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.
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.
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 - http://www.aarp.org/
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.
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.