In 1996, I was fortunate to travel to the Czech Republic with a small group of professors and graduate students. We were guests of Charles University, which arranged for us to meet with a wide variety of NGOs and local government officials in our capacity as organizational development professionals. Only now do I begin to recognize the significance of what I was observing.
The Czech Republic had gained independence from Russian control just four years earlier, and was taking its first steps as a democratic society. The Republic’s first President was a playwright and dissident named Vaclav Havel, whose opposition to the Russian government caused him to serve multiple stints in prison, the longest being nearly four years between 1979 and 1983. Many NGOs and organizations, including Havel’s Civic Form, organized and sparked the Velvet Revolution (referring to its non-violent nature), which overthrew the communist regime, and ushered in a new democratic era.
When I took this journey in 1996, there was a lot of discussion in the Czech Republic, as well as in the United States, about how best to promote the tenants of a civil society. This was in large part a result of the fall of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. Civil society is the fabric that maintains and protects the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, and most importantly, the interests and will of all citizens to participate in their political system without fear of persecution. More generally, civil society represents the values and institutions that support democracy. The result is a more informed citizenry who can make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government accountable to the people.
Contrary to the years under USSR rule, when the national government dominated all political power and no local government existed, what I observed in the Czech Republic in 1996 was a highly energized society of people working together across systems and organizations to solve problems. Their passion for democracy was evident, and the people felt empowered to step forward and show up to address the wellbeing of their country, both at the national and community levels.
Unlike before, when the government swept the homeless into mental institutions and jails, the newly elected Mayor of Prague welcomed us along with the local non-profits, as equals, to discuss how to solve the problem of homelessness for the greater good of the community. The country was now honestly and collectively addressing social problems that before it would not even acknowledge existed. There were no turf wars, no vying for resources, and no inequality based on status. They were all in it together.
That is why today, I watch with great concern for our own country as leaders in our government attack our own civil society by using divisive rhetoric and policies intended to make us fear each other, mistrust the free media, and criminalize vulnerable populations. However, despite the growing threats to our democracy, I believe that people and organizations can change. I remember what the people and the organizations they form have accomplished in the past, and can accomplish in the future, to act for the common good and to overcome tyranny and oppression. I am grateful for the grassroots and non-profit organizations we have formed, communities of faith, and systems of justice in our nation. We all have a calling and a responsibility. We must remember the elements of a civil society, step up, and work together to ensure that we continue to have one.