The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Monday, February 28

A Toast for Civil Society

"Let me say a few words...a toast to so many walls falling longer afraid...we are open and can talk our minds...friends without fear and barriers," smiles Natalia, the Director of the Institute of Leadership and Management of the Ukrainian Catholic University.

I am with her and two of her team members relaxing over dinner after a long day that included my seminar on Practical Public Relations for NGOs (Non-Profits).

Her toast comes after an extended conversation about struggles for a civil society and lingering consequences of Soviet rule. Although it's been 20 years, I am continually struck by the dark depth of this legacy. It seems like Soviets in an effort to control human thinking left deep scares marked by fear and isolation.

(Courtesy of Suzanne Cochran, Peace Corps Volunteer)
"As children, my brother and I went to Holy Friday worship services with my mother," Natalia shares. "It was held at night because in the dark, it is not so easy to see who is going in and coming out."

She tells about a time when they were observed by authorities. The next day at school, she and her brother were taken into a room and reprimanded. "Good Soviet Pioneers (a Soviet children's program) do not go to bad places. Only bad people go to churches." As Natalia says, "We learned to stare a hole in the floor and never say a word."

The Soviet system imploded in 1991 and Ukraine rose up declaring its independence. The world would need to learn that this land was no longer "The Ukraine" as if it was a section of a larger country, but simply Ukraine, a fully autonomous nation.

I remember having to learn to drop the article "the" when I first came to Ukraine. The Soviet legacy was a part of my mind too. It may seem like a simple or even silly grammatical change, but it is more. It is about identity, human dignity, freedom and hope for a better life.

I am in the west of Ukraine in the city of Lviv. It's a 13 hour train ride from Konotop and a mere 85 kilometers away from Poland. During much of Ukraine's history, the area around Lviv has been been annexed by one empire or another. Poles, Lithuanians, Astro-Hungarians, Germans and of course Russians took turns. Still through it all a remnant Ukrainian identity survived. And now since 1991, there is but one Ukraine from Lviv in the west to Kiev in the middle and Donestk in the east.

My seminar brings together about 30 NGO leaders. Each is engaged in some form of community service or charity work.

It's remarkable.

Back in Soviet times, there was no entrepreneurial leadership. If it was not done by the State, it was not needed. You did not embark on your own. To do so was to invite danger to yourself and your family. So many Ukrainians have told me that they got real good at being invisible and just blending in. 

It reminds me of the old Beatles tune - "He's a real nowhere Man, Sitting in his nowhere land, Making all his nowhere plans for nobody..."
So truly it is remarkable to see so many leaders eager to learn and increase the effectiveness of their NGOs. These men and women are building the structure for a more civil society. Association by association, network connection by network connection, the slow process of regaining a good life is happening.

A mother talks about her son with autism. "They told me he would be nothing and should be kept at home and out of sight." She rebelled, went to school to learn about treating autism and now heads a small organization that gives hope to other families.

A young fellow, maybe 28, is working to resurrect Ukrainian culture and teach the next generation about the traditional ways. He is planning a cultural festival in Spring and is eager to learn about press releases and press conferences and how to spin a story into news.

An older woman talks about uniting pensioners so that they can speak in one voice. Her organization is part social and part advocacy. Immediately I think of AARP and the similarities of how it got started. I share lots of ideas. She can't wait to check-out the AARP web site -

A woman tells about a mini-bus that travels the streets of Lviv giving HIV tests and AIDS information. "A lot of time people don't notice us," she laments. We discuss placing colorful circle and a banner on the bus so that it stands out. I suggest, "Maybe a radio station will play a game and ask listeners 'where in Lviv is the HIV bus today!'"

We have a lot of fun. Thanks to a wonderful translator, I can freely share practical ideas, antidotes and even a few jokes. We all have a laugh when I use a colloquial expression and my translator stares at me in disbelief. "What will he say next?"

Even though the Seminar goes on for more than 6 hours, most of the students stay. They are so eager to learn and grow their organizations. It's a delight to be with them.
It's like seeing a kind of transformation. Silent head-bowed obedience is being replaced with animation and tons of questions. The human spirit lives. Minds can think new ideas. People can associate in new ways. Civil Society emerges.

So, dear friend, I invite you to join us. Say a few words and offer a toast. Americans and Ukrainians, we are friends without fears or barriers. Let us help one another live into a good life.

Saturday, February 12

Egyptian Antiquity and Tahrir Square

More than 4000 years ago, a moral conscience developed among Egyptians.  I have been reading Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt by James Breasted.  

Absorbing the evolution of ancient thought as I watch 21st century history unfold in Tahrir Square has created a remarkable convergence of underlying truth.  I realize anew the depth and strength of the human spirit.  It cannot be denied. 

In this civilization along the Nile, people created a cradle for our civil society.  From prehistoric roots, they developed the first awareness that social behavior is linked to human development and the will of the gods.  Some experts say that their social consciousness was well established more than three centuries before the Ten Commandments.  

Even Pharaohs are subject to judgment.   Carved into the walls of their tombs are pleas of innocence.

