Report on our first Public Life Club

The reason why we first and foremost decided to establish the School of Public Life was to foster a real democratic turn in Hungary. For this to happen all citizens, irrespective of their class, gender, ethnic background, physical abilities etc, should indeed, among other things, be able to take part in discussions on issues by which they are affected or in which they are interested and have their voices actually heard in deliberations over public issues.

Having worked together with members of marginalized social groups in recent years we have often experienced how all too many people in Hungary have been thwarted by a vast range of obstacles while they have been trying to claim their political rights, be it general elections, their right of assembly or freedom of expression. It has become all too manifest as well how many of our fellow members in The City is for All group – active, curious thinkers – are consistently denied access to even the most elementary bits of information about current public issues.

It is unbelievable and unacceptable at the same time that in the 21st century when most people have access to news from the farthest possible locations in the world literally at a click of their fingers, for others it is a serious problem to get adequately informed about the most important internal affairs at least: they do not have money for dailies or weeklies, they do not have a computer or if they have one, they do not have Internet access or there is only one electric outlet for every eight or ten people at the homeless shelter where they live etc.

We strongly believe that each and every citizen of a country has a right to impartial, quality information, and a right to formulate and share their opinions. This is one of the cornerstones of a country’s democratic functioning, since it is the foundation for understanding and respecting each other. It is also essential for the development of solidarity without which no society can function properly, that is, in a truly participatory manner, and without oppression. Our experiences have demonstrated time and again that a lot of people do seek information about public issues and want discussion on them no matter their social position. And this is why we decided to organize our Public Affairs Club, where we have weekly discussed current public issues with underprivileged citizens.

Having overcome a number of unexpected hardships, we had our meetings in the community space of BK41 in the end (our big thanks to Szilárd Kalmár for this again). Originally we planned to have the club in a social institution – a day centre or a shelter for families for instance – to minimize the obstacles people who use these institutions should have had to overcome in order to participate, and to help reduce the time and travelling pressure. At the outset the place in Bérkocsis Street was felt a serious compromise in comparison, and it only turned out later on it wasn’t that much of it: a lot of underprivileged people go to BK41 on a regular basis some of whom did join the club eventually or attended one particular discussion. What’s more the option to join the club that we had previously thought to offer to people in one specific institution opened up for many more this way.

At our meetings we discussed two current issues each time. The topics were chosen and prepared together with Kata Ámon, the other organizer of the club, a student of Central European University and an ally member of The City is for All group. However, all participants were encouraged to suggest a topic or bring an article. We read articles from a variety of sources and angles, often also watched news videos, which together formed the basis of our discussions. Our main targets were the hottest issues of interior affairs, such as the government’s “national consultation”, migration and refugees, the tentative re-institution of the death-penalty or the Hungarian nurses’ movement for instance. Every once in a while we looked at international issues as well, like Baltimore police brutality and the civilian protests in the wake of it. When there was nothing particular making headlines either in or outside Hungary, we had time to talk about issues, which would have an overall impact in the long run and recently surfaced to gain some notoriety, like the Paks2 investment or segregation in schools.

Although we originally expected more than the average four or five participants who eventually turned up at the Club, our discussions and debates proved to be very meaningful and rich in content. All who participated, including the organizers of the club, learnt a lot by listening to the others’ opinions and thus experienced an expansion of their horizons and a deepening of their understanding of important public issues.

Kata and I took turns in moderating the discussions. We tried to make sure each and every one of the participants, and not only those who find it generally easier anyway, could have a fair chance to contribute. It was great pleasure for me to see so many women among the participants – they were a greater part of the stable group of the participants, actively involved in the discussions with firm standpoints and criticisms, very open to others’ points of view at the same time .

Having done a systemic evaluation of the Club and drawn the lessons we learnt, we continue the program from October, at another venue, with new participants. We will first try social institutions again, but it is also possible that we will continue the Club in a workers’ home.

Mariann Dósa