by Uffe Elbæk
Words by Monique Schröder // Illustration by Sine Jensen.
We met with Uffe to leave aside all current events and dig deep into how his upbringing has influenced his career, why being different is a privilege and that your heart never lies. If you don’t know who he is, then you have missed that Uffe Elbæk has become one of the most resonant voices of Denmark, as proven by his recent nomination as “Dane of the Year 2015” by Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende. His political actions under his own party “Alternativet” have been in the spotlight lately, especially after electoral predictors, who thought “Alternativet” was a joke, saw the party gaining nine seats in the latest election.
Let’s talk about your personal life and your experiences. I am very interested in how your upbringing has actually influenced you?
I can talk for hours about that. I realized the older I get, the more aware I am about how much my upbringing has influenced where I am today. I was born into a very politically and culturally engaged family with a strong feeling for community. My parents were folk high school teachers, later headmasters, which put me into a special, collective environment from early on. You can somewhat compare it to living in a Kibbutz in Israel, where everybody eats together: students, parents, staff and their kids. To me, it was always very exotic when my parents were actually cooking themselves during summer holiday because that happened very rarely. This has meant a lot to me and defined my journey through life.
What did your teenage years look like and did things become awkward?
I was 14 years old in 1968 – a period marked by rebellion. I wasn’t directly involved but in a way I got the best of it because being a teenager during this time didn’t only mean sex, drugs and rock and roll but also politics. It was very inspiring to observe this youth rebellion as a political movement and taking part in the mix of lifestyle, culture and politics. It created a big critical mass of wanting to change society, which at the same time triggered the belief that you can also succeed in doing so. I had the feeling that everything can be different in a year’s time, including everything from a new understanding of family and friendships towards how you can live your life. So, looking back at all the events during my youth, there is a consistency of the mindset that “we can do it differently”.
Picture by Ole Hein Pedersen
Did this consistency also carry on during your 20s and forward?
Yes, very much so and it all goes back to my upbringing, the relationship to my parents and siblings as well as the year 68. It started with founding a youth culture organization back in the 80s called “Frontrunners” (“Frontløberne”) in Aarhus, which still exists. It’s a space for young people to realize their ideas and talents. After that, many different things followed and lead me towards where I am to date. You can call me activist, entrepreneur, cultural opinion maker, educator, elected politician, minister of culture, and founder of green party. In all of this, the worldview (and also personal view) that things can be different, things can be better, things can be more daring and things can be meaningful can be found; it runs through all of what I am doing both professionally and personally. I am lucky that I worked with smart and warm-hearted people throughout my live. Many times I have been involved with things where people from the outside told us that it can’t be done but somehow, we made it work. I am really happy about my life although it has been a mix of ups and downs.
Looking back, what is your recipe for success?
To me it has always been interesting to stand between the edge of the known and the unknown. That is why I love to stand out because a lot of questions are formulated on the fringes. Of course the edge always moves, meaning you have to redefine the borders and where you want to go. There is a lot of uncertainty and risk-taking involved. You always have to reinvent yourself over and over to be able to realize what really matters. I’ve applied that to my personal life because it has been a real turnaround. I was straight for a period of my life but I decided that I want to be happy. Which meant I wanted to be with a man and then married the best man I can imagine. That hunger for freedom and self-expression has also been part of my work. Many young people are looking up to a certain kind of ideal personality, how to be cool and successful, wearing the right brand, hanging out with the right dudes, listening to the right music and being part of the hot venue and whatever. I really hope that people will listen to their hearts and use that to navigate through what is right and wrong and what’s the best thing to do. I am for sure a heart person but I also use my head very well. But at the end of the day, always listen to your heart because the heart never lies.
Photo by Ole Hein Pedersen
Do you remember all fuck-ups in your life?
Of course, my life has been very dramatic. I’ve gone through a lot of difficult periods defined by crisis. Some of the roles and tasks I have been responsible for have been through turbulent times but I have always used the crisis to take everything I was working on to the next level. I see the crisis as an opportunity to redefine what the right thing to do is. I always ask myself if there is something that is really hard or difficult or vulnerable and think about why life put me into this training camp or fitness studio? Why has life given me this task now and what is it that I need to learn? Using the crisis as a learning opportunity over and over has always worked for me so far.
