This August, the Oasis game came to the UK for the first time and was played in Silvertown, a corner of Newham in East London. I attended the training program and project weekend, along with several other Lush employees and a handful of other participants.
I first became aware of this new way of approaching social projects when the (then) environmental guru at Lush, Ruth Andrade, showed us a video during a meeting.
In the video, Edgard Gouveia Júnior from ELOS institute explained a new concept: what if we could change the world by playing a game? What if we could approach a difficult situation with a different attitude? What if everyone could find a way to contribute, regardless of what kind of skills they have? What if we didn’t treat people in disaster zones or poverty as victims? What if we found a way to connect to them and work with them and leave behind a lasting legacy?
This was the Oasis game concept, born in the favelas of Brazil. Architecture students ditched their indoor classrooms and took their desks outside – amongst the people whose lives their work would be influencing. They involved the community directly and the results were breathtaking. This seemingly small step led to a whole movement that has been around the world in the last 12 years and spawned several side projects.
After intense preparation, the Oasis participants are each given roles best suited to their skills. The names for these roles sounded more like classes in a role playing game: Oracle, Time Keeper, Lighthouse, Guardian Angel, Gnome, Hunter, Messenger…
A few months later, Ruth brought us exciting news: the Oasis game would be coming to the UK for the first time. It would be played in Newham, an area in the shadow of the London City Airport and 2012 Olympic Games frenzy. Expensive private property developments aimed at rich commuters are muscling in on previously council-house territory. The local residents are like a dirty secret, airbrushed from the gleaming façade of the city. A group of determined activists, calling themselves the Momentum Project, has already started to change things little by little, by hosting community events and trying to convince locals that “you don’t have to move out of your community to live in a better one”. Partnering with the Oasis game meant a much larger group would be there to create a short burst of intense activity and hopefully, a lasting legacy.
We were told to pack for six days and be ready for hard work. The Dutch branch of the ELOS institute was organising this game and we received a comprehensive welcome pack and instructions on what to bring in advance. It certainly dealt with the logistical side of things but nothing could have prepared us for the actual experience itself.
Our training took place at the Asta community centre and we spent long days there for six days running, first getting ourselves ready for the project itself by participating in a series of activities and practice sessions, then playing the “Oasis Game” itself and getting the community involved.
The facilitators were Rodrigo from Brazil, Niels from the Netherlands, and Conchi from Spain. Unlike in any other training course I’ve been on, they took control of the room in a very calm and subtly manipulative way, coaxing things out of us and getting us to agree to seemingly bizarre activities. Instead of long-winded explanations and theory, we were coached to find our own answers. Instead of asking us who we were, they asked us how we were feeling.
We spent a long time that first day finding ways to connect to each other and to ourselves. As New Age as that sounds, this methodology was the foundation without which the Oasis game simply wouldn’t have worked. I had decided to accept whatever would be asked of us and to be very open to new ways of doing things. This attitude paid off. Over the next six days I learned a great deal about teamwork and about myself.
It was a little frightening at first. Usually, one would set off to work on a project like this with far more theory and planning. We obviously trusted that our facilitators knew what was going on under the surface, and that they knew what they were doing. But still the first couple of days felt a bit like going to a new place blindfolded, and having to work out where you are and what to do without any further instruction.
The most bizarre thing about this methodology was that although the pace we were learning and moving at during instruction seemed slow and serene, the amount of work we accomplished in six days would have taken most people a month. By skilfully reading us and tapping into us, they coached us to skip many of the steps that one would normally assume this type of project had to include. I was left wondering how many days, weeks, even months of my life I have wasted in meetings and presentations that ultimately just served to add extra padding to otherwise simple concepts. It occurred to me that perhaps we are frightened of simplicity.
There are seven steps to making the Oasis game happen:
- The Appreciative Gaze: An appreciative way to observe the local community. A way to focus on what’s there and what about it is beautiful. Getting rid of your prejudices.
- Affection: Encouraging the creation of genuine connections between people based on common values and trust.
- The Dream: To create a space where people can express their most true and ambitious dreams for their community. Not focusing on the negative or problem solving, but focusing on something real that can be achieved now.
- Care: The careful planning of projects and strategies so that they include the community’s collective dreams in all of their diversity. The right ones are good for yourself, good for your neighbour and good for the planet.
- The Miracle: The actual project, where members of the community and Oasis participants make one of the dreams into a reality together. This part used to be called “Action” but at the end of every game, the locals used to say “it was a miracle”.
- Celebration: Coming together at the end of the journey to share the joy of working together. A party!
- Re-evolution: The legacy of the game; a new cycle of expanding dreams and to discover the potential within.
