Use these stories to change the world! (I)

In the Stories Exchange Project we share our experience with as many people as possible, and we listen to their stories.
And then we listen to our own stories and their stories again and again, and we talk about them together—- to try to find out what they’re telling us that we can DO.
Then we can work with other people to put the lessons we learn from our stories into action.
The Stories Exchange Project, for instance, is working with Project Citizen, another international experiment in cooperation, which targets community action.
1. John: “You pull the levers of democracy”
Here’s what John Shattuck, former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, says about Project Citizen:
“The most impressive experiences I’ve had with people here in the Czech Republic have been with students: high school students. And their teachers.
I’ve been participating in a a civic education project: Project Citizen.In several towns, fourteen- or fifteen- year-old students have spent a year looking at a community problem. They’ve identified the problem by going around to interview their neighbors and then tried to solve it.
In a town outside of Brno, Ivansice, I saw a remarkable class of fifteen-year-old students who spent the year working on the problem of water delivery to a small village outside the town. Everyone in the community said villages never have water: ‘we’re not able to make the water companies deliver there; it’s just not something they seem to want to do.’
Well, the students then studied how to go about developing a water system for this village. What are the engineering aspects of it? Why do people want the water? And they went and talked to the mayor and the city council and they came to Prague and visited the Minister of the Environment, and over the course of the year they found government money that could support this kind of project. Then they went to the chamber of commerce of this town and various small businesses and found several that were interested in bidding on this project.
So over the course of a year, fifteen-year-old students – about twentyof them from one class who had spent two or three hours a day on this project – actually succeeded in solving this community problem: they got water delivered to this village.
This was civic education, education in participation, and learning how you deal with problems, and how you pull the levers of democracy to try to solve problems for the community.”
What do you think about what the students did in Ivansice?
How did they learn about what the problem was?
Do you think you could do what they did?
Do you think you could listen carefully enough to people’s stories to find out what they need and help them get it?
Do you have any initial thoughts about whom you might want to visit to identify a problem in your community that you and your classmates could help do something about?
Do you have any ideas yourself right now about what problem you might want to work on?
Tell us!
If you go to the navigation bar at the upper left of this Web-page and click on Home and scroll down to the bottom of the right-hand column you’ll find “You pull the levers of democracy” under RECENT STORIES.
Read what John Shattuck says about the Stories Exchange Project and Project Citizen – and what the students in Ivansice did.
At the end of that story you’ll find a space. This is where you can write your comments about what the students did by asking people to tell them stories about their problems.
And you can write about what you think YOU can begin to do by asking people in your neighborhood for stories about their problems.
2. Eva: “We have a lot in common”
Another thing that stories can do is to get people talking with people whom they would not normally meet.
Eva Bajgerova is a Romany Advisor to the office of the regional government in Usti nad Labem, a Czech city near the German border, and a local coordinator of the Stories Exchange Project. The year before last she brought a group of Romany kids to Terezin, Theresienstadt in German: an old Bohemian town which the Nazis used as a camp in which to hold Jews from Czechoslovakia and other countries before deporting them for extermination in Auschwitz.
“We got close to a group of English-speaking people: it was a Jewish group. There was a guide with them and the head of the Jewish group invited us with the kids to join them. She actually said, ‘Come and walk with us We have a lot in common.’
And the kids got to talking with the Jewish group and they learned about what happened in Terezin, how kids lived there.
That was the best way for them to learn what happened there. It was much better than sitting at school and learning history ‘1943 this, 1944 this, 1945 that.’ It was the best way of learning about history, the mingling of these two groups, the Jewish group and the Romany group. We have a lot in common, mainly our experience in World War II.
But most of the Roma in Bohemia were killed during the War, and there is almost no Roms left to tell us the stories. So Jewish experience and advice is very useful to us.”
Eva went back to Terezin in September 2000 along with a lot of people working in the Stories Exchange Project: not just Roms and Jews but also Czechs, Germans, Americans, British—- and one man from India who lives in Ostrava whom you can meet later here at this Web-site.
When Eva went back to Terezin she heard for a second time the story of a Czech Jewish painter who had been imprisoned as a child in Terezin and Auschwitz. And when she had heard Helga Weissova-Hoskova tell her story the first time she watched it change the life of a Romany boy. 3. Eva: “You got him moving!”
This past June Eva had this to say to Helga when Helga invited her to have coffee with her in her flat in Prague.
“Since the end of Communism more and more Romany children are being sent to special schools for mentally handicapped children. I don’t think that’s normal. I think that some children have been wrongly sent there.
But we attended your lecture at the Jewish Museum here in Prague last year, and we brought our children with us. You told us the story about your school: about the Nazis not allowing you and the other Jewish children to go to school.
At that time one of the kids attended a special school for mentally retarded children. But after your lecture this child studied and managed to catch up with pupils from normal schools. He passed the exams, and now he attends a secondary school. You certainly played an important part in his story. You got him moving!”
