Mikuláš works to spur civic engagement and a sense of responsibility for public life among youth and adults of Central Europe by encouraging them to examine, understand and engage with shared past and relate on a deeper level to the importance of overcoming indifference to public life in the human history. He is orchestrating the creation of crowdsourced collective narrative of the memory of nation, and consequently is anchoring critical thinking and active citizenship among young people by providing them with opportunities to practice changemaking in action.
The New Idea
Mikuláš works to spur civic engagement and a sense of responsibility for public life among youth and adults of Central Europe by encouraging them to examine, understand and engage with shared past. He is orchestrating the creation of crowdsourced collective narrative of the memory of nation, and consequently is equipping youth and adults with tools to learn from history.
In order to achieve this, he has developed a comprehensive set of interventions aiming at educational system, family environment and media space. At the core of his activities, he encourages people of all generations to meet witnesses of historical events in person and together explore their behaviors and decisions in various critical moments of the last century. He helps participants of his programs recognize the consequences of, on the one hand, being prone to ideological manipulation, fear to speak up and unwillingness to engage in public life, and, on the other hand, acts of solidarity, courage, empathy and changemaking. By doing so, he is sowing the seeds of critical thinking and active citizenship, which he further anchors by providing participants with opportunities to practice changemaking in action. Mikuláš emphasizes the importance of active learning from history, and not merely about it, and organically weaves such active learning into the life defining places such as schools, families, media space. This new approach, compared to fragmented attempts to make history more exciting through mere re-packaging of information, helps people relate on a deeper level to the importance of overcoming indifference to public life in the human history.
The active and effective civic engagement of the Czech and other Central European populations in the late 1980’s compelled global interest and was one of the key reasons why the notion of civil society has gone through its renaissance. Petitions, mass demonstrations and eloquent speeches of charismatic leaders, especially of Czechoslovakia and Poland, have been heard and supported by millions of their citizens and also far beyond these countries. However, once the goal of gaining political independence had been achieved, and once the euphoria period was over, the level of citizen engagement in Central Europe significantly dropped, and moreover, the connection of new generations to historical achievements of citizen sector started to vanish . Studies show that today the level of citizen engagement in these countries is significantly lower than in Western or Northern Europe. For example, the Czech study shows that only 40% of the respondents believe they can somehow influence developments on the municipal level, only 25% say they can count on their potential legitimate demands to be met, and only 6% believe their active participation can contribute to solving a problem at the national level. Sociologists and educators from around the world speak about the phenomenon of citizen apathy and global indifference“. But if in the countries with the long tradition of mainly uninterrupted democratic development the main cause of indifference might be connected to the advance of post-industrial consumerism, the indifference and apathy of Central European citizens are in addition exacerbated by the legacy of Nazist and Communist regimes with the deeply rooted clear mental division between the compfort and security of private zone and the indifference to public space. When during a recent study the Czech and Polish citizens who are not engaged in public life were asked to name a reason why they do not engage, some of the most popular answers were “Nobody has ever asked me to engage” and “I don’t know how I can help”. This means there is quite some potential for the democratic activation of the population. It also points at the fact that people might not have enough convincing role models and examples of why empathy, solidarity, cooperation, and caring about public life matter and what the consequences can be when they are ignored. Connected to this, is the challenge that Central European countries are facing in the last years - the upswing of extremist and xenophobic ideas and the successes of the radical nationalist parties. Every fourth first-time voter in Slovakia during the recent parliamentary elections preferred the radical right-wing party. In Poland the radical right wing party has also been enjoying increasingly strong support (38% in 2015 from 10% in 2001).
The root causes of the afore mentioned challenges can be traced in schools, families and media space. The education might be failing to effectively communicate the lessons of the 20th century, the scale of tragedies and consequences of extremist ideas, and the critical role citizen participation played in this very region just a few decades ago. History in most schools today has become a boring litany of dates, facts and alien personalities. Historical events and figures become so alienated that young people cannot relate to them and feel disengaged in a classroom. The school therefore does not offer a pathway or a structure to meaningfully engage with the past. As a result, such frontal and one-dimensional way of presenting history is neither conducive to developing critical thinking and immunity to ideological manipulation in the era of constant massive flows of information and mixed messages, nor is it encouraging active citizenship in young people.
On the other hand, despite the fact that almost every family story could be the first and most organic source of learning from history, wider family disintegration has led to families rarely exploring and passing on their own history and role models. Parents are often too busy, unwilling or not knowledgeable enough to introduce family history and role models to children. Children themselves captivated by technological advance are often not interested to ask their own (grand)parents to share their life experience and learnings, and grandparents, on their side, do not feel comfortable imposing themselves and their experience and learnings on younger generation. As for the interaction of young people with elderly beyond their own family circle, statistics show that it is really low, almost inexistent.
The media being important and, especially for young people today, even life-defining space, do not have lively and compelling enough materials that would capture the attention of demanding audience on a long-term basis and lead it to learning from history. Therefore, neither school, family nor media today sufficiently contribute to developing important prerequisites of the functioning democracy: citizens engaging in public life, beyond one’s own family and friends, citizens able to think critically and make conscious political and ethical choices based on empathy, value-driven behavior, caring for public space and changemaking.
