The Civic Europe Capacity Building was launched in 2019 with the call for participants in the Bulgarian pilot of the program. The team of Sofia Platform Foundation, the partner organization of MitOst e.V., launched a 5-module capacity-building program for locally rooted active citizens who want to contribute to making their communities more inclusive, open and tolerant. The program focuses specifically on the civic capacities and competencies of individuals who want to make a change in their local context. They will receive small grants to implement their project ideas while applying what they’ve learned throughout the program. The first cohort will be followed by a second one to enjoy the same learning events later in 2020.
The current group of 21 participants was put together through an open call throughout Bulgaria. The youngest participant is Rosen Santev, 19, who studies business informatics and software engineering, works as a personal development trainer and is part of the traditional folk music community in his hometown. The most experienced one is Stela Kovacheva, born 1958, who has spent her professional life mostly practicing psychology and journalism. Stela also works with her local community’s support group for teenage substance abuse.
The diversity of the group is also geographical, with participants coming from eighteen different towns and villages across the country. The five learning events build on one another and aim at encouraging the participants to develop their own projects in their respective communities. A sneak preview of their ideas ranges from civic education activities with schools to youth hubs, ecological projects and cultural exchange initiatives. To implement their projects, the participants will work with mentors experienced in their field of work.
Participants coming from across the country. (Photo by Hristo Panchugov)
As we speak, we are in the middle of the capacity-building program of the first cohort. We managed to conduct three modules when our program got interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, officially announced by the WHO on March 11, 2020. Despite the unfortunate delay of module 4, the first cohort of the program will continue working in the form of online seminars.
Reflecting on the democratic culture nationally and locally, notions of justice, rights and democracy as a process were scrutinized during the first module. Participants began to question their understanding of tolerance, inclusion, dignity, identity. Is one’s happiness worth sacrificing for that of the many, or should no one enjoy it if there is a single exception? What role does identity play in our perception of tolerance? What use is teaching civic education in school if there is no democratic culture within the school?
What is clear is that such questions, simply by being posed, changed many attitudes that day. Ironically, as critical thinking and doubts rose among the participants, their hope of bettering their communities grew. Building on these achievements, the group met again for the next module two weeks later.
The weekend of module 2 was filled with debates, exercises, project planning. This time the group dealt with civic engagement in its reality and legal framework. After presenting their project ideas, the group was introduced to the realities of public decision-making and had the opportunity to test certain problem-solving tools. Our belief that a mixture of theory and practice is central to sustainable capacity building was met with curiosity and enthusiasm.
Towards the end of module 2, we asked the participants to write telegrams to their colleagues and share their insights so far. We were so happy to find the real impact the program has had so far and to witness the shifting of attitudes. Here’s some of our favourite ones!
"We discussed a lot, developed prototypes, and democratically came to the conclusion that it’s all up to us!"
"Ivan, I found out today that I’m democratic only when things don’t affect me personally."
"I came to realise that tolerance is mutual. I felt active."
"Join me right away! We’re learning to change our lives!"
Module 3 of the first cohort moved forward by preparing the participants for possible obstacles within community work. Building strong communities, identifying shared interests and resolving conflicts were among the key topics of discussion. Many shared insights on conflict resolution but more importantly, they found common ground.
Photo by Hristo Panchugov
Although nothing can fully replace face-to-face communication when talking about building capacities, we are lucky that our group has already bonded in person and so the transition to webinars will not be as difficult as it would otherwise be. In the unfortunate reality of the current quarantine, the group’s flexibility and determination to continue the program mark a success in consolidating active communities and civic infrastructure. The first cohort will continue meeting online every Saturday morning in the upcoming six weeks and the work on their local causes will hopefully not halt.