They worked together

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
How about the Roms? How well do they remember – and what do they remember?
Are they putting themselves into their story, their history, at this point?
John Shattuck
They’re just beginning to write some of their stories. In Romany culture there’s a tradition of oral memory and stories are passed down from generation to generation. But I think those stories haven’t been as accessible until now to the general public, to the non-Rom public. It’s very wonderful that these are now being shared.
I’m less familiar with the old stories about the Roma, the kind that I’m telling about the Holocaust and about the liberation of Plzen. I look forward to learning more of them. Again, I think the Stories Exchange Project is a tremendous vehicle for bringing them out.
John Erwin
Yes, many people don’t know these stories – even some Roms.
When you came just about a year ago to open the Stories Exchange Project, you told stories about Americans making it all the way from not being served at a lunch counter to the Supreme Court – or to arguing cases before the Supreme Court. How do you think people here respond to American success stories?
John Shattuck
I think stories are universal. Of course they respond, though obviously they’re related to a particular culture. The kinds of stories that I’ve been telling about Americans I know who have overcome tremendous odds, taken stands on the community level, and really moved from stories to action – here are two.
A wonderful woman called Robin Cannon is the founder of the South Central Los Angeles Community Action Program. This got started about ten years ago when she learned that the city was about to create a garbage dump of toxic waste in her neighborhood, and she organized her neighbors and they went and stopped the construction of this garbage dump byprotesting in front of City Hall and getting a lot of other people involved. She then created this organization.
She’s really just a housewife, with seven or eight children, I don’tremember how many. She’s also got a job as a secretary. But these are things that really mattered to her because they were about to affect her life directly. Over the course of ten years her organization was responsible for bringing many small businesses into her community. She made a tremendous difference, and she’s been recognized as a community hero by a small foundation with which I’m involved.
Another woman in a rural community in the United States, Linda Stout, lives in a community that is very poor: there’s about an equal number of blacks and whites, and they had always been separated. There was hostility, even a high degree of racism, particularly from whites towards blacks. But Linda, who is white, realized that they had acongressman who was constantly voting against the interests of this community. He would allow their taxes to be raised or vote for highway construction that would go right through their community. So she got together this group of people and called it the Piedmont Peace Project.
Within two years she organized all the whites and the blacks. They worked together, and defeated this congressman.
These are the kinds of things that happen in our society. And they canhappen anywhere.
John Erwin
What do Czechs say when you tell those stories?
John Shattuck
They’re interested: they’re really interested. Especially since they know that the people I’m describing are powerless. They’re not people with money and position. I think they’re moved by these stories.
They also realize that there are built-in cultural impediments here that sometimes prevent people from taking this kind of action.
On the other hand, there are any number of Czechs whom I’ve met who arebeginning to act like Linda Stout and Robin Cannon.
[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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