Ewa Smuk Stratenwerth

Ashoka Fellow

Ewa jest pionierem rozwoju programów edukacyjnych, które przeciwdziałają rosnącej przepaści między populacjami miejskich i wiejskimi w Polsce. Zapraszając miejskie dzieci z rodzicami do udziału w edukacji rzemieślniczej na wsiach, a także wykorzystując środki publiczne do poprawy jakości edukacji na wsiach Ewa pomaga odwrócić destrukcyjną samoocenę, która jest plagą pośród ludności wiejskiej i buduje zrozumienie pomiędzy mieszkańcami miast i wsi.

This description of Ewa Smuk Stratenwerth's work was prepared when Ewa Smuk Stratenwerth was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.


Ewa is pioneering an educational program that addresses the growing divide between urban and rural populations in Poland. By bringing urban children and their parents into depressed rural areas for hands-on environmental education, by harnessing public funds to improve the quality of rural education, Ewa is helping reverse the destructive self-conceptions that plague rural populations and building understanding between citizens of urban and rural areas.

The New Idea

Through education and economic empowerment, Ewa's work addresses the enormous divide between rural and urban communities in Poland. Her educational efforts encompass social, cultural, economic, and environmental programs that seek to erase stereotypes, foster mutual respect, instill self-esteem, and empower both children and adults to enter the economic mainstream. Urban children travel to the country to get hands-on experience of different aspects of rural life through the activities and programs she has engineered. These include feeding livestock, milking cows and goats, making bread, dipping candles, and better understanding the biology of composting. They also include broader discussions of the importance of environmental protection and the practice of conservation.
Ewa trains family farmers to become part-time teachers in this program, teaching them that the everyday resources of the farm can become new assets when they are used as materials in children's education. Furthermore, Ewa has arranged for urban schools to pay for these educational trips, and the revenue helps modernize struggling rural educational facilities by providing better language and computer training to rural children. Finally, in bringing a flow of urban children and their parents to rural areas, in generating interest in rural ways of life, in turning farmers into educators, Ewa is helping transform the self-conceptions of down-and-out rural communities. Jobs are created for traditional artisans who market goods to visitors. The market for organic farm products is broadened, which helps generate revenue for rural farmers. The skills and knowledge that inhere in rural communities are made useful to urban Poland, and the rural/urban divide is narrowed.

The Problem

The cultural, social, and educational gap between Polish urban and rural communities has a long history grounded in the evolution of Poland's economic development. Rural children have few opportunities to secure a decent education-certainly not one that prepares them to enter the modernizing job market. What's more, rural and urban children have very few opportunities to interact, and disparaging stereotypes prevail in both contexts. Such trends can be especially damaging in rural areas, where prejudice is easily nurtured by reactionary demagogues. The situation has not improved since 1989, and in many ways the division has been made sharper by Poland's "shock therapy" style of economic reform. As Poland prepares itself for entry into the EU, urban and rural Poland remain sharply divided, as rural farmers feel they are being sold out. The disparities are felt most sharply in the area of education, where rural schools lag far behind urban schools in teaching the practical skills that prepare children for the European marketplace. For decades, rural schools have required that their students study Russian-other languages were seen as not very important. Now everybody wants (and needs) to learn English, and there are no teachers available. There is a dramatic need for English teachers throughout Poland (Polish military officers go to Canada to learn English), and rural children are especially cut off-English teachers cost too much for the small rural schools to afford. Furthemore, computing is relatively new and almost none fo the rural schools expose their students to computer technology. The statistics for 1998 are somewhat bleak:

Achieved:Urban kids (% of the whole population of Poland)Rural kids(% of the whole population of Poland)

University degree

High school degree

Didn't complete any education (even primary)

Rural children have extremely high dropout rates, and very few receive the kind of education that prepares them for the competitive European marketplace.

Poland's economy is growing, mostly due to money from privatization and to foreign investments. This positive "macro" performance, however, has nothing to do with "micro" landscape. The communists left behind a disaster. The first years of freedom were devoted to macroeconomic transformation--nobody paid any attention to education, health services, or social security. Those areas remained untouched, and are still tainted with the legacy of Stalinism. In 1998, the new Solidarity government began transforming those social areas and this is done, but the situation in rural areas remains atrocious.

Forty percent of Poles live in these rural areas.

The Strategy

When Ewa decided to make the leap herself from city to country in 1993, she concentrated her efforts on narrowing the urban-rural gap and on developing indigenous rural enterprise. She did this by establishing a variety of educational programs which benefited urban and rural children, families, teachers, and farmers.

