A Hungarian Training Space for Non-Profits

Kunbabony, Hungary   Almost as interesting as the various workshops at training at the Citizen Participation University was the facility itself and the special space it provided for this community of organizers, educators, community developers, and wizards of many varieties and skills. The history and mission embeds the facility as deeply into the community as the program itself.

I only know the backstory in bits and pieces. The administrator of the Collegium is the Civil College Foundation, directed by Mate Varga, but the property was originally a school building in the area that had fallen into disuse. Mate’s father had bought the property years ago for this purpose so it has had many lives and seen many changes and improvements over time.

The main building includes a couple of classrooms and something like a half-dozen sleeping rooms with single cots that would seem – and felt – the size of the bottom half of a bunk bed, somehow missing its natural second story. A new improvement was the opening of Le Mat, a cafe, and kitchen area, where people were served breakfast and could get an espresso or beer throughout the day. The building and the cafe are now run by a local cooperative, as is the farming operation behind the building, making the Collegium a community building project itself as well as a meeting and training center.

The business of the center though maximizes the location. This is a nice place and well made and presented, but it puts on no airs. Though there are sleeping rooms in the main building, the majority of the participants were literally camping on the grounds in tents of various shapes and sizes. A new addition since the last gathering was the installation of an improved shower, which some of the campers were still mastering when the topic came up in the opening session. A collection of hammocks also got heavy use for breaks, naps, and turning the pages on books in the afternoon.

The dining is under canopies and simple local soup and basic food is served. The meetings were held in various sized venues. One was a large geodesic dome of sorts. Another was under a yellow and orange patchwork of parachute material. A smaller covering was fit for only a half-dozen chairs. An area called the marketplace had tables under a corrugated roof. Benches popped up here and there on the grounds. The place was fun and functional for everyone.

meeting dome

The space itself seemed to accommodate easy discussion as people got to know each other and for veterans of these meetings, caught up and reacquainted. Without a lot of fanfare or fancy evaluation forms, it was obvious that the space itself had become a special place to everyone involved, giving a boost to the discussion and training.

morning exercises

shower area and tents

storage shed for the straw-filled bags used as seats

parachute meeting place

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Making Sense of Current Hungarian Politics

Mate Varga (w/ pony tail)

Kunbabony, Hungary  The opening session of the 8th meeting of the Citizen Participation University began with the traditional welcome by Mate Varga, the head of Civil College Foundation. Varga is an open-handed and open-hearted man with a ready ability to laugh, often seeming to be chuckling to himself, so his welcome would normally be met with open faces and wide smiles, but this year must have seemed more subdued and sober to CPU veterans.

Mate’s remarks were tempered by the times. He described the protests recently in Budapest around the government’s new restrictions on nonprofits. The crowds, the excitement, the anger, and the disappointment that their protests had been unsuccessful. Nongovernmental organizations that receive any foreign funding are now required to publicly label themselves as “foreign funded” on their literature, website, and so forth. Grants from the Norwegian government are being held up over the dispute. The Civil College has been mentioned in coverage newspapers and television stories along with others including George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, who is currently the boogie man of Hungarian conservative politics. In fact Mate warned that the very location in Kunbabony where we were meeting had been the target of journalistic interlopers, who might be seeking unsolicited interviews.

Nick Thorpe, a veteran BBC reporter stationed in Budapest and reporting over the last 31-years on Eastern Europe, was partnered with me to provide the keynote to the opening session. He was going to provide context and analysis of the current scene in the region and in Hungary, and I was slated to provide some perspective on how organizations could respond and survive in these increasingly harsh climates. All I would offer on ACORN’s experience in my half-hour could be summarized as “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and never, never ever quit fighting, which was well enough received, but I was especially interested in hearing Nick’s on-the-ground, ringside perspective.

Nick Thorpe (BBC reporter)

He began with remarks about the huge dead-of-winter protests in Romania earlier in the year against corruption. He had spent weeks there trying to solve the puzzle of the protests and the organizers and organizing behind it after being initially skeptical that their efforts had any chance of success, yet the government had fallen to their efforts.

Thorpe warned the assembly that his view on the current condition of Hungarian politics might be seen as contrarian. Despite the foreboding of Mate’s introduction, he felt the government’s attacks might be ebbing, rather than rising. The heart of his argument was that the obsession of the existing government with the Central European University and its support by Soros had crossed a line and had lost support of other right parties and within the governing party itself. Though in the West the situation is seen as a stalemate with a year’s cooling off period, Thorpe’s analysis from his sources was more along the lines that the year was a face saver for the government, rather than the last gasp for the university.

Unfortunately for our comrades among Hungarian NGOs, Thorpe’s sources did not extend sufficiently, at least not yet, to give them comfort on their fight. The same tide had not gone out on nonprofits. On the other hand Thorpe speculated that despite the overwhelming odds stacking the deck for the existing government in the coming election that would require virtually all parties, right and left, to coalesce in order to defeat it, he believed there were signs in the wind that indicated that such a political tsunami might be building. He couldn’t be sure of course, and he could be wrong, but his finger was in the wind, and he could feel currents moving in surprising directions.

All of which made my following Thorpe easier. Where there is even a glimmer of hope, struggle is easier to imagine, and organizing a more obvious necessity.

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