Adam Jagiello-Rusilowski

Ashoka Fellow

Adam Jagiełło–Rusilowski działa by zmienić zachowania młodzieży z grup ryzyka i zmienić ich pasywne nastawienie i apatię w młodzieżowe inicjatywy. Jego model prowadzi do zanurzenia młodzieży z różnych środowisk w ciąg warsztatów propagujących umiejętności krytycznego myślenia, pracy zespołowej, kreatywności i przedsiębiorczości.

This description of Adam Jagiello-Rusilowski's work was prepared when Adam Jagiello-Rusilowski was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .


Adam Jagiello-Rusilowski is working to shift the behaviors of at-risk youth and change the pervasive influence of apathy that drains youth initiative. His model immerses young people of diverse backgrounds in a continuum of workshops fostering critical thinking skills, teamwork, creativity and entrepreneurship.

The New Idea

With limited resources, schools and other state institutions serving youth have largely been unable to constructively engage severely troubled preteens and teens, and those at risk. Seeing a need, Adam launched a program that harnesses the enormous attraction of performance media (e.g. theater, radio, and television) to engage at-risk kids in a multifaceted program to transform their lives. Using theater, radio, and television as a means, not an end, the program Adam developed, piloted at the Wybrezezk Theater in Education Association (WTA) in Gdansk, offers at-risk youth a chance to explore and develop their own skills, talents, and abilities through workshops, individual and group exercises, and youth-led productions and performances on socially topical material.

The WTA model Adam developed brings together both troubled youth from underprivileged backgrounds with youth from more privileged circumstances, often without the same history of social problems. This blending of kids from diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs, upends a troubling trend in Poland, where the increasingly stratified educational establishment tracks children by social class and economic means.

School systems and other government agencies serving youth have begun to rely on the Wybrezezk Theater in Education Association and many of its affiliated organizations to assist their most troubled students. Working within and parallel to many of these state institutions, WTA engages many of the most troubled teens. One of the keys of the WTA model’s success is that all participation is voluntary. The reputation of the program, built by word of mouth and developed by WTA’s substantial programs, as well as access to leading media figures, youth celebrities, etc., has made it an attractive option to alienated youth, as well as their less troubled peers, who have sought out the program because of its reputation as a leading training and performance institution.

Individual choice and student initiative are the dominant elements of the approach, features that are largely lacking in the young people’s lives at either home or school. Once enrolled at the WTA site, youth are immersed in workshops, trainings, and exercises, which are designed to build trust, help young people focus, and to foster cooperation—skills and abilities that are largely lacking when they enter the program. The participants quickly learn to function in teams, be responsible to others, and assume leadership positions. At WTA’s core site in Gdansk, all participants become engaged in the development and execution of over 60 productions each year, focused on socially relevant issues and run entirely by students. These theater and radio productions travel to schools and correctional facilities, and are available on public broadcast. Built into the program are incentives for continued participation and growing leadership among the young people.

For many of the at-risk youth participating in the program, it is the first time they have been treated as responsible individuals. While their schools lack the funding to provide much beyond basic educational instruction, the WTA program immerses them in a professional environment with diverse resources, allowing them to exercise their own interests and talents in a broad array of creative and professional areas. The program provides exposure to numerous partner institutions (including schools, local businesses, broadcast media companies, and public relations firms) that is invaluable as they plan for their lives after secondary school. The results of the program are telling, with over 75 percent of the participants going on to university (a far higher percentage than their peers in Polish schools). Additionally, many graduates of the program go on to jobs in media-related enterprises or launch small businesses of their own.

The Problem

Nearly 20 percent of Polish youth are said to be at risk of dropping out of high school. These young people, like many of their Eastern European counterparts, suffer alarmingly high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, and face a dismal job market with unemployment as high as 25 percent in some areas. State educational and social institutions, strapped for resources, are unable to serve the growing and increasingly marginalized population of young high-school dropouts in Poland.

Adam argues that young people generally—and especially those who are most at risk—lack opportunities to develop into productive citizens and confident, creative, self-supporting adults. The incidence of abuse, alcohol dependency, and violence among young people is high, with some kids falling far behind in school and some ending up in correctional facilities or rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, income-earning possibilities are limited for young adults.

