‘Taking the fear out of local politics’ is a project designed to support Czech community leaders to run for positions in local politics. The project won the Idea Challenge 2021 and accompanied its participants right up until the September 2022 local elections in the Czech Republic. We talked with team members of Nadace Via, Štěpán Drahokoupil and Tereza Mádlová, about the implementation of their project. Read the full interview to find out more.
The Via Foundation has been supporting community leaders for a long time. We started to observe that many of the people that we worked with decided to run for local office. At the same time, we saw that the topic of local politics produced insecurities because people lacked sound knowledge of how local politics works. Our existing programs at the Via Foundation could not offer any support so as we saw the real need of our community leaders, we partnered with Jablotron Foundation to initiate a pilot project in 2019. After successful implementation of the pilot, we applied for funds with Civic Europe to expand and improve the program.
Our project is open for community leaders in the whole country – no matter whether they come from small villages of a few hundred inhabitants or larger towns and cities. In the last three years we managed to enroll participants from 11 out of 14 regions and 41 towns, villages, and cities. At the end, almost 80 percent of them ran in local elections, even though it was not obligatory for participation in the program.
As the title of our project ‘Taking fear out of local politics’ indicates, it’s not an easy decision to be engaged in local politics. Being a local representative is a hard and demanding job, but apart from our program, there is almost nobody who prepares engaged citizens for such roles. They often fear that they don’t have enough knowledge about how city council works, how to negotiate with more experienced opponents, or how to be a leader. Especially in small villages, the politics get to be very personal, which is potentially risky even for their families and friends, who can be targets of criticism and negative reactions.
The program was designed to be needs-oriented and provided the safe space and concentrated time for exchange of knowledge, skills, and attitudes among participants, their communities, their mentors, project managers, and experts from different fields (for example urbanism or participatory budgeting). By bringing all participating community leaders together, the program also enabled the growth of a new community that was empowered by common sharing and regular reflection and is interested in making local politics more open and participatory.
Final Meeting of the participants. (Photo by Nadace Via)
As a result, participants no longer feel alone, they know where to find the right information, and who to reach out to if they need help. A functional network supports them with open dialogue and mutual respect. Participants described their personal progress as readiness to run for office empowered by knowledge about open municipality and participatory principles.
To name one, it was the election afternoon and evening when we observed how many of our participants were elected as local representatives. Text messages from all over the country reached us within a couple of minutes. It was very intense and a great moment to be part of. There were happy messages, such as:
‘I am calling you from under the stairs of our community meeting hall and I cannot believe, we got 10 out of 11 representatives.’
Or: ‘I will be a vice-mayor.’
But there was also bad news, like: ‘…the results could not be worse for our village.’
At the end, 24 out of 38 participants were elected and 9 of their lists even won the elections in their respective municipalities.
During evaluation of the program, we were glad to learn that we were not only able to increase knowledge among our participants of how local politics works, but were also able to contribute to changes in their mindset from a negative approach to a more positive and constructive one. This means that they don’t focus on negative parts of politics and criticism of incumbents, but present their own positive vision of how a town or village should be run.
The key to this result was a combination of mentoring, networking, grant-making for their own mini-projects, alumni group and partnership, and individual approach. This helped to create a community of the participants, which turned out to be key in our work.
Final Meeting Journey Picture (Photo by Nadace Via)
We appreciated that the same approach we experienced with our Civic Europe colleagues (participatory, based on trust and individual needs), was a great confirmation that we are on the right track in developing our capacity building, mentoring, and networking program. We will be building on it in the future.
Right now, we’re looking back, gathering more data, and evaluating the past four years while planning the next four-year cycle. It’s based on the four-year cycle of local elections in the Czech Republic. We’re also – thanks to further support from Civic Europe – investing in our team by learning more about coaching and mentoring.
What we realized throughout the program was that we can aim as high as improving the very culture of local politics – to make it more participatory, open, polite, or, to sum it up, more democratic. We do that by supporting local community leaders, who will be the changemakers and will bear the change in their municipalities.
Our wish is that our community will grow and contribute to more democratic local politics in the Czech Republic.