was frenetic, (overly-)enthusiastic, exuberant and spontaneous, with everyone collapsed in a heap on the floor, red-faced and sweaty, by the end. Even the background slide show of the activities was powered by people cycling on bicycles.

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Perhaps the most exciting thing was the feeling that the DO was also a springboard for the spreading of ideas for future projects. The weekend provided a hub to bring together like-minded people to collaborate and brainstorm. ‘Pollination sessions’ were held at lunchtime at which people could advertise a proposal for a project and meet in groups to discuss how to take it forwards. These sessions ran alongside ‘How-Tos’: how to set up a workers’ co-operative, run environmental education workshops or set up a community skill-share to enable people to realise their ideas.

I hope, and would not be surprised, to see other DOs springing up around the country. Of course, the growth of ethical and sustainable awareness has been going on for some time, but it was the coming together that felt really valuable. We spend years looking for something to be really passionate about, and it was clear that many of the DO-ers had not only already found that something, but also a desire to share it, which is central to their ethos.