Community Organizing in Bulgaria

In the early days, NGOs enjoyed a rather high reputation in part because of the legacy of "anti-politics" from the earlier period. Today, however, NGOs don't meet with such universal acclaim.
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The transformations of 1989 began in the streets as people protested their governments in Leipzig, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia. The agents of change were popular movements like Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the Union of Democratic Forces. Gradually the protests receded, and these popular movements turned themselves into parties. Many activists, however, didn't want to join formal politics. And so was born the new era of the NGO in East-Central Europe.

Non-governmental organizations proliferated throughout the region in the 1990s as part of the institutionalization of civil society. They often received support from foundations and governments in Western Europe and the United States. Exchange programs brought staff for training sessions in Washington and London and Paris. NGOs became increasingly important in addressing social issues -- poverty, inter-ethnic tensions, trafficking -- as the governments in the region downsized. In this way, NGOs devoted to public works were paradoxically part of the wave of privatization that swept the region. What governments no longer had the money to do, private organizations stepped in to help out.

In the early days, NGOs enjoyed a rather high reputation in part because of the legacy of "anti-politics" from the earlier period. Newly enfranchised citizens viewed government and the official political realm with a degree of suspicion just as they dismissed the communist governments as the playthings of the nomenklatura.

Today, however, NGOs don't meet with such universal acclaim. "Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region," Mariana Milosheva-Krushe explained to me over coffee at the Archaeological Museum café in Sofia back in September. "So, who do they blame? NGOs." NGOs are often perceived as well-funded entities that don't in the end produce anything of enduring value. Although some NGOs certainly fit this description, others have achieved sustainable results with relatively modest means.

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe has been working with NGOs in Bulgaria and throughout the region for more than two decades. She first encountered community organizing in the United States in 1993 and was impressed with this grassroots approach to political and economic development. She brought that spirit back to Bulgaria to democratize the NGO sector. Deeply involved in this sector, she is nonetheless critical of the bad habits of civic organizations.

"Change depends on people in the community," she told me. "I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, 'Pave the street over there too.' I said, 'Come on, it's your street.' And he said, 'It's your project!' And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture."

In addition to the evolution of NGO culture, we talked about working on Roma issues in Bulgaria, the rebirth of the chitalishte cultural centers, and political polarization.

The Interview

You worked in community development organizations in Baltimore and North Carolina.

I had an internship there for six weeks in 1993. I had several different opportunities to go to the United States on internships to learn about civic organizing, non-profit management, community foundations and the evaluation process. The first time I was in the United States was in 1991 or 1992, on an exchange. People were laughing at me in the States because I was saying, "Ah, this is the model!" And they said, "There is no model. You have to adapt whatever model you find." I am so grateful to all the people, all the community organizers I met. I learned so much.

You started out in ancient history and archaeology. What motivated you to turn to community development?

I was bored with history. I couldn't find work, and it was boring to dig under the ground. We were creating history! That's why I joined the Yanko Sakazov Foundation in 1990, because it was so exciting to organize elections. I'm not an extreme person. I'm always trying to be moderate, to find the balance. I think I was closer to the Social Democrats. But unfortunately that party doesn't exist any more. The BSP absorbed all the rhetoric, but not the actual principles.

I was working at the national level, assisting fundraising for people to do campaigns locally. But campaigns don't resolve issues. They need to be ongoing. That's why I decided to continue in civil society. First we created the Access association. I had a passion was for community organizing, especially in ethnically mixed communities. I was responsible for the program for community change. If you can do community organizing in a Roma neighborhood where there's extreme poverty, then it can happen anywhere. At the same time, there's something lost in other communities, such as the bonds between the extended family.

I was also a technical organizer of an Anne Frank exhibition. We wanted to link the messages of the exhibition to the current situation, so we included an exhibition on Roma in Bulgaria. I was shocked by the reaction of the young students coming to the exhibition. They could understand the messages of Anne Frank, what had happened in the past, and they were open to different tolerant thinking. But whenever they saw pictures of Roma, it was immediately a very negative reaction.

I talked to a Roma poet. She said that the problem was not with the beggar children sniffing glue: it's with poverty and growing economic issues. "You should go to learn from the communities," she said. So, I just learned from going to the Roma neighborhoods and talking to people. I'd been excited by what I saw in Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., where I saw some direct work in housing projects in poor neighborhoods. As a result, in 1995 we created CEGA -- Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives -- which developed effective community development projects and grassroots alternative.

What surprised you the most from your experiences in Roma communities?

It's a completely different culture. And if you don't understand it and respect it, you're just lost. This was the biggest problem of most "projects" of different donors: they remained projects. In many cases they had a kind of "drive-through" approach. You need to work with people inside the community so that they start self-organizing. The big word "empowerment" means for me that individuals open their eyes, then they open up the eyes of other people, and they get together to do things. Nobody can do it from the outside.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.

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