Resiliency and Hope in New Democracies
As she walked me to my taxi, she waved her hand across a tree and said softly, "I love it." This moment warmed my heart, not only because it's lovely to see a fellow nature lover, but because of the resilience it reflected for change agents on the front lines of burgeoning democracies across Europe.
I met this inspiring leader in Bucharest, Romania during one of my individual visits during the Marshall Memorial Fellowship. This impactful meeting was in the fourth country I visited during the fellowship, and deepened my respect for the resolve of humanitarians I met across the countries I visited, including Belgium, Sweden, Montenegro, Romania and, later, Germany. I was privileged to make transatlantic connections in each country, but was most struck by glimmers of hope in activist and human rights organizations in post-communist countries like Romania and Montenegro. In these countries, I listened to trials weathered and witnessed a delicate cooperation between civil society and policy makers that could be easily lost. The patriotic hope of the Romanian and Montenegrin activists mixed with equal parts faith is what breathes life into these young democracies and fuels people who have seen more than I have ever experienced.
They know that change and the realization of democracy won't happen overnight. They seem aware that transformation is not a natural act, but one that is highly dependent on intersections of different players-- more symphony than solo act. As a Latina activist working within an inter-sectional framework in the U.S., this transatlantic discovery was as validating as it was hopeful.
The dire need for working across sectors was evident in the enchanting country of Montenegro. This Southeastern country with a coast on the Adriatic Sea is a shattered mosaic of beauty where I met dozens of citizens who are more powerful than they perhaps realize. Montenegro’s landscape is made up of survivors with a deep allegiance to their country, as evidenced by the fact that most return home after spending time working abroad. I asked one young woman what kept her hopeful amidst a socio-political climate she described as corrupt and depressed. She responded that she believed she'd never give up on her country or her critique of the rampant corruption. She admonished those who call into question the patriotism of Montenegrins like her who are critical of the government and said something I'll never forget: “I believe my critique IS deeply patriotic because it means I love my country enough to call for change.”
I left Montenegro struck by the beauty of its land and people and heavy-hearted about the reality of the work that remains.
However, I was uplifted by the activists of the next country I visited, Romania – like my fellow tree lover and human rights advocate, as well as other feminists and activists working to empower and integrate the once enslaved and still shunned Roma community. What I saw was more hope and felt the drive to ensure democracy is a reality for all. Romania's economy and people are poised to expand. NGOs are exploring a culture of philanthropy, businesses are investing in social responsibility, and women – young and old –occupy key leadership positions. Corruption may be forced to yield to a civil society and resilient leaders determined to build a strong Romanian democracy.
From Brussels to Berlin, the people I met and the spectrum of experiences I had left a deep imprint on my own perspectives. It reshaped my activism by giving me an expanded point of reference that I know will impact my leadership in my home community and has inspired my drive to work in a transatlantic context. While meeting with “grasstops” leaders was exciting, I was most moved by the on-the-ground advocates with whom I met. Meeting activists who had lived through conflict and were equally committed to shaping empowerment by leading with hope, optimism and dignity of community mirrored my own perspectives. It is time for a change in my own organization, to move away from using “fight” or anger-fueled language to intentional use of words that reflect spirited advocacy and empowerment. I plan to engage in a series of Skype discussions with a Roma Feminist organization to pick up where our Bucharest conversation left off, addressing the connections between community organizing work at my Latina reproductive justice organization and their work to engage and create opportunity for Roma women in Romania. I hope these activities will positively impact my work in Colorado– change I’m committed to working towards for the long haul.
Cristina Aguilar, executive director at Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, is a 2015 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.