“I did not slay men.  I did not steal from one crying for his possessions.  I did not take away food.  I did not diminish the grain measure.  I did not commit adultery.  I did not stir up fear.  I did not stir up strife.  I was not avarice.  I was not puffed up.  I did not make falsehoods in the place of truths.  I was not deaf to truthful words.  My heart coveted not.  I did not wax in hot temper.  I did not do an abomination of the gods.” (Adapted from Book of the Dead, translated J. Breasted, pp302-303)

Injustice does not stand.   As Martin Luther King said to a powerful country still needing to address its own injustice, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Before January 25th and the start of the protests in Egypt, I was emailing Omar.  You may recall him as the artist I met in the Egyptian Museum, just a few blocks from Tahrir Square.  He was the one who recommended a cafe on Tahrir Square.

I did not know then that the cityscape I was exploring would soon be filled with tanks, military and millions of ordinary Egyptians fed up with the dictatorial system .   

Omar writes one week before the start of protests:

“the weather here is kinda cold, winter break just came by, my birthday in 2 weeks and my 6 months anniversary with my girlfriend, I am really excited about the 2nd one because I really think she is the one :)

I am starting my own company too; Vinyl designs - as in records not the material :D - , WISH US LUCK.  WE NEED IT!!!

best wishes from the ever green Egypt :)”

A very normal and friendly note from an almost 21 year old.  It’s what you would expect and then a few days later I receive this email:

“Hey Jud

how are u doing?  yea things have been crazy the past week! a lot of people escaped prisons and were stealing malls and homes.  i almost got shot like 6 times and i almost killed a man.  feels weird but thanks god me, my family and our home are unharmed.  the good thing is that people are uniting again, everyone cares about the other and our love to our country got restored.  pray for us.  btw i am 21 on the 7th :D”

I honor his request for prayer and celebrate his birthday by sending a home-made birthday card.  I write the following to him:

“I am very glad to hear from you.  It must be a very scary time but also a time for much needed change….

I can only imagine the fear of being shot at and the terrible feeling of almost shooting another.  I am glad you were spared that experience.  May it continue.

Are you sleeping on the square?  Are you protecting your area from criminals?  I of course will pray and trust that good outcomes will happen for you and your country. 

I will celebrate your 21st Birthday on Monday.”

I assume Omar celebrated his birthday on Monday, but did not hear from him.  Of course, I worried as the stalemate became more intense.  The news had a face and it was Omar's.  Then history was made on 2/11 and Omar wrote:


it has been a long journey, I myself almost got ran over twice, almost got shot 8 times
and full of bruises and scars now.  i have lost friends and i ve seen bad things
but i gained freedom and got my country back :D”

Like all the commentators say, Egypt has so much to accomplish for freedom and justice to flourish.  But this is a land and people who first gave voice to our higher ideals.

Like a kind of unintended immortality, we have the words of justice inscribed on the walls of ancient tombs.  Even now they strengthen our human spirit.  I have a feeling that something good will emerge and I think my young artist friend will be a part of it. 

Omar, God bless you….

Civic Engagement and Service Learning

“Can you help us develop a grant for Civic Engagement,” comes the invitation from Tatyana, the Director of the Poly-Technical School?

Tatyana is a graduate of an American Exchange Program that took her and a few others from Konotop to Ames, Iowa.  Now there is an opportunity for a grant to further Civic Engagement locally.

I arrive for a meeting.  It’s a small world.  By coincidence, my brother and his wife lived in Ames for most of their married life.  Warren taught biology at the Iowa State University and Judy directed the campus YWCA.  They never met Tatyana, but amazingly they share friends in common.  Because of this Ames connection, I think Tatyana and I share a special friendship. 

Her request to help develop a grant comes unexpectedly.  Initially, I have no idea what to suggest.  I fret about it for a couple of days before the meeting.  I am honored to be asked and increasingly I’m afraid I have nothing to say. 
As a last gasp for something, I start looking at my Peace Corps Training Portfolio.  I’m looking for ideas, any ideas.  But there is nothing.  I sort through more files and dust off my assortment of how-to manuals.   I am getting desperate.

Suddenly, Service Learning jumps out at me.  In the first summer of my Peace Corps experience, I attended training about Service Learning.  

When I returned to Konotop, I tried to interest a few people, but it went nowhere.    I placed the how-to booklet behind my shoes in the bottom of my armoire.  It stayed there until today.

I quickly research the idea on the Internet and put together a one page fact sheet translated into Russian.  I put a call through to the Peace Corps Office and get them to send me all the materials they have on Service Learning.  Strikingly, they have been translated into Ukrainian.  I am soaring high.  Who would have thought that such a great idea would be lying dormant in my armoire?     
Briefly if you don’t already know, “Service-Learning is a teaching strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. “   

 I think it is a perfect  idea for Civic Engagement.  At our meeting Tatyana agrees.  She asks whether Service Learning is common.  I say, “It’s growing in America, but maybe not so much in Ukraine.”  She smiles and says, “Maybe we will be the first.” 
But there is more.  Tatyana goes on to explain that she is finishing her doctoral degree on educational pedagogy emphasizing engagement of students.  We both see a wonderful merging of her academic work with Service Learning and this grant opportunity.
Others are called into our meeting and soon assignments are made to develop the grant.  I will help with the English translation. 
I leave the meeting with a glow of satisfaction.  Sometimes all the pieces do fit together.  In another small way, the Peace Corps is making a difference in the world.