If we’re dissatisfied about something, we’ll complain

John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
in conversation with
John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
U.S. Ambassador’s ResidencePrague28 November 2000

John Erwin
The situations in the States and in the Czech Republic are of course very different. What’s been your experience of translating – and mediating, in a sense – between these two cultures?
John Shattuck
The most important thing to do here, I’ve found, is to listen: to hear the stories and to try to absorb them, and to try to understand the culture and the scars that I was talking about before – and efforts to try to heal them. You certainly can’t do anything for people without listening to them.
Then it’s possible to provide help by finding some technical assistance and sometimes some money.
I spend a lot of time meeting with non-governmental organizations of all kinds: civil rights organizations, involving Roma rights, environmental groups, consumer groups. I invite them here to the Residence, to my house, to talk to me and to try to encourage them in the work that they’re doing, because it’s difficult work. Sometimes I’m able to find ways of sending some of them to the United States on study tours or formeetings there. Occasionally there’ll be some American expert who’ll come through whom I’ll introduce them to.
I’ve also been able to work in another area involving legal problems. The Czech Republic has a very weak judicial system, and it’s in the process of being reformed. I’ve worked with a lot of American judges whom we’ve brought over here to meet with Czech judges, to listen and to try to understand how it is that the tradition of judging here has beenquite different from what we normally think of in a democratic judicial context.
So there are many ways in which as Ambassador I’ve been able to connect – but always by listening to stories.
John Erwin
Well, that’s of course the issue: stories can lead to political awareness and action. But what’s the connection, as you see it? How do you go from exchanging stories to taking hold and beginning to act as a member of the society?
John Shattuck
That’s the hardest thing, and it’s the thing that I think is coming slowest here – not surprisingly, given the legacy of Communism and all the disincentives from participating in society and actually stepping up and trying to influence the course of events. That was not something that one was expected or even allowed to do during that earlier period.
But I think the movement from stories to action is demonstrated by a number of examples. For instance the students that I was talking about a minute ago learned what needed to be done by listening to the stories of the people in the village that didn’t have water — and then they began to do what needed to be done. Their teacher encouraged them to do that. It was part of their curriculum.
What comes hardest here is what we sometimes take for granted in theUnited States: if we’re dissatisfied about something, we’ll complain. We’ll lobby our congressman or we’ll write a letter to the mayor or we’ll organize a group of citizens who will decline to vote for somebody in the next election. That’s slowly happening here. But I think it’s not coming as fast as it would be useful to have it come.
[You can find a transcript of this whole exchange, "You really can’t rub out history,” in “Interviews” on this page.
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