Citizen Participation University

Welcome Sign

Outside Budapest   There are a lot of great ways to celebrate Independence Day. There are picnics, barbecues, parades, fireworks, and good times and sober reflections throughout the land. For me this year, it has meant flying across the world to arrive in Budapest and then catch a lift to somewhere about an hour out of the city to a great facility operated by a Hungarian nonprofit where something called the Citizen Participation University has been meeting annually about this same time for several years now. A year ago, I had visited with Mate Varga of the Civil College Foundation which runs the CPU and had promised I would try to come back and lend a hand, and so I have.

participants sharing stories of change under the tent

Shaking off the jet lag, I almost tipped over one of the feed sacks filled perhaps with pine needles or some such that served as seats under the parachute tent where this year’s participants were introducing themselves with stories, some short and some longer, about change. There were more than thirty there, going one by one, of a crowd expected to swell over the week between forty and sixty. My impression had been that most of the participants would be from Eastern European countries. Listening to everyone that turned out to be partially true, but mostly wrong. Yes, there were people there from Hungary of course, Ukraine, and Romania with American expats from the Czech Republic and Slovenia, but they were in the minority of the dozen or so countries represented. The biggest delegation was from Belgium, primarily Brussels, from various community development groups, but there were also several people from Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Norway were represented, along with Denmark and the Netherlands, and an organizer from the Working Families Party based in New York City and of course I was there to wave the ACORN flag as well.

The stories were interesting. Many focused on how people had come into the work at various angles ranging from homeless activism to corporate retrenchment as well as back-to-the-landers and folks just plain looking for a job. There were several people who actually worked as community organizers in a way that we would recognize the concept in the United States, but many self-defined themselves as being involved in community development or various citizen participation schemes, which may be a euphemism for acting as community organizers and may not. The next several days of work will fill in the details on that question.

organizer from Romania tells about his work

There is a cloud hanging over this year’s session in Hungary as the quasi-populist government has joined Russia, India and other countries in an assault on nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations in general. The attack on a university supported by George Soros has garnered much of the news internationally, but the fight has been more intense in Hungary around constant financial inquires and harassment directed at any groups receiving money from international sources.

I may be here as one of the instructors, but I’ve come to learn and put my shoulder to the wheel to protect independence and the rights so celebrated at home yet under assault both in the Untied States and increasingly around the world.

folks join for dinner to continue the conversation