What does your mom actually say to all of the different things you’ve been doing and the different directions you went through?
She is very relaxed, she has 4 very energetic kids and yet very calm about it. She is an activist herself, although she is almost 90 years old. She has done a lot of grass root work and also has been an progressive educator. Her house is a railway station; there are always people coming in and out, as she is part of different groups: a feminist group, a peace group and an inspirational one. She is quite a character and has the same energy as Yoda from Star Wars, very wise and calm.
Photo by Mark Hessellund Beanland
Are you following her advice?
No, not really. That does not mean I am doing the opposite but I am not asking her what’s the right thing to do. We rather discuss if it was the right thing to do or not to do after I have made the decision. She is very critical towards the political system and can’t understand the way power is run these days; she is very skeptical towards what is happening. I am really happy that she has been living such a long life; it gives you time to reestablish your relationship with your parents to a more eye-to-eye level.
From all the things you did, what was the most important learning point in your life?
Trust your intuition and always listen to your heart but don’t forget your head. My good friend Anita Roddick, who is the founder of Body Shop but sadly died too early taught me many things and set the standard for me as an activist, businessperson and a cultural icon. She always stressed three bottom lines: the economic, the social and the environmental. We once had a very interesting discussion about what defines the best entrepreneurs we know and we came to the very banal, but straightforward conclusion, that the most interesting entrepreneurs we knew were outsiders with a good work discipline. A lot of the shakers, movers, and opinion makers have felt a bit awkward in their schools, families and their environment; they felt queer, unlike like the rest. In situations like this you can either choose to be the victim or change something. I can relate to that. I learned that you should be happy that you feel like an outsider instead of taking this identity as a victim; rather be a change maker and use a high-quality approach on your work.
Photo by Ole Hein Pedersen
From all the things you do, what would you describe as the craziest thing you have ever done?
Of course I could mention Kaospilots now but I actually think the craziest and most risky thing was being part of the “Next Stop Soviet” project, where we invaded Soviet Union in September 1989, just 1.5 months before the Berlin wall came down. We crossed the border all together; 2000 young people from Scandinavian who then moved up to Moscow. Our plan was to organize a rock concert at the Red Square just in front of the Kremlin. Two to three weeks upon arrival, the Russian authorities decided that we could only do a concert in front of the University of Moscow. Parallel to that, we did a concert in front of the parliament in Copenhagen as part of the project. The whole project taught me a lot about that everything is possible. We were the first people from West Europe who were allowed to stay at private people’s homes. At that time, we didn’t know that the Berlin wall would come down so shortly after our stay in Russia. Our Russians were hoping that one day their kids or grandkids could have a holiday in Paris; they even asked us to send them Levi´s Jeans and a Roxy Music EP. It says a lot about how controlled the system was. In an interview with a journalist at the Red Square in October 89, I said that something is happening but it will maybe take 10-15 or even 20-25 years before anything major will happen. Though, not even 2 months later we saw that large-scale changes can happen over night although the system looks stable; all it takes is a critical mass of resistance and a hunger for change. So be aware and do good stuff so stuff can happen.
Photo by Ole Hein Pedersen
What change do you look forward to?
I look forward to seeing if and how we are able to handle the 3 major crises: the system crisis, empathy crisis and the environmental crisis. I hope we are able to handle the latter one; that’s the next generation’s task to find out how we can handle it. There will be many conflicts and this problem calls for the best minds, the wisest souls and the most creative entrepreneurial ideas.
Has being open-minded ever created an issue in your career, especially being a public person?
When I stepped into the traditional political sphere, people around me said that I can’t be so open about what’s on my mind, or my sexuality. But that is just how I have to be, otherwise I will not be who I am. If you try to hide stuff, you end up using a lot of energy hiding. Holding back your own life energy is the most stupid thing you can do. Never ever do that!