During days one to four we focused on the first four steps. Every day started with a vegan breakfast and a song and a dance. We were taught different dances and different songs and always with the minimum instruction. “Just watch what I do”, said Rodrigo. We did, and we danced. The first time many of us seemed a little clumsy or nervous but over the week dancing became an important part of our daily routine. It was a metaphor for working together; it made us closer and raised our heartbeat, ready to go out full of energy. Sharing the laughter from failed steps or silly moves was all part of the plan. We weren’t meant to become professional dancers, we were meant to enjoy the process and gain something from it.
On the first day, we practiced the Appreciative Gaze by walking around the community blindfolded, gently guiding each other and trying to get an impression of our surroundings without the prejudice that using your eyes as the primary source of information often brings. We learned that sometimes you see better with your eyes closed. We learned to trust each other fast. We learned not to worry about looking very silly.
The local kids responded to us first. Some of them followed us on the first day when we were out with blindfolds.
We went out again, this time with our eyes open and found beautiful things. We tried to find the people behind the beauty. By the end of the week, we had a small but devoted crew of local children who helped us literally drum up attention when we turned our volume up a notch and went to shout on the streets to broadcast the time and location for the community meeting we were organising.
Curtains were parted. Doors were opened. Dreams were gathered. People who had said they wouldn’t come sneaked in to see what the fuss was about. Once the spark caught, the community woke up and took ownership and they were the ones who made it all happen.
We realised that we were all facilitators and that we were merely nudging things that were already there to wake up and spring into action. Cautious but curious people from all walks of life filled the community meeting room, and started building models of what they would like to create during the coming weekend. Suddenly the whole thing was theirs. Suddenly it was the most natural thing in the world. Suddenly they believed it could happen. There was a palpable shift that night from our hands to theirs. Some of us cried a little. Possibly out of relief.
In many of the locations where the Oasis game has been played, there is a real lack of infrastructure so the projects often focus on creating that, and there usually aren’t many objections from local councils and town planners. But even in England, where people assume that they can’t change their environment because of bureaucracy, those assumptions should be challenged. Once the community is mobilised, it’s surprising what can be done.
The Silvertown community chose to transform a derelict outdoor terrace on the side of the Asta centre. They turned it into a usable, shared area with a dance floor for street dance practice; tables, chairs, a garden and a pizza oven.
One of the talented young men, Hilton, had expressed a very specific wish: to have a piano there. Lotte from our group had popped in her piano-shaped pencil sharpener to decorate one of the models. Since we would have to source all the materials locally and obtain as much as possible through donations and abandoned scrap, a piano seemed a touch too ambitious, but we were all secretly hoping that one would magically appear.
On the morning of the project itself, we were all energised, but also somewhat nervous. How many people would come? What if we couldn’t deliver the dream?
Our roles were assigned. Throughout the week, I’d been broadcasting our activities using the Momentum Project’s social media channels, preparing the presentation to the community and keeping our chaotic notes and flipcharts in some kind of order. When the little cards with descriptions of the roles were taken out on the morning of our first project day, none of us knew which ones we’d adopt yet.
The descriptions were read out and willing, suitable candidates selected. Gnomes looked after greenery and recycling, the Messenger would register and document things and tell others about what was happening… wait, that was me! I volunteered to be the Messenger. I had already been one and didn’t know it.
Amina from our group came to me with spectacular news: after we’d spread the word that we were looking for a piano, she had actually found a lady called Karen via Gumtree who just happened to have a piano languishing in her shed and was willing to donate it!
When the piano arrived, Hilton, whose wish it had been to get one, immediately put it to the test. Even out of tune, hearing this young man suddenly turn out a perfect piece of moving classical music in the middle of the chaos that was the project weekend was inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I had an idea: what if we could wheel the piano outdoors and film him playing on it, on the streets of Newham?
Amina had an even better idea. Unbeknownst to me, she had worked as a children’s music coach. She wanted to get a group of the local kids together and do something with them. Amina’s choir practice and the kids’ songwriting formed a memorable thread throughout the weekend, and culminated in a one-off live performance that was captured on video at the start of our sixth stage of the Oasis game: the Celebration.
Pizza oven, dance floor, giant mirror, bathtub full of play-sand, a whole new garden area, tables and chairs, lots of colour: the Oasis gamers and the community worked hard for two days and transformed a previously derelict space. Every hour new people drifted in, curious about what was happening. Parts of the community that would never have imagined working together, now did. We had a spread of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and everyone pitched in. Like our feeble attempts at learning a new dance, but really bonding through stumbling along together, the community formed new bonds and connections by pushing to get this project done within the time allocated.
There was love and laughter and it was clear that something other than painting fences was happening beneath the surface. The journey was always the point. It mattered that we listened to the community’s dreams and that they all felt personally involved and committed. It didn’t really matter what we would build together, just that we would build it together. The final stage had begun.
A Lush video of the Oasis Newham week, including Hilton, Amina and the song!
Read Pia’s full diary here!
Photo credits: Mara Verduin, Alessandro Stellari and Pia Long