Meet Rafal Rutkowski – also known as Raffa or Ralpha Omega. As a student living in the city of Poznan, Poland Rafal decided to leave everything and hitchhike his way through Europe. His final stop was Maastricht. During his first weeks here, he encountered a strange festival scattered across the city. The WE-festival organized by a group of freethinkers that wanted to unite the city. It blew his mind, and from that moment on he became part of the organization. Here’s his personal story how the WE grew and what he learned as an organisor from the last edition, when the WE became more commercial.
Back in 2012, during my first weeks in Maastricht, I got myself involved with this grassroots social-cultural event that completely shifted my view on what makes a Festival. It began with me running with beer crates, cooking food for people and taking care of our performer’s well being – only to have it all switched up a year later. In 2013, the WE Festival founders dispersed around the world, and a new generation of “WE”sters had to take over. I was their Head Coordinator.
Who is the WE-festival? WE are a bunch of people from different backgrounds who banded together to create a platform for connection, co-creation and collaboration between people and organizations. The very first WE Festival event was held in 2010, it sparked a flame of interest which has grown into an annual Spring-to-Summer festival in Maastricht ever since.
Despite the word “Festival” being used throughout its existence, one has to realize that our targets are as cultural as they are social. The vast majority of our efforts focus on events (workshops, debates, panel discussions, etc.) which further our goals of deepening the connection between different groups in the city, and providing a platform for networking to organizations by co-creating events for/with and by people – hence The WE.
In 2015, Stichting WE Connect was formed to further support the goals of our festival. It is an organization that works throughout the whole year, providing networking, promotional and creative opportunities for startup organizations and people.
The WE Festival is almost 7 years old by now, our current team of volunteers is responsible for past 4 editions. The first events took up to five months to prepare, because of small budgets and scale. For example, in 2013 WE received financial support from one of our partnering Cultural Freezones, Hotel De Ossekop, in order to buy beverages and food for sale, and to keep whole event going day-by-day. We managed to pull off a hit event. However, reflecting on our 2016 edition, which took over 10 months to prepare – with many sponsors, partners and collaborators involved for months before but also sheer scale and amount of events within that WEek – it is clear to me that WE are getting more and more recognized. Teamwork and transparency is what made us get where WE are now.
It is heartwarming to see how countless motivated but inexperienced people can successfully create a movement that sustains itself over the years, grows in spectrum, and moreover to see how every participant grows alongside it.
For me personally, the past 5 years had a huge impact on my personal development. At first, I had little to no experience with managing social media, promotion, finances (for current ‘WE’sters all of those organizational structures already set, i.e. posters, media coverage, etc.). All of these factors were gradually considered as essential sub-categories which WE need to take care of. Now, I am mentoring new volunteers and first-time festival organizers on how to approach these challenges.
Today, WE are on top of our game, yet this does not mean WE do not make mistakes. Rather, through trial-and-error WE learn what is optimal for our organization, both as an open platform and as a dynamic team.
With pride and gratitude, WE acknowledge the help of our partners, volunteers, and participants. Together WE managed to create a fantastic program and organically grow over the years. WE also made some mistakes, and have made steps in order to learn from them. Some examples of our mistakes are indicated: ordering rosé instead of red wine; wrong sized posters; overestimating the amount of attendants for our previous addition (2016); the division of promotional responsibilities with consideration to the featuring WE Film Festival 2016. In sum, imagine 40 un-trained or ‘rookie’ volunteers working on multiple cases over several months, some mistakes are surely bound to happen.
The biggest mistake though was the scale WE aimed for in 2016, our budget was bigger than the previous 3 editions combined! The cost and workload of some events, like the Sunday Open Air and WEekender Parties, have hit us hard, both in terms of our finances and image perceived by attendants. Our job right now is to return to the foundational WE, and to show our supporters that WE are indeed a sustainable grassroots organization, not another commercial event, and WE will be this by scaling down back to previous edition standards. WE failed and learned, now it’s time to show that feedback given by our participants is what defines us as well.
All-in all, WE appreciate the feedback gathered from all over the spectrum, including participants, organizers, artists and other organizations over past few months. It made us focus on our roots and what makes us into the WE, which is diverse bottom-up program, sustainable approach to both our materials as well as spendings but also giving our space for young professionals, rather than investing a lot in big names.
For the 2017 edition, which will be held from May 13 to May 20, WE hope to bring more people from Maastricht itself, and furthers our connection to the City. Based on this years realization – that what makes WE is diverse program and fantastic cozy atmosphere, not bookings and big names – WE will cut those spendings and open up again to more local artists and performers.
In short words:
Rafal Rutkowski, President
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