The educational programs are held on small farms and involve hands-on experience with a variety of agricultural and livestock techniques. Urban children learn for the first time how to milk cows and make bread and cheese. They begin to gain an appreciation of the joys and hardships of country work. But the program is quite elaborate and diverse: she also teaches students about organic agriculture and conservation, and her general aim is to sow the seeds of an environmental consciousness. She teaches them about composting, about the merits of organic foods, about the incorporation of environment-friendly practices in everyday life.

It is important to Ewa that these 2-3 day sojourns are followed up by further encouragement and learning: when participants return to their (urban) schools, they are encouraged to organize school events, with parents and other students, around the themes that were explored during their retreats to the country. These follow-up activities, in which the students themselves are responsible for organizing and spreading information, are essential to the learning process.

Ewa also organizes tours for parents and families, and meetings between urban teachers and local farmers. All of these interactions help bridge the widening divide between urban and rural Poland. (One positive spin-off from all these activities is that Ewa's emphasis on indigenous, traditional activities, like candlemaking, paper cutting, ceramics, weaving, etc. creates jobs. Local inhabitants are encouraged and trained to develop "home grown" talents which are then exhibited to visitors. Jobs are also created locally for people who help to organize as well as participate in the exchange programs.)

The small farmers, meanwhile, are trained in pedagogical techniques by Ewa herself and her team of volunteers. And the farmers are invariably receptive: in moving from a position of exclusive farming to becoming teachers and directors of their own educational mini-centers, they themselves become better educated, and their sources of income proliferate.

Next, Ewa funnels the funds she receives from urban schools and other sources to the modernization of rural education. This is a vital component of her plan: rural schools need money to develop language programs and computer skills programs that will allow rural children to become competitive in the job market. Without such skills, rural children are denied the opportunities available to urban children, and of all the disparities between rural and urban, this is perhaps the most unjust.

In summary, then, Ewa's project achieves three discrete but related goods: (1) urban children experience rural life, begin to challenge prevailing stereotypes of rural culture, learn about organic farming and more broadly about conservation; (2) rural children get improved education that allows them to be competitive in entering the job market; and (3) rural communities benefit from the attention (and buying power) of the urban population.

Approximately 2000 children participated in Ewa's program last year and came from most major cities in Poland. These exchanges are also international in scope, with school groups arriving from Scandinavia and potentially also the Baltic States. Ewa's calendar is booked until September 1999. Before 2001, Ewa wants to train 10-15 new organic farms, and to spread her program to all Poland, with links to other CEE countries.

To promote her program, Ewa produces a newsletter in called "News from Wistula." Local residents contribute articles, stories, recipes, poems around the theme of education and organic farming, and Ewa produces it on her computer. This is not only locally distributed, but is sold in Warsaw and distributed to Poznan and other places as well.

Ewa is also writing and publishing a textbook to show other Polish villages how they can combine education with organic farming. The book will be sold to 5,000-10,000 schools and distributed through a network of environmental instructors which Ewa has begun to consolidate. Workshops will follow up the book sale to promote organic farming and sustainability. Furthermore, she had authored several textbooks for children, ages 4-6, and 7-10, which are widely used in urban and rural schools. These take a multi-disciplinary approach and are combined with workshops for teachers on how to use the books.

The Person

Ewa has always embodied the spirit of entrepreneurship. During the food shortage caused by Martial Law, her popular television program promoted the development of home sprouting techniques involving nutritional, cheap and fast-growing alfalfa, wheat, and other sprouts. Ewa studied anthropology and focused on the evolution of diet, which promoted a movement towards healthier diets in Poland. To popularize her approach, she took over a well-known Warsaw restaurant for a week and with a friend converted the kitchen and menu into an organic feast. In this one week, the restaurant turned a profit like never before. But her best-known and most successful national campaign was to promote women-centered childbirth and breast-feeding in the early 90s. She is still considered an expert and national leader in the field.

With her current project (which has just taken off with a successful pilot in 1998) Ewa moves beyond all of her previous work and addresses a much broader problem-a problem that Poles consistently identify as among Poland's largest challenges for the coming years. She has now moved to the country, placed her children in the very schools she seeks to reform, and refocused all of her energies on this project, which she feels will be her most important, most enduring, and most challenging. Whereas there were precedents for her work in organic food and women's health, she feels that she is now striking out into an area in which established alternatives are scarce.

Ewa has been the recipient of many awards for her innovative programs in rural communities, including the prize for "Rural Woman of the Year" in 1998 from the Women's World Summit Foundation.