You can take part in Eva’s and Helga’s conversation over coffee and add your own comments—- and even a story or two! –- if you click on “You got him moving” here at this Web-site, in the Learning menu.
4. Helga: “The only weapon I have is to go around telling my story.”
Do you want to read the story that Helga told and got the Romany boy moving?
You can find it—- and comment on it!—- at this Web-site. Just click on Stories and Responses on the navigation bar, then on The Holocaust in the menu which appears, and then on the title of the story itself in the next menu: “The only weapon I have is to go around telling my story.”
Helga would like to hear what you have to say about some questions that we’ve asked ourselves and her—- so tell all of us at the end of her story.
For example, Helga says that the girl told the other children not to play with her because the Jews killed Christ. Do we blame children for what their ancestors either did or are said to have done?
Have you ever blamed someone for something that was done by his or her parents or ancestors?
Or for things that his or her people are said to be still doing?
Or what they are said to be like—- or unlike? (Helga says ” ‘Don’t play with these kids, they are different’: this is where it begins, with little things that at first don’t seem all that important.”)
And do you understand what Helga’s talking about when she tells us what it was like for her to stand naked in front of the Nazi guards?
“When we came to Auschwitz we had to undress totally and we had nothing material. What we had, though, was what was in our heads and in our hearts.
And that of course goes hand in hand with what intangible values, what culture meant for us. We could read, we could draw, we could listen to music. This is what kept us people, and maintained our human dignity.
Even though we were stripped naked in front of those German guards we felt superior. It was culture and art that helped us. Especially art.”
Did something like that happen with Czechs and other peoples during the Communist time?
Is that why there was so much underground art and theater and music in what was then the Soviet Empire?
Tell Helga what you know and think about that – or ask her what you want to know.
“We were starving in Terezin, but people were prepared to give up the little bread they had for a ticket to a concert. People paid for the tickets with a slice of bread. And they were willing to give up that slice of bread even on the night before they were to be deported to one of the concentration or extermination camps. For two hours they could listen to music: this was invaluable to them.
Art was immensely strong here.”
Try thinking about stories – very much including the stories here at this Web-site – as art, and therefore as something like bread: bread that can nourish us in ways that may help save us, wherever we are in the world, from doing to anyone anything like what the Nazis did to the Jews in Terezin and Auschwitz and to Roms in Auschwitz or in Lety, a Nazi internment camp in southern Bohemia which was administered by Czechs.
But wait:
What about what Eva tells Helga about so-called “special schools” in the Czech Republic?
You see? It’s happening here too!
This is another thing that stories can do: get people talking with people whom they would normally not meet—- and also talking about things they would not normally discuss.
Maybe you haven’t met a Romany advisor to the regional government in Usti nad Labem, and maybe you don’t spend much of your time talking about “special schools.” But here’s Eva asking you right now:
What do you know about Czech “special schools”? What do you want to know?
Has this kind of thing ever happened to you?
The Nazis told the Jewish children that they couldn’t go to school, and that made them want to. And when the Romany boy heard about that he worked hard enough to get out of his “special school.”
Have you ever reacted that way when somebody has told you that you couldn’t do something?
Of course we’ve just seen a third thing that stories can do: Helga’s story got the Romany boy moving. It motivated him, as teachers like to say.
Do you think that getting stories and putting them to work could do something like that to you?
What aren’t you doing that you want to do, and think that you might be able to do, if something or somebody – maybe somebody’s story – got you moving?
But tell Eva!
Write your comments and stories at the bottom of “You got him moving.”
And you can find that—- where?
Right. In the Learning menu of Stories and Responses.
5. Martin:
“We were sitting there in the tent under hot sun and we were listening to people talking and talking and talking.”
Yet another thing that stories can do—-this is really more, MUCH more of the same – is to get people moving and working together: tearing down walls and building bright, warm places where more and more people can begin to understand each other.
Eva starts telling another story—-in Terezin, but about Usti nad Labem and the world – , and other people take the words right out of her mouth!
“What’s the Stories Exchange Project meant for our region?
What’s it doing for our country?
What can it do for Europe?
We’ve informed our families about the project, and we’ve informed our friends about the project. We’ve taken the stories and the questions they raise to the wider public – in cities throughout the Czech Republic, in Vienna, in London.
We’re spreading knowledge, we’re spreading information.
One of our achievements was a tent we put up last month in the center of our town – which is also the center of our region.
We had an information center in the tent. We talked in the tent about Romany questions, about the problems of the Romany minority. We answered questions like, “What you do when your Romany neighbors throw garbage out the door and let it stay on the sidewalk?”
We explained that it’s important to cooperate, that it’s important to exchange views, that it’s important to talk, to confront problems, to listen to criticism, to criticize ourselves, to learn from other people’s mistakes – and to teach.”