Increasingly, the Polish educational system reinforces class division and disregards creative, student-centered approaches to learning and personal development that might offer a midcourse correction for some teenagers. A few public schools in Warsaw have begun experimenting with a two-track system that routes incoming primary school students into two groups: those whose families can afford after-school activities like sports and English-language classes and those that cannot.

Compounding problems inherent to the system is the challenge of increasing school violence. Seventy-five percent of students report having been bullied and the majority feels powerless and ignored. Recent system-wide funding cuts in after-school activities forecast a worrying trend for young people, especially because the typical in-school classroom experience does not inspire children or encourage their active participation in learning. The extracurricular activities that do exist, whether linked to the public school system or provided by youth-focused citizen groups, tend to offer an end in and of themselves and require conformity among participants.After-school or therapy-based theater programs do not link them with opportunities to teach and mentor peers, direct or collaborate with teammates on concrete projects, or design and pursue suitable careers.

The Strategy

Adam reaches young people for whom the standard track doesn’t work. Many come from dysfunctional or abusive families and end up caught in a cycle of self-destructive behavior, resulting in violence, alcohol dependency, and often expulsion from school. Adam has built a network of relationships with a complex web of institutions, all of which are critical to ensuring the success of his program.

State schools, reform schools, and social service agencies all help identify kids in need. Local governments, social service agencies, schools and universities, and citizen organizations provide facilities and support for the program at its center and throughout Poland. Private sector institutions provide in-kind services, mentors and internships to the many youth participants. Foundations and international networks are helping expand the reach of the program beyond its routes in Gdansk, Poland.

At its core, Adam’s work is aimed at building the life skills that troubled and at-risk young people need to escape the cycle of alienation and self-destructive behavior. These life skills are gained through participation in WTA’s program and those of its affiliates. WTA’s reputation for cutting edge, socially relevant and student-led productions helps overcome the hesitation of many at-risk youth, many of whom have been referred by institutions where none of these features are found. Once interested, these youth are immersed in something much larger than themselves.

One of WTA’s aims is to create a space where social standing does not interfere with learning. He accomplishes this in small but significant ways: for example, newcomers are encouraged to “pay” for workshops and classes through their contribution of time and effort; they design and build sets, usher at performances, distribute promotional pamphlets, help out with office tasks. Everyone has a membership and opportunities are available to all, regardless of how much money their families have.

In addition to participating in the broad array of workshops and exercises, each participant contributes to the overall effort required to assemble a performance or production. Each of these roles draws on and develops a set of social and technical skills, from scriptwriting, casting, directing, and performing in small pieces. Participation in this process with the resulting public “product”—often a theatrical performance or radio show—exposes them to the notion that they can make something happen that is larger than themselves.

In preparing performances and productions, participants are encouraged to focus on experiences that have been formative or even difficult. Previous projects included “Human Rights,” a project tackling issues of homelessness, citizen rights, and family relations; “Rings on the Water,” a reflection on totalitarianism realized in a former concentration camp; and “Agnes,” which addressed issues of sexual abuse and was accompanied by prevention and awareness workshops. WTA has offered alcohol-prevention shows to local schools with forum theater workshops as well as specially devised plays on bullying. Over 60,000 teenagers have attended the performances in two years. The genre of performance ranges from stand-up comedy to musicals to more conventional forms, and the tone and stated aim is one of learning and support over and above artistic excellence.

The best performances and productions are sent out to schools, correctional facilities, and other youth programs regionally, or performed for youth at the WTA. The Association runs about fifteen such performances at any given time. This gives many their first exposure to theater; more importantly, audience members see young people running every aspect of the show. These public performances offer an initial hook; audience members are invited to come to WTA for any number of workshops that fit their schedule and attract their interest. About 5 percent come back, and for this group, avenues for participation and learning open up to them.

Adam recognized early that participation in a performance or one workshop series would likely only have limited impact on participants. He therefore developed incentives for teenagers to stay on and continue their learning and contribution. Those participants who have been active in the effort for three years or longer, earn paid roles as “peer educators,” of which there are currently 30. They lead and mentor less experienced peers and continue their path of learning through intensive involvement in the Association.

