“The history and future of our struggles” – participatory action research about grassroots organizations and the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary

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from közéletiskolája on Flickr

Research team: Zsófia Ádám, Cili Lohász, Máté Lukács, Melinda Mihály, Zóra Molnár, Annajuli Rosenfeld, Bernadett Sebály, Tessza Udvarhelyi, Zsuzsa Vass, Miklós Zsámboki

The School of Public Life is a community-based training, research and development center that develops democratic culture in Hungary 1) by improving the citizenship skills of people living in social exclusion, 2) supporting social movements and groups that fight for social justice, 3) pursuing participatory and community-based research about social exclusion and democracy, and 4) supporting the strategic planning of social justice organizations. The School engages in participatory action research that supports the work of social movements and organizations working for social change. In the following, we will introduce our most recent participatory action research project.

The participatory action research project titled “The history and future of our struggles” started in January 2020 in Budapest, Hungary. Its original goal was to find out what we can learn from Hungarian social movements after the regime change in 1989/1990 and how contemporary struggles can benefit from this knowledge. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic brought many challenges for our group and we had to make some decisions regarding our operation. We not only had to move all of our work online, but it was also important to our group members to connect with and react directly to the processes happening around us at the moment. In the end, we have agreed that our main research question will be the following: “What political opportunities does the COVID 19 pandemic create for grassroots initiatives, and how can they use these in the long run?”

As members of our research team are interested in different aspects of this complex topic, we have created three working groups: one of them focuses on the role of civic actors who got involved in municipal politics after the 2019 municipal elections, the second one studies grassroots alliances launched during the pandemic, and third group analyzes the pandemic as a political opportunity. While the working groups have developed their own research plans, they regularly share their progress with each other and learn from each other’s experiences.

Grassroots organizations in municipalities

Our first working group focuses on the crisis management measures introduced by local municipalities during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020. Our preliminary assumption is that certain municipalities were able to respond to the crisis faster and more efficiently because of the involvement of social movements in the work of the municipality in the aftermath of the 2019 elections. It seems to us that the local embeddedness as well as the direct organizational and personal relationships of these grassroots groups represented an exceptional resource during the emergency situation. As the staff member of an NGO working with municipal services, an activist of a democratic community committed to solving local issues, and the volunteer of a local municipality, these assumptions also describe the personal motivations of the members of the working group. The research question of this group is the following: how can grassroots organizations benefit from their peculiar knowledge and way of thinking in the management of crises and are they able to transform municipal governments?

The hypothesis of the group is that the crisis has changed the situation of civic actors and organizations in a positive way and increased their influence in municipalities. Besides describing the measures taken by specific municipalities during the pandemic, the aim of our research is to help municipalities turn their achievements into more permanent measures and transform emergency responses into long-term strategies. On the one hand, we hope that we can help civic initiatives assess their role after the 2019 municipal elections and understand their role in changing how municipalities operate. On the other, we would like to make our findings accessible to similar initiatives and future political actors as inspiring examples. The working group is convinced that municipalism based on participation and solidarity that relies on local communities and diverse alliances can become a key factor and evolve into a movement.

 

Newly launched grassroots initiatives during the coronavirus pandemic

The goal of our second working group is to help current solidarity initiatives by documenting social reactions to the crisis. Therefore, we are mapping grassroots initiatives launched during the pandemic to address or mitigate its effects. One initiative we focus on is the so-called Solidarity Action Group. We will examine its member organizations and their collaboration as well as their difficulties by conducting interviews. Both members of the working group play an active role in the Action Group and also followed the birth of the alliance as they took turns as coordinators. While conducting interviews with members of the most active member organizations, we are trying to identify the preconditions and factors necessary for a broad coalition to work. We will first put together our interview guide and improve it further based on the feedback of the entire research team and other experienced researchers. We hope that the analysis of the interviews will be helpful to increase knowledge about how to build alliances among movements in Hungary in order to help grassroots organizations multiply their social impact.

The other focus point of our research is on civic initiatives outside of the Solidarity Action Group which we will map with the help of desk research. We will select 5 to 6 groups for interviews based on their thematic or political relationship to the Solidarity Action Group. By doing so, we will be able to connect organizations that are open to working with the Solidarity Action Group.

After processing the data and evaluating the results, we will organize focus groups with these initiatives so they can get to know each other and work on opportunities for future cooperation. As a concrete outcome, our research can result in a pool of resources, a review of existing initiatives, a guideline on creating alliances and the documentation of this process for the case of the Solidarity Action Group.

 

The pandemic as a political opportunity

Our third working group set out to analyze the coronavirus crisis as a political opportunity, as it has changed the political and economic environment and opened up new ways for grassroots initiatives to advocate for their causes. We are curious about how the coronavirus and the social and economic crisis affect the organizational, communication and base building strategy of civic organizations. Our goal is to make the organizations of the two working group members (City and River Association and Hungarian Permaculture Association) more conscious regarding their comprehensive organizational strategy and also help them create their communication and base building strategy.

By organizational strategy we mean the vision, mission, as well as short, mid and long-term goals of an organization to achieve social change. We are curious about how the strategy of these organizations can be shaped to make them more successful under the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic (e.g. the transformation of the use of public spaces and parks, the transformation of the food supply, the drop in the use of public transportation and the rise of prices). When creating the strategy of these organizations, it will also be important to make their attitude toward institutional politics clear.

When engaging in advocacy, local embeddedness is essential for any organization and base building is a tool to increase local embeddedness. By social base, we mean the members and volunteers of an organization as well as a broader circle of those who are affected by the specific social problem. Base building techniques include methods to learn what is important to the people who are affected directly or indirectly and ways in which they are able to join the organization or become its supporters. The biggest challenge of any base building strategy is that organizations often reproduce inequalities that already exist in society. These inequalities take shape along several dimensions including gender, ethnicity and class and influence the opportunities of certain social groups to take part in social movements. On the one hand, the crisis may enhance these inequalities further. On the other, however, bridges may also be built among social groups with different socio-economic status in a crisis situation. Based on these assumptions, this working group would like to understand how organizations can respond to the challenges caused by social inequalities, and how they can rethink their base building strategy and make it more conscious?

The communication of organizations is influenced by the worldview of people who work for it or are in touch with it. For example, in the case of environmental issues, several approaches compete with each other. The techno-optimistic approach assumes that technological innovations will save us from environmental collapse and the current economic system does not need to be transformed, while the ecological approach assumes that the current economic system is the cause of environmental collapse, so it aims to change the economic system altogether. The strategy of an organization, including the messages it conveys to the public, is also determined by the ideology of financial actors (e.g. state, EU, donor organizations). When working with different target groups, it is also important to frame our messages. One of the principles of media studies is that a message is much easier to perceive if we address the problem from a new point of view – this technique is called reframing. In this research project, we are curious about how organizations can achieve political results and mobilize new target groups by successful reframing. Taking all these into account, our research question is the following: how does the coronavirus crisis influence the organizational, communication and base building strategy of the selected organizations?

In this working group, we work with comparative case studies to answer our research question and study our own organizations more closely. In order to understand how their strategy, communication and base building could be improved, we compare them with some “good examples” which seem to work successfully in similar fields and have achieved promising results. We will plan data collection (individual interviews and focus groups) in a way that motivates participating organizations to make their organizational and base building strategy as well as communication more conscious. We would like to support the organizations we study in the form of actions based on our results.

 

This research project is funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.