You pull the levers of democracy

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 Shattuck
The Stories Exchange Project, I think, is a way of getting people totalk about things that matter to them: things that are in their heartsand in their backgrounds.
People often see each other in settings where they speak abstractly. But the Stories Exchange Project gets them to speak personally. It crosses a lot of barriers.
And that’s impressive: it’s something that doesn’t happen very often. It’s particularly impressive in the context of people of different backgrounds, and different racial and religious experiences. It’s an honest approach toward how we relate to each other – if we really relate. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen often enough. So I salute the Stories Exchange Project for doing that.
We’re all a collection of experiences and things that have happened to us. Those are the things that matter the most, and I think if we share our pain or difficulty or things we have great love for or great experiences – , if we can somehow reach across and get some other people to understand those things, then they will relate them to their ownstories. And an incredible network of communication will develop: realcommunication, not just pretend.
So I think stories, especially stories in the context of difficult social problems, problems of discrimination, problems of serious abuse – and certainly that’s the story of the Roma people in Central Europe and elsewhere in Europe and elsewhere in the world – , having those stories come forth, and then having people who are not Roma tell their stories about also sometimes feeling isolated or caught in a bind: I think that helps bring people together.
John Erwin
Yes: most heartily yes.
What’s the situation in this country now, as you see it?
John Shattuck
This country has a story that is very long and very complicated, going far back in history. And it’s a country in transition – as I guess all countries are and all people are. It’s in transition from an extremely painful period, basically half of the twentieth century, when totalitarianism of two different kinds came and completely destroyed thesocial fabric. The Nazis occupied the country from 1938 through 1945, and then the Communists were in power for forty years, from 1948 to 1989 – forty-one years. The country is struggling to emerge from that, and there are many, many scars.
In the period I’ve been here I’ve found there are scars that it’s hard even to begin to understand. They aren’t similar to our experience. But maybe when we hear stories about them we’ll understand.
Scars of not being allowed in any way to come together as a group of people, for example. In the recent past, the word volunteer in Czech has been been a very bad word: "volunteer” basically meant collaborator. During the Communist period, if you came forward to participate in something you were seen to be a collaborator.
We think of a volunteer as someone who steps up and does something that helps other people. I think that Czechs are relearning that. Certainly they have it in their past, and certainly they have it in their basic mind frame. But they’ve been afraid to step out and volunteer for things. The scars of communism and the scars of fascism are very deep. But I think they’re healing.
John Erwin
What about people here whom you’ve met who do dare to step out?
John Shattuck
There are many people like that.
Certainly President Havel is the bestknown. His own experience in prison and then being a leader of the Velvet Revolution, and now president of the country – but there are many other people as well.
But I think the most impressive experiences I’ve had with people herehave 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 thewater companies deliver there; it’s just not something they seem to wantto 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 thisproject – actually succeeded in solving this community problem: they gotwater 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.
[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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One Response to “You pull the levers of democracy”

  1. A little wary at first to find the first thing here as comments from a US Govt. official – I´m thinking: this is supposed to be people´s own tales isn´t it. But anyway, it was a great and inspiring piece of community action which I´m glad to read about. I work in theatre and education, currently in Spain, and I´ll sure be telling a few folks about that one. Might brighten up the bleak view that so many working in the UK have right now.

  2. I had heard the saying “Youth Can Move the World”. Now I see how it can be done.


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