The WTA program currently has approximately 600 students who participate each year in Adam’s base program in Gdansk. Since 2005, the program has been expanded and fully replicated in Gdynia. Numerous projects in Gdynia increased the visibility of “Wybrzezak” (60 percent of youth and 49 percent of adults know of Wybrzezak), and some community events like street or mall performances have received top coverage from local media. Currently over 90 percent of the participants go on to pursue university studies (a much higher rate than their peer group outside the program), while WTA assists others in securing gainful employment, both in launching their own businesses, and in securing employment in media and communications-related businesses. WTA has set up an alumni network of several thousand to facilitate professional opportunities. With support from an institutional grant and a revenue stream provided by its activities, the association brought in US$200,000 in 2004. From this sum, Adam supplies small grants for participants to start initiatives of their own that have social merit and to take up issues effecting teenagers.

The program is expanding both nationally and internationally through multiple avenues. After serving as “peer educators,” many youth participants are expanding the program’s reach by taking the core program to other state institutions in the Gdansk region. Another 72 more senior trainers (many of whom who have received university accreditation) have gone out to work with 40 programs throughout Poland. Adam has been able to assist the development of another eight programs at various institutions throughout Poland this year through an advisory role he plays in one of Poland’s few indigenous grantmaking institutions.

The international reach of Adam’s work has been assisted by strong organizational ties to several European institutions and youth development networks. The Gdansk program has become a frequent host to visiting youth program leaders from throughout Europe who come to study the methods and meet with youth and partner institutions. WTA was a resource center for the European Cultural Foundation, expanding the international reach of the program. As a result WTA has been chosen as a key partner for Theatre Day Productions (TDP) in Gaza and West Bank (PA), and Adam carried out a series of training sessions and evaluation project which helped TDP to become the major youth development organization in PA, partner with the PA Ministry of Education, War Child and Polish Akcja Humanitarna. WTA replicates its model in Bucharest, Romania, with its twin organization, SigmaArt, and is working on introducing elements of the program at Yougdu Youth Centre in Taszkent in Uzbekistan.

The Person

Adam demonstrated creativity and leadership from an early age when, as a school boy, he served in student government, was repeatedly chosen to be class leader, and ran a small business baking and selling sandwich rolls. He participated in his first theater workshop in high school and recalls its having been pivotal in his development. He used the techniques he learned in the workshop to organize, write, and perform satirical plays, many of them political in focus, and to start up the school’s first radio program. He credits the tools of theater and communication for enabling him to navigate his formative years, overcoming the stereotypes associated with his modest working-class roots, and to grow into a confident, self-aware young man.

Adam found that he had a real gift for language acquisition. To support himself at university and afterwards, he taught English-language classes and began to experiment with creative techniques in his private and group classes. He saw that wacky techniques reinforced students’ learning; kids were actively engaged in learning, and their retention and creativity in applying new language skills peaked. Moreover, they grew confident and assertive in their self-presentation.

After graduating in 1990, Adam co-founded the “Maybe Theater Company,” an initiative for which he drew in English professors and American and British dramatic artists to host workshops and performance series for young people whose families could not afford expensive English-language or theater classes. This went very well, and he began to use the initiative to tackle class-based segregation, a problem he saw worsening in Poland in the 1990s. He brought together students of all backgrounds, rich and poor, for common events and workshops funded by English Unlimited, then Poland’s most prestigious private language school.

As a volunteer tutor at a juvenile detention center in Gdansk, Adam applied the collection of creative techniques, many of them inspired by his theater and educational experiences, to young people in real trouble. Students trusted him and opened up to him and to others, some sharing stories of their own criminal actions and dysfunctional families. Management grew worried by the boys’ openness in talking about abuse by the correctional officers, though. After a promising start, the program Adam had begun was abruptly stopped and the students dispersed to correctional facilities elsewhere in Poland.

In 1995, he set about articulating a transferable methodology from the collection of creative teaching interventions he had devised, and sometimes improvised, over the years, and building the web of activities he currently pursues. In 2006 he worked out a scientifically-based measurement for drama participation impact on youth life skills which is recognized internationally and adapted by organizations promoting drama as youth empowerment tool (EUnetArt, Dublin Institute of Technology, Kunstenaar & Co, and Theatre Day Productions).