Building the World
We Want to Live In

The ninth annual Citizen Participation University represented our biggest, most diverse school yet. Gathering under the banner of “building the world we want to live in,” seventy-three participants came together from Belarus, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Participants called a training facility in rural Hungary home for a week-long program of intense learning, community building, and strategizing.  

This year the planning committee divided the CPU program into distinct but interlocking subject areas, and worked in sub-groups to develop three thematic paths: 1) economic and racial exclusion, 2) popular education and/or critical pedagogy, and 3) political action. A plenary session was devoted to each theme, and the workshops, learning labs, and our full-group strategy simulator exercise wove all these themes together.

Gruia Bumbu, a leader in the Roma community of Romania, speaks about the spark of activism. 

Birth of a citizen

She was riding home on the tram after her first ever protest in front of Budapest city hall when she was suddenly hit with the sensation of having become a “political being.” In her keynote session at the CPU, Tessza Udvarhelyi told about her transition from being an academic trying to support activists from a studied distance, into realizing that she could not be “neutral” in the process.

She had to do something.

Tessza’s work led her to found the City is For All, the only grassroots housing advocacy group in Hungary, and later to create the School of Public Life, which eventually became a space for learning across various sectors of Hungarian civil society.

...the role of critical pedagogy is to foster a process of learning rooted in doing, and to ultimately guide others to have their own awakenings as citizens.

The realization of being a political being had the quality of an awakening for Tessza–she likened it to being “born as a citizen.” In her view, the role of critical pedagogy is to foster a process of learning rooted in doing, and to ultimately guide others to have their own awakenings as citizens.

On the other hand, she quite candidly shared her experience of working in a “cute NGO” for many years prior to her current role in movement making. It was a comfortable job with good co-workers. And yet it was an organization that carefully steered away from politics or policy making. Whether by choice or for lack of knowledge on how to intervene, these NGO’s were choosing to remain “neutral.”

Unfortunately, Tessza couldn’t help but feel that by avoiding these fundamental facets of the world they inhabited, these NGO’s were “reproducing their own powerlessness.”  Now as her government is cracking down on civil society, NGO’s are having to learn how to “do democracy” at the same time it is disappearing.

Tessza Udvarhelyi leads a workshop on participatory action research.

Communities finding their power

The Roma were held as slaves in Europe for almost 500 years. They were only given full legal freedom in 1864. It was freedom in name only; their desperate economic situation led most of these freed people right back to working in the same jobs they had occupied as slaves.

Seven decades later, Roma communities were again decimated during the Holocaust. But despite all this, resilience has also defined these communities.   

"For me this has been an opportunity to remember the spark of activism that drives me to do the work I do.”

Gruia Bumbu, a leader in the Roma community of Romania grew up middle class and educated. It did not matter when it came to facing discrimination in school, or threats of violence in his neighborhood.

As he spoke during the second plenary session of the CPU, Gruia shared a story of his family’s restaurant being threatened with attack by right wing extremists in 2005. From the personal stories he shared, one caught a glimpse of the pain that he and members of his community have felt for a very long time.

On the other hand, one also heard a key theme throughout all of Gruia’s stories: resistance. His path to his current work of managing European funds to support the development of Roma communities in his country is, at its root, grounded in the dignity of a person who has decided to fight back against injustice.

Gruia concluded his powerful intervention thanking the the CPU for the chance to speak, “for me this has been an opportunity to remember the spark of activism that drives me to do the work I do.”

Gruia Bumbu and Jess Campbell prepare for their keynote session.

Joining our liberation struggles together

In the same session with Gruia, we heard from Jess Campbell, a community organizer and the Co-Director of the Rural Organizing Project in the United States. She told about growing up working class in a predominantly white community, far from the prosperity of the big city.

Jess’ first taste of activism came from a successful campaign she and her fellow students organized to oppose corporate advertising in her high school. (Because of underfunding, many schools in poor areas of the US have turned to showing students “news programing” prepared by corporate sponsors in exchange for resources for the school.)

That early experience taught her the power of a “bunch of misfits” coming together to challenge a policy with which they disagreed. However, what do you do when it is not a policy you are opposing, but an invasion of right-wing extremist activists into your community?

Jess shared that right now a neo-Nazi organization is trying to set up a store and gathering space on the main street of her hometown. What’s more, Jess’s home state of Oregon has become a staging point for the protest movements of national right wing extremist organizations, some of which openly carry automatic rifles on the streets.

Despite threats of violence against her, Jess has been working with rural communities to resist these nationalist organizations, and they recently published a how-to guide detailing their experiences. She pointed out that it sometimes only takes getting a small group of a few people together in a rural community to effectively say no to hate. She challenged her listeners at the CPU by observing, “People are hungry to belong to something. What are we creating for people to belong to?”

Sharing a moment on the CPU campus.

Building movements that can win

A key question that participants at this year’s CPU wrestled with was how to widen our definition of what we mean by the word “politics.” How do we challenge the notion that engaging in the political process is inherently “dirty?” How do we talk about politics as a common good?

Besides being a moment on the calendar when our broader societies are paying more attention–when we are “doing democracy,” so to speak–elections are also opportunities for those of us in civil society to build the base of our organizations.

“Democracy is a trade...you have to learn it.”

With this in mind, we return to Tessza’s plenary talk. She outlined seven elements that she believes social movements in Hungary should have. We could easily imagine this as a list that applies to us all:

  1. We need a clear vision
  2. We need a democratic structure
  3. We need to focus on building a base of people
  4. We need a strategy
  5. We need a conscious methodology
  6. We need to build alliances across divisions of class, race, and social groups
  7. And, we need to embrace tactics that can challenge power

All of this needs to be developed on a practical level–by trial and error. We need to deepen our theoretical understanding of the world around us, and we need to focus on skills to act collectively. As Tessza put it, “democracy is a trade…you have to learn it.”  

And that is just what we did at this year’s CPU.