Who are we?
The School of Public Life is a community-based training, research and development center that develops democratic culture in Hungary by improving the citizenship skills of people living in social exclusion, supporting social movements and groups that fight for social justice, pursuing participatory and community-based research about social exclusion and democracy, and supporting the active public participation of disadvantaged individuals.
What is the problem?
Democratic engagement and civic participation are core values that create links among societies transcending cultures and continents. For a real democracy, members of the community have to be aware that their powers as citizens go beyond casting their ballot every 4 years. To participate effectively in public life and shape the decisions that affect them, citizens need the individual skills and collective capacities to articulate their needs and voice their concerns effectively. Amidst ongoing public discussion about the democratic deficit of the European Union as well as the U.S., Hungarian democracy is ailing. Despite the transition to a multiparty election system in 1989, most citizens feel alienated from politics and people who experience social exclusion are particularly powerless when it comes to representing their interests. Civil society organizations are often too dependent on the state to exercise meaningful critique and tend to work on an ad hoc basis.
The Hungarian government has taken an anti-poor authoritarian turn that has led to growing poverty and the weakening of civil society. In order to challenge large-scale civic disempowerment and develop the culture of democracy and social inclusion in Hungary, we are launching the School of Public Life. Through education, research and development the School supports socially disadvantaged people and the organizations that represent them to become more powerful advocates of their rights and interests, produce their own knowledge and develop strategic responses to the problems they identify.
What do we do?
Based in Budapest, the School works to ensure that socially, economically, culturally, physically and ethnically disadvantaged groups are fully aware of their rights, are able to articulate their needs and interests and possess the skills and knowledge necessary to enforce these in practice.
The School has four main areas of activity:
1) Education: as a hub of citizenship education, the School offers theoretical and practical training in the form of workshops, “traveling classes” and short and long-term courses on topics including strategic planning, theories of citizenship, civil disobedience, community organizing, using public data for advocacy, media work, social mobilization, community leadership and advocacy.
2) Research: as the first center for participatory and community based research in Hungary, the School not only engages in research that support the work of social movements and organizations working for social change, but also operates as a Hungarian language knowledge center and offers consultation and supervision in this field. The School will develop both its own research projects and engage in commissioned work by progressive think tanks, universities, social movements and civil society organizations.
3) Strategic planning: in order to empower civil society organizations to become better advocates, the School focuses on developing their advocacy, communications, base building and strategic planning capacities through personal consultation and group discussions.
4) Publications: In order to support our work as an education and research center and produce progressive knowledge, we publish literature related to our mission and activities. We translate political, academic as well as policy texts as reading material for our courses to make them accessible to participants with lower levels of education. We also produce our own teaching materials. In addition, we produce empowering publications targeting the broader public on social movements, activism and progressive politics. All our publications are written in widely accessible language.
Who do we work with?
Our primary target group includes individuals who experience exclusion including poor and homeless people, the Roma, the unemployed, asylum seekers, single mothers, and disabled people. Our secondary target group includes civil society organizations that represent and work for these group as well as centers and institutes interested in using participatory research methods.
What de we work for?
The School works to ensure the following impact:
1) Marginalized members of Hungarian society are aware of their rights and opportunities as citizens and gain skills to assert them and become more active citizens.
2) Disadvantaged individuals advocate for their interests through grassroots and membership-based organizations.
3) Existing organizations working on behalf of marginalized social groups effectively advocate for the rights and interests of these groups.
4) New, grassroots organizations are established that represent marginalized groups of society.
5) Members of various social groups and classes have meaningful and productive interactions and relationships with one another.
6) Social movements and marginalized individuals understand the roots and the functioning of social injustices and create knowledge that supports their advocacy and organizing.
Participation: we strongly believe that the people directly affected by a decision must have the opportunity to take part in making that decision.
Community-focus: we believe that the world is a better place if we work together in it, in cooperation, prioritizing community interests over individual ones.
Social justice: we believe that respect is due to everybody, as a human being, irrespective of their level of education, gender, skin color, faith or citizenship status. And we believe that it is an essential part of ‘good life’ that everyone’s basic needs are satisfied.
Simplicity: we believe that ‘good life’ is not equivalent to the accumulation of material goods and that organizations have to work in balance with their social, physical, and natural environment. It, thus, requires that we handle our resources responsibly.
The personal is political: we believe that social change is inseparable from personal transformation; therefore, we have to constantly work on self-development alongside working on transforming society.
Solidarity: we believe that social groups are stronger if they collaborate, recognize systemic oppressions, and take steps to undo these oppressions and stand up for the disadvantaged. Solidarity is not equal to pity, rather, it is the active recognition and abolishment of oppression.
Critical thinking: we believe that a democratic community can only function properly if its members are able to make informed decisions concerning their personal life, as well as the life of the community. It presupposes critical thinking about the economic-political structures that make up our societies. Through real consciousness of the mechanisms of exclusion, people can better understand social and political relations and in this way can stand up against injustices more effectively.
Photo: István Várady