Free, fair and alive

Obituary

That was Silke Helfrich’s life, and that is what it will remain.

Now we are grieving her, our staff member of many years, our colleague, our friend.

We are all shaken that Silke was fatally injured while hiking in the Liechtenstein Alps on 10 November. She would no longer return to give her lecture planned for that afternoon. She was torn from this world, from the life she lived to the full, leaving behind a huge void in commons research and the international commons community.

She had made a name for herself in that community since 2007, finding a large circle of friends from a wide variety of backgrounds, establishing the Commons-Institute and other projects with them, and supporting many young people by organizing summer school programs. They all will miss her as much as we do. Silke left an indelible mark based on her distinctive intellectual charisma and love of dissent and debate.

We remember Silke Helfrich as a colleague of many years, before she set out on her path as a freelance researcher, as an author of numerous books, as a blogger and as a guest speaker at many events: Silke had close ties to the Heinrich Böll Foundation since its reestablishment in the mid-1990s. After growing up in a small village in the Thuringian part of the Rhoen Mountains, she studied Romance languages and literature, social sciences and education in Leipzig. Young, full of ideas, assertive and tenacious, she established the Thuringian branch of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and served as its CEO from 1996 to 1998. 

Then she set out to explore the world. Beginning in 1999, she headed the Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for Central America in San Salvador. In 2004, she moved to Mexico City as the founding director of the office serving Mexico and the Caribbean.

Regardless of where and with whom she was, Silke devoted all her energy to her work and did so with deep passion and keen sensitivity while showing genuine care for the people she worked with. She was guided by justice, human rights, women's rights, fairness and freedom. Her bearing, her creative openness and her passion made her a role model who encouraged countless people.

Silke enjoyed the deep respect of our project partners and her colleagues; her influence on them was profound. During her time in Mexico, she contributed ideas for the Foundation overall, far beyond her responsibility for the region. For example, she shouldered responsibility in the team directing the Ecofair Trade Dialogue, a project on agriculture and trade organized by the Foundation in cooperation with the Wuppertal Institute.

Silke began her journey rediscovering the commons as early as her time in Mexico. She first met David Bollier there in 2006; the two later worked closely and founded the Commons Strategies Group (CSG). Bollier had attended a conference organized by the Mexico Office about the structural commonalities between traditional commons, e.g. indigenous land and resource use, and the struggle against enclosures of commons in the age of intellectual property rights (free seed, Creative Commons, open source software, Wikipedia). (In the end, they createdGenes, bytes y emisiones: Bienes comunes y ciudadanía, 2008“).

Silke Helfrich and David Bollier discussing concepts for "Free, fair and alive" 

The Gemeingüter Report: Wohlstand durch Teilen (Commons report: Prosperity through sharing, in German only) was her first major publication after returning to Germany.

This was followed by political salons on the commons that invigorated the discourse, especially in Germany, for several years.

At a meeting at Crottorf organized by the Foundation in 2009, Bollier and Helfrich met Michel Bauwens, who became the third partner in the Commons Strategy Group. In cooperation with an international network of commoners and the Foundation, the CSG organized two international conferences at the Foundation headquarters: the International Commons Conference in 2010 and the Economics and the Commons Conference 2013. The first two commons anthologies, which Silke co-edited with David Bollier, were published two years after the conferences.

Multiple “deep dives” created spaces for reflection and thus the foundation for her last major work published with David Bollier as co-author in 2019: Free, fair and alive: The insurgent power of the commons. The book has been published in German, English and Spanish. Versions in Greek and French are in preparation.

The desire for a just world is not a utopian dream. Real alternatives do exist, resting on freedom, fairness and aliveness. That is what Silke Helfrich and David Bollier demonstrated in their book.

Viewing reality from a new perspective, overcoming old dichotomies - such as that of the market and the state -, reconceptualizing property rights and usage rights, rebalancing value creation and appreciation of value, and seeking commons practices for fruitfully living together here and now: that was Silke’s pioneering research agenda. Above all, Silke wanted to reveal what is in the present and where new social practices are taking place - around the world. Solawi Heilbronn (CSA Heilbronn) and Verein Pilzfreunde (Association of Mushroom Lovers) were just as important to her as the Commons Strategies Group. “I want to be on the ground, immerse myself, take my time,” she wrote us recently.

Silke and the people she collaborated with were groundbreaking pioneers. She was equally passionate as an intellectual and an activist. Her wonderful work will remain with us and inspire us. We will treasure and promote it.

We extend our deep sympathy to Paul and Clara, Jacques, Gina and Nick, Kai and her family.

Barbara Unmüßig, Heike Löschmann, Jörg Haas

Antonie Nord, Joanna Barelkowska, Ingrid Spiller, Michael Álvarez Kalverkamp, Burkhard Kolbmüller, Dr. Matias Mieth, Solveig Negelen