Democratic engagement and civic participation are core values that create links among societies transcending cultures and continents. For a real democracy, members of the community have to be aware that their powers as citizens go beyond casting their ballot every 4 years. To participate effectively in public life and shape the decisions that affect them, citizens need the individual skills and collective capacities to articulate their needs and voice their concerns effectively. Amidst ongoing public discussion about the democratic deficit of the European Union as well as the U.S., Hungarian democracy is ailing. Despite the transition to a multiparty election system in 1989, most citizens feel alienated from politics and people who experience social exclusion are particularly powerless when it comes to representing their interests. Civil society organizations are often too dependent on the state to exercise meaningful critique and tend to work on an ad hoc basis.
The Hungarian government has taken an anti-poor authoritarian turn that has led to growing poverty and the weakening of civil society. In order to challenge large-scale civic disempowerment and develop the culture of democracy and social inclusion in Hungary, we are launching the School of Public Life. Through education, research and development the School supports socially disadvantaged people and the organizations that represent them to become more powerful advocates of their rights and interests, produce their own knowledge and develop strategic responses to the problems they identify.
The School of Public Life is a community-based training, research and development center that develops democratic culture in Hungary by improving the citizenship skills of people living in social exclusion, supporting social movements and groups that fight for social justice, pursuing participatory and community-based research about social exclusion and democracy, and supporting the active public participation of disadvantaged individuals.
Based in Budapest, the School works to ensure that socially, economically, culturally, physically and ethnically disadvantaged groups are fully aware of their rights, are able to articulate their needs and interests and possess the skills and knowledge necessary to enforce these in practice.
The School offers services in 3 areas.
1) Education: as a hub of citizenship education, the School offers theoretical and practical training in the form of workshops, “traveling classes” and short and long-term courses on topics including strategic planning, theories of citizenship, civil disobedience, community organizing, using public data for advocacy, media work, social mobilization, community leadership and advocacy.
2) Research: as the first center for participatory and community based research in Hungary, the School not only engages in research that support the work of social movements and organizations working for social change, but also operates as a Hungarian language knowledge center and offers consultation and supervision in this field. The School will develop both its own research projects and engage in commissioned work by progressive think tanks, universities, social movements and civil society organizations.
3) Organizational development: in order to empower civil society organizations to become better advocates, the School focuses on developing their advocacy, communications, base building and strategic planning capacities through personal consultation and group discussions.
The primary target group of the organization includes individuals who experience exclusion including poor people, homeless people, the Roma, the unemployed, asylum seekers, single mothers, and disabled people. The secondary target group includes civil society organizations that represent and work for these group. The tertiary target group includes research centers and institutes interested in using participatory research methods and for-profit organizations that value employee participation and horizontal leadership.
In terms of its impact, the School aims to
1) help marginalized individuals become aware of their rights and opportunities as citizens and gain skills to assert them and become more active citizens
2) help existing organizations develop their capacity for social and legal advocacy through the training of their members, colleagues and volunteers
3) foster the development of new organizations that represent disadvantaged groups
4) contribute to the democratization of social sciences and address issues that are currently overlooked in mainstream research
5) develop Hungarian democracy by empowering its most marginalized citizens to make their voices heard and shaping public opinion about topics such as citizen participation, social and political exclusion and participatory democracy.
6) challenge the fragmentation of Hungarian society by providing a forum for meaningful and productive interaction between members of various social groups and classes
7) will employ disadvantaged people as educators, facilitators and researchers