Review of Activities 2000-2001 (Part One)

John W. ErwinProject Director18 August 2001
I. Introduction
In cooperation with NGOs, schools, communities, and businesses throughout the Czech Republic and several European partners, the Stories Exchange Project is responding to – and actively interrelating – two urgent problems in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe:
A. Political economic, social and cultural disenfranchisement of minorities;
B. Low levels of literacy in information and communication technologies (ICT).
The Stories Exchange Project encourages both majority and minority participants to explore and share their experience in ways that give them a stronger sense of their own worth, competence and options, and help them work together and take more active roles in shaping their individual lives and the lives of their communities.
The current expansion of the Stories Exchange Project in the Czech Republic is attempting to make quite radical changes in the ways that primary participants and their various constituencies view their own options and to develop continuing relationships – and when possible, collaborations – with many people whom they would not otherwise get to know.
In the Czech Republic it is still fairly unusual for people outside the capital, especially members of minorities, to work with people in other parts of the country, much less with foreigners. It is even less usual for people outside Prague – and again, this is overwhelmingly true of minorities – to use the Internet to develop sustained relationships with people whose concerns are similar.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Stories Exchange Project, however, is the changed approach to self-definition and public discourse and organization which it demands of everyone involved.
The structures and strategies of the Stories Exchange Project are based on a conviction which has been eloquently voiced by the Czech President, Vaclav Havel: that the dominance – and arrogance – of the approach to the development of individuals and societies as a set of general, quantifiable problems can itself be ranked among the leading causes of alienation and violence in the world today.
As Havel has tirelessly observed, one of the most destructive legacies of Czechoslovak Communism, the effort to reduce reality to numerical abstraction, has in fact been given new impetus since the 1989 revolution. Efforts in the East to catch up with the West have imported the West’s own obsession with abstraction and quantification, not to speak of the greed which its own academic and professional theory can serve to conceal.
The Stories Exchange Project neither analyzes problems nor attempts to propose solutions. Rather, it helps create new and diverse communities in which people can begin to develop and advance their own agendas by communicating and reflecting together upon their actual experience.
The Project is not an exercise in romantic primitivism, however. On the contrary, it is encouraging people whose primary values have been formed by pre-scientific traditions to become familiar with the most advanced methods of global communication. But it is training them to use new technologies in order to contribute to their small nation’s recovery from half a century of technology-obsessed totalitarianism one of the most vibrant resources of traditional societies: the exchange of stories.
II. Training Workshops
The primary purpose of a series of five two-day training workshops at the EastWest Institute in Prague was to give participants a developing sense that they are capable, responsible members of at least three interacting communities:
 — local groups of Romany and Czech participants in three cities (Brno, Ostrava and Usti nad Labem);
 — the larger group which they formed when they met every other month in Prague;
 — the communities which members of both these larger and smaller groups created with the people whose stories they collected and the people who were to read and hear these stories on the Project Web-page and in public presentations throughout the Czech Republic and abroad.
The primary purpose of the first three workshops was to generate and to develop in participants a strong commitment to these three levels of community.
A. Workshop I: 6-7 December 1999
Teams of Czech and Romany participants from Brno, Usti nad Labem and Ostrava were joined by guests who introduced the three focus areas of the Stories Exchange Project: citizen participation, education, and professional development.
Presenters included US. Ambassador John Shattuck, Monika Horakova, a Romany member of the Czech Parliament, and Ludek Novak, Executive Director of Nadace Nova Skola (New School Foundation).
Other guests were representatives of the Czech Government Campaign Against Racism, Czech Radio, the Goethe-Institut, and Roma Help Roma, an organization responding to the emergency in Kosovo.
Ambassador Shattuck set the tone by showing that he takes very seriously the Project’s substitution of concrete personal stories for abstractions as the basis for dialogue and action.
“This is a very exciting project and an exciting moment for me personally. Some of you know me as Ambassador, some of you – fewer, I think – know me as someone, most of whose career in the United States was spent – and is still spent – in the field of human rights. So the launching of this new phase of the Stories Exchange Project is a personal excitement for me, and I want to lend my strongest support to the prospects that it holds for sharing stories and producing activism.”
[Ambassador Shattuck’s full presentation, along with other presentations and excerpts from the discussions in this workshop appears in Czech and English at this Web-site in Workshops: SEP Expansion Workshop I]
On the second morning of the December workshop, participants took part in a training session at the Internet Center of the Open Society Fund (Soros Foundation).
All eighteen members of the local groups and the three local coordinators took part in the Internet training session. They were divided into small groups according to their degree of preparation, starting with introductory training in logging on and the use of e-mail and Web-sites. An instructor from the Soros Foundation supervised work at twelve terminals, and several members of the group served as instructors to the others. Each chose and established an e-mail address, and sent each other initial messages.
This and subsequent training – a similar session accompanied the third workshop, further developing the initial instruction and responding to particular difficulties—was designed to assist participants in getting jobs or in continuing professional careers which they had already begun (one was a lawyer, two were journalists, five were social workers, one was a political organizer, four were teachers).
It was decided that one unemployed participant from Brno would be given the job of supervising the Project’s computer installation there, and training younger people, especially Roms, who would be brought to access the Project Web-site and sample other sites dealing with minority-majority relations.
After the December workshop, the Prague station of Czech Radio broadcast interviews with Project staff and participants, initiating a continuing cooperation.
B. Workshop II: 17-18 January 2000
The second EastWest Institute workshopfocused on techniques of story gathering, development and presentation.
Theater exercises were used to focus attention on the complex but enlivening process of interaction between tellers and listeners in many different social situations. These exercises further developed the Project’s distinctive concern to establish awareness of the particular dynamics of interpersonal communication as a ground for democracy and inter-ethnic dialogue.
This session also initiated cooperation between Czech and Romany Project participants and Jewish communities in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic. On the second morning, participants went to the Education Center of the Jewish Museum to take part in discussions with Helga Weissova-Hoskova, a survivor of the Nazi Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp whose childhood drawings had been recently exhibited in Prague under the patronage of Lord Mayor Jan Kasl. A group of Romany children from Plzen joined participants.
C. Workshop III: 28-29 February 2000
The third workshop evaluated the work of the Project so far, and developed strategies for further developing relations with storytellers.
This evaluation was done in a way that enacted and illustrated a priority of the Stories Exchange Project: participants should learn to listen to others’ stories so attentively that they can present them to further listeners as if they were their own.
Participants were asked to form couples with members of other city groups, tell each other about their expectations and experience so far of the Project, and then tell the assembled group what they heard the other person say.
This informal evaluation was used to plan the following two workshops.
Separate workshops on the three Project themes also began the preparation of public presentations and discussions of stories in Prague as well as the three Project cities, including performances by local groups.
Czech Radio initiated a series of in-depth programming on the Project, including interviews with Project participants and individuals whom they have interviewed. Listeners were able to phone in their comments and questions.
D. Evaluation of the first three training workshops Changes in participants’ behavior demonstrated that the training was successful.
As the weeks passed, participants who had at first submitted curt analytical summaries began to present fully realized stories in which the tellers emerged as persons to reckon with, each in his or her own right.
And as the storytellers came into clearer focus, so did the story-collectors.
By the end of the second workshop, participants had got into the habit of taking the initiative, beginning to make suggestions about Project strategy and to devise various cooperative ventures – including their own supplementary workshops on story-presentation.