[The place where the tent was set up was the main square in Usti nad Labem, a city which is now famous for Maticni Street, where a wall was put up between Czechs and Roms in 1999.
Eva’s team in Usti thought that the opposite of a wall should be put up—- and it worked!]
Then David Ferko, another Romany coordinator of the Stories Exchange Education Project chimes in:
“Many people came there. We had the tent up for three days, and we had people dropping by. We had people looking in and walking away, but we also had people walking in and sitting down to talk.
We had people who came in and sat down and started telling us stories. They started with stories, but then they switched to reality: they switched to their everyday experience with the Roma or with the white majority.
And it culminated in a kind of joy, you know?
A joyful exchange of information.”
Martin Cichy, a Rom who is studying history at the university in Usti nad Labem, had this to say:
“You’re right, David: that’s how it was. People just came there to talk and talk and talk, and to tell us about their experience, and some of the stories we put down on paper.
I think many of these people were happy that they had an audience. They could talk and tell us what their problems were. We listened to them, we advised some of them.
We listened. We told them what we’d do. They told us they would do that too. It was just informal chatting, really. But people were happy that they had someone to listen to them and to talk with them, someone who understood their problems.
We were sitting there in the tent under hot sun and we were listening to people talking and talking and talking.”
And David thinks of something else: “There’s one thing we should mention. Some people asked us, ‘how can Roms have a white tent?’ It was funny.
People were asking us, ‘why is the tent white?'”
Jokes are little stories that can do a lot too, right?
In the Stories Exchange Project we think that if people laugh together, they may not want to build walls between each other.
But what do you think?
Where should we put up the Stories Exchange tent next?
Do you think that you and your schoolmates could help do something like that in your neighborhood?
Tell Eva and Jack and David and Martin: write your ideas at the bottom of “How can Roms have a white tent?” You can find it here under Stories and Responses in the menu Being a Citizen.
And why not also have a look at—- and give us your comments on! – other stories and conversations in which people in the Stories Exchange Project show and tell what stories can DO.
6. Monika: “The door is open.”
Listen to Monika Horakova – still the only Rom in post-Communist Europe who has been elected to be a member of parliament—- when she talks about an association which she has founded for well-educated young Czech Roma.
You can find – and respond to – her comments under Stories and Responses in the Learning menu: “The door is open”
“Romany students in high schools and universities and graduates of schools and universities are not given the opportunities they deserve. That’s why I like the Stories Exchange Project: it is creating opportunities for young educated Roms.
Usually Roms with university degrees who have committed themselves to solving our problems have to work at a level which is not commensurate with their level of education. Many Roms who have graduated from universities are working as advisors in departmental offices or associations. They would be more effective in positions with greater discretionary power: jobs in which they would be asked to make decisions and solve problems.”
And Eva again, telling about students’ response to her visit to the Business Academy, also in the Learning menu: “Listening to stories wasn’t enough for them”-— they also want to go and meet Roms where they live!
Also, in the Stories and Responses menu The Broken Mirror, have a look at “We Roms have opened ourselves up to you.” It’s a round-robin in Terezin involving three Romany writers: Hana Kozuriková, Emilie Horackova, and Jan Horvath.
“I think it’s a kind of a turning point that we’ve become involved in something like this.”
“In the Stories Exchange Project we Roms have opened ourselves up to you.”
“The Czech school system really has no awareness of our Romany culture, of Romany role models.”
Martin’s also in that session: Martin Palous, then Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic and now Czech Ambassador to the U.S. He says:
“We have to open up and avoid stereotypes, and tell our own experiences.”
You can join that conversation too by adding your comments at the end of “We Roms have opened ourselves up to you.”
Have you had an experience that has opened you up?
What do you know about Romany culture? Or about other minority cultures?
What are some stereotypes you think that we should avoid in thinking about Roms and other minorities? About the majority in your country?
Tell us a little about your own experience of one particular person from another culture.
Before we leave this chapter of our work together and plunge into the next, how about re-tracing the steps we’ve taken together so far?
How about going back over the comments we’ve made and the actions we’ve begun and the questions we’ve asked and you’ve begun to answer—-
John at the U.S. Embassy
the students in Project Citizen
Eva in Terezin and in the tent in Usti
Helga in Terezin and her flat in Prague
David and Martin in the tent
Monika in the Czech Parliament
Hanka and Milka and Janko and the other Martin in Terezin
 — and talk with your friends in school or after school, with your parents, with your brothers and sisters, with your neighbors.
Talk with them about the comments—- and maybe the stories!—- that you’ve written at the end of our stories
about the actions that the stories and your responses might lead you to take in the world out there, outside school and away from the computer.
But before that – right now! there’s no time like the present! – take a few minutes to think about what you’ve found interesting so far about what you’re beginning to do in the Stories Exchange Project.
And tell us all – after some story on this Web-page that you particularly like.