Cultural Programs Give Serbian Society an Energy Boost

February 16, 2018
GMF Editorial Staff
4 min read
Photo Credit: StockBook / Shutterstock
Serbian ballerina Jelena Šantić was renowned for her humanitarian work. She co-founded Group 484 to support Croatian refugees, received the Pax Christi International Peace Award for her advocacy efforts, and helped establish civil society in Serbia in the 1990s. She combined her love of art with her love of people to make a difference. Today, a Belgrade-based organization is carrying on that legacy. 

The Jelena Šantić Foundation (FJS) aims to improve the quality of life for different vulnerable groups throughout Serbia through cultural projects. To do so, FJS provides financial and technical assistance to associations and individuals who use cultural projects to create a dialogue on civic and human rights in their communities.

“Most of the projects where we work are in small communities, mostly invisible. People still don’t want to see or talk about [these societal problems],” said FJS Executive Director Irina Ljubic. “It is very important to us that these organizations work directly with their target group and continue to work with their constituencies. This is a small step toward bettering [people’s] daily lives.”

FJS’s recent Balkan Trust for Democracy-backed initiative “Creative Places for Social Changes”  ran from late 2015 to July 2016. The multiple components of the project, including “The Brave Steps for New Cultural Practices” grantmaking call and the sixth Jelena Šantić Award, encouraged Serbians to engage with their communities to address the issues they see.

The biannual Jelena Šantić Award is given to individuals and civil society organizations that devote their work to civil activism. FJS held an open call for applications for the first time as part of the “Creative Places for Social Change” initiative based on the principle of openness since Jelena Šantić emphasized the importance of being open to every person, especially youth.

FJS gave the award to three deserving applicants. The first recipient was the Belgrade-based organization Aps Art, which performed plays in prisons with the convicts. Ljubic explained that the performances were forbidden for a time because the prisoners began to gain self-esteem working with the Aps Art actors, who saw the prisoners not as prisoners but as fellow performers.

Zoe Gudovic, whom Ljubic described as a “younger version of Jelena Šantić,” received the Jelena Šantić Award for her civic and cultural activism, especially for her work with the LGBT community.

“I am very proud that we had this brave young woman who got the award,” said Ljubic. “This woman is working in the public space and connecting with the public and with different sorts of people — I think you need courage for that.”

The final recipient was a group called Tim8, which was comprised of students from the University of Belgrade, several of whom had disabilities. The students created a moveable house from natural resources to be used in impoverished Roma communities where the standard of living is practically non-existent. Ljubic especially admired this group of young students for having a vision and creating an approach to solve a problem they saw in society. Most youth, Ljubic said, join political parties in an attempt to get involved but lack the vision needed to make a difference, but this group of students acted.

For the “The Brave Steps for New Cultural Practices project,” FJS supported five civil society organizations that work with marginalized and minority groups: Dam Das and Skart Group, Group IDE, Artrust, Women’s Space, and Dah Theater.

Group IDE works with children who do not have parental care. Group IDE asked a group of these children to draw parts of their lives. For some of the children, this was the first time they had used a pen or even drawn a picture. Group IDE then used its grant money to animate the children’s drawings in collaboration with Aps Art. The result is this video.

“This is a story and an impression from their lives,” said Ljubic. “It is a bit dark, but it is the reality.”

Group IDE is now continuing its work with vulnerable children and is now teaming up with an organization that works with children with cancer for its next project, which it became connected with through FSJ.

“We all know that arts and culture, especially these small grant projects will not make a sustainable difference, but it will definitely contribute to the changes,” said Ljubic. “I think the impact will be mostly on the boost on local organizations’ and communities’ energy to further develop their programs. We are developing a little network of these organizations and initiatives that have this common line of using cultural practices for different social changes.”

BTD Programs Coordinator Tijana Kljajević said this network of organizations that JFS is forming will prove to be extremely important in encouraging active citizenship and inclusion and combatting issues like xenophobia and exclusion.

“Culture is an important and irreplaceable source of identity, belonging, citizenship, equity, and participation,” said Kljajević. “Guaranteeing cultural rights, access to cultural goods and services, free participation in cultural life, freedom of artistic expression, and non-discrimination in approach to all developmental services are critical to forging inclusive and equitable societies.”