In optics of traditional politics, Helene Henriksen Knudsen is a very young politician who early enough took over responsibility of a City Councillor for urban planning in Norwegian city of Kristiansand. Being a woman in politics and planning for more than 6 years she definitely seems like miracle in country where political representation reaches over 20 percent. Helene visited Prague as a guest speaker during The Week of Diversity in April 2017. Her energy, experience and courage was inspiring enough to arrange an honest interview
Interview by Milota Sidorova, proofread by Michael Higgs
What brought you into politics at such young age?
I used to work-out six days per week and played handball. Then I got an arm injury and I went crazy just being at home. I didn’t have a clear perspective of my life. My mother was getting on my nerves. At that time she was advisor to the regional organisation for young people She said: Hey Helene, you have always cared for people getting equal chances and making sure that everybody is ok. What about politics? It was summer 2009, the campaigning year. One morning she drove me down to the rally. I just entered, observed the party (Høyre) for one and half week and then I decided to join it.
At the beginning I was just sitting at the back of the room and listening until people started to ask me: What do you think? What is your opinion?
2011 was the year of the local elections. That also means internal party campaigns to place candidates on the list. That year I was nominated and ended up as fourth place on the list. The party guaranteed my place. The interesting moment for me was realising that I ranked higher than the person who is in parliament for our county now. We won in Kristiansand, we chose the mayor and I could choose what kind of subject that I wanted to work with. I chose to work with urban planning, regulations, houses. etc.
Have you studied planning?
I do now. Two years ago I started university, enrolling into public planning and communication.
It is not very usual for the party to engage such young people.
It is usual that people of my age go for education before politics. I entered politics not knowing what to do. I had many ideas. I wanted to be a lawyer, an architect, but I didn’t know who I was. The party was open. Even though it was hard, I have found myself in politics. I remember days coming home crying because I got so upset at the meetings. Especially during the first year I learned so much about myself and I don’t think I would be where I am now without that experience.
So what have you learnt about yourself?
Before, I was really stubborn. I learned there were more ways to get what I wanted than pressing hard. I had to be more strategic, wiser, with getting people to like me. On the other side I was trying to be myself and I was accepted for it. In politics you can’t be anyone else but yourself. If you fake it, people will see it.
How many women are there in your party?
It is almost fifty-fifty. Women I know used to stay in the back, because conservatives are conservatives. Tall, middle age men, suits, big bellies… but not anymore. The women are achieving higher and higher positions - and their voices do make a difference. But we must take our spaces and not be afraid to so.
How did you get your space in discussions?
I took it. In some ways I was lucky, because the party didn’t have many women, not of my age. It was women especially who were taking care of me, letting me know how I was doing, supporting me when I was going into debates, following up.
Later on, men extracted me, coming and asking me how I was doing, whether it wasn’t too much on me and so on. At some point I got tired of being told that I was tired. I started answering them. I wasn’t tired; on the contrary, I was filled with energy.
You mentioned support of women. What else enables you to survive in politics?
I think the main reason why I survived is the fact that when people tell me I can’t do it, I am going to do it. For a long time also, I was the youngest. The second youngest person was the same age as my mother. After the last election (2015) we now have other members under the age of 25 in my party.
How did you cope with all the bureaucracy and administration of the municipal office of urban planning?
For the first two years I had to try and fail. I was learning how things worked. Then I had to learn how to find the way around it. When you see the people, when you walk in the halls, you learn how to ask the questions for which you get the answers and things you want. And this is the aspect I like the most. When I am having a debate with the other party or a debate inside of my party I like to bring up the case and how to get them on my side. You can’t say the exact same thing to all the other parties. You have to step back and extract what is good for their party in those circumstances. You have to make it their case as well.
I still say quite radical things. But I say it because when we settle, we get the middle ground, the half of my original proposal. If I start in the middle, the fellow debaters go home but are not provoked to think differently. Also, whenever I have the issue arising, I put it weeks ahead, so the others can think about it.
You transformed into negotiator and lobbyist.
What kind of cases are you dealing with?
I am in charge of regulation plans, permits, etc. Most of my work is dealing with people who want to go around regulations and their neighbours. That moment I became the peacemaker. I have to involve them so they find common agreement.
Kristiansand created the strategy for equality and diversity in urban planning. What was your role in this project?
The strategy was made at the same time when Kristiansand was a part of a Nordic program between Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland involving city administration. I was the one of three politicians representing Norway in this project. I didn’t really contribute to planning as the creation started when I got into politics, but I was active in later phases, when the strategy had to be put forward. Like always, the strategy has a lot of good ideas but there is no guarantee that it will be kept. I made it my case and now the strategy is part of the master plan of Kristiansand. This is the smartest thing that we have done. Now, there is no way for the others to go around it.
How do people react to the strategy of diversity, especially at a time when immigration and diversity unfortunately get connected with terrorism and religious extremism?
Our strategy involves all kinds of diversity; gender, ethnic, language, age, sexual orientation…
In Norway it works like this - we can’t decide how many immigrants we can have. In Kristiansand, we have only two City council members who are really critical about immigration. The rest of the council stands against them with the argument: These are the people. We have to accept and make sure they get the best conditions and education that we can provide them. They are going to be a part of our city, we must make them good citizens.
How do you face this criticism?
People get critical, of course they do. At the same time we politicians try to stand together to make the best for all of us in the discussion about immigration. If we choose one side, we will make the debate even more difficult. Both socialists and conservatives now stand together to ensure that immigrants can get what they can. At the end of the day, it is going to be our responsibility to integrate them whether we like it or not. We have to make the best out of it.
You came to Prague twice, being invited to events promoting gender equality. Do you have a special regard for women in your work?
I don’t think I have a special regard for women, but I do have a special regard for every person, whether you are white or black, women or man, old or young. You have to be treated the way you earn to be treated. In Norway there was the feminist movement in 70s and 80s. I didn’t like the way it was going, only the rights of women. For me, human rights are important. This is the way I take it.
How do you spend your free time?
My free time is when I do something I like. If the meeting is something I care about, I go there in my free time. I work around 40 hours per week and attend school. Everything I do, I choose to do wholeheartedly. It is not 40 hours. You can take a little break here or there. So these are not long days, I can balance them. We also have three months of holidays during the summer and one month during Christmas. I work hard during some periods and then I relax.
You mentioned you would not run for the next elections. Why?
I am really against full-time politicians who have always been politicians only. If you are, then you don’t understand what it is like to sit on the other side of the table, being just normal. I want to work again, I was working before I entered politics, but I was really young. Now I study public planning and communication and I can really add to my studies the invaluable experience I got during my years in politics.