Mikuláš works at three levels – education system, families and media space. His work at all levels aims to ensure that there are tools for people to engage with historical role models and events in a constructive and critical way that is relevant to the present day and future decision making. In order to effectively organize the work at different levels, Mikuláš has founded an overarching citizen organization Post Bellum.
The backbone of Post Bellum is engaging people of all ages into crowdsourcing the narrative of history and thus providing them with a transformative experience of deeply connecting with the narrative of an eye-witness/participant of public historical event and relating to moral dilemmas and decisions they had to face in relation to public and private lives. Mikuláš believes this serves as a simple yet effective exercise of empathy, which has a deep and long-lasting effect, especially on the young people, their present and future thinking, decision making, political and citizen choices. There are several avenues of how he narrative is being crowdsourced: in the schools, families and neighborhoods.
Recognizing that the strongest lever for influencing citizen engagement and value formation in the long term perspective is working with young people, Post Bellum’s core intervention happens at the school level. Mikuláš has set up and spread to over 100 schools already the “Stories of our Neighbors” program which is a team-based and youth-championed, six month long program embedded into history classes. It guides teenagers to explore witness perspectives on key historical events and lessons they have learned from history (which are in many cases related to the role of empathy, cooperation, active citizenship in human development). Events covered range from the Second World War to decades that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain. Along with deep in-person conversation with historical eye-witnesses, students learn how to cross-check the narrative for factual accuracy by working with archive and testimonials of other witnesses, and consequently they develop an audio/video documentary. At the end of the program, they present the final product to peers and communities. As an effect of deep personal encounter, the story often remains with them the for a long time, and children often grow into its ambassadors taking up the responsibility of sharing and discussing the story and lessons learned from it with classmates, friends and their families. Moreover, this transformative experience changes young people’s perception of elderly (“I will never call old ladies beldams after this program!” as one participant put it), ignites respect to their experiences. Graduates of the program show a much higher interest to reading and history, have a higher propensity to join youth organizations, and often become those initiating a public discussion on current political situation, social issues and human rights situation at their schools, communities, or social media. To date more there are over 1000 alumni of the “Stories of our Neighbors” and the program is now being replicated to every region of the Czech Republic through the network of engaged students and teachers who upon completion become peer coordinators.
Analyzing the outcomes of the school program “”Stories of our neighbors”, Mikuláš has recognized that it is not only youth who can benefit from such transformative experience but people of all generations, and that deep encounters with historical witnesses should happen not only in the neighborhoods but should start in the families. This led him and Post Bellum to set up the “Stories of 20th century”, a public competition open to people of all ages that encourages them to find, document and share a story of a historical witness within their own families. This program thus triggers (often the first and previously tabooed) deep conversation about history and its lessons within the family circle and by this also contributes to strengthening intergenerational bonds. Thousands of families have participated in this program already, with over 600 documentaries submitted each year.
In order to intensify and diversify the process of story collection, Mikuláš also works with over 400 “capturers of history” from all walks of life on the regular basis. These core volunteers not only produce new stories, but also manage the whole database: review and cross tag all uploaded documentaries in order to ease the navigation in the Post Bellum database. Many of these core volunteers are students of pedagogical faculties, future teachers of history, which allows Mikuláš to influence the educational system from within. Today most of the Czech students of pedagogical faculties with specialization in history by the time they graduate from university have already personally participated in creating the history narrative themselves and have worked with oral history database of Mikuláš’s organization and thus internalize new methods of teaching history early on.
Each documentary of historical witness’ narrative produced through the aforementioned school, family or volunteer programs is uploaded to the Memory of Nation portal, the largest crowdsourced and publicly accessible online collection of oral history in Europe. The interactive documentary museum today counts over 5000 narratives and is easily accessible to everybody.
Parallel to the process of crowdsourcing the narrative, Mikuláš is strategically using this rich and lively material to sensitize even wider population about history, its lessons, human rights and importance of overcoming indifference to public life. He does so by 1. influencing the national history curriculum and teaching methodology, 2. incentivizing media (radio, TV) to make sharing crowdsourced historical narrative and role-models from history a part of their culture, 3. “surrounding” people with history in their everyday life by connecting familiar geographical places both in cities and rural areas with witnesses’ stories, 4. igniting the movement of decentralized and self-empowered exploration of history in the regions, 5. empowering young people to practice changemaking skills and thus anchor their learnings from encounters with historical witnesses.
First, Mikuláš aims to influence national history curriculum and teaching methodology in order to transform lessons of history from a boring litany of facts into a platform, enabling kids to explore, develop critical thinking and relate to the rich and exciting fabrics of history created by a combination of values, decisions and choices of many human beings. In order to achieve this, he is supporting teachers with changing their own approach to history lessons, ways of presenting historical materials and role of children in the learning process. Mikuláš and his team have developed, refined, and with the approval of Education ministry and support of municipalities widely spread a set of engaging complementary materials allowing teachers and students to explore historical events from different perspectives of thousands of historical witnesses. The distribution of these materials to schools is enabled through the free online platform “We Didn’t Give Up” and regular trainings for incumbent and future teachers of history across the country. Using these methodological materials in class often serves as an easy bridge to the participation in the ”Story of Our Neighbors” school program.
Second, being a strong believer that learning history should not stop with graduation from school and inspiring historical role models could serve as an inspiration also for adults to trigger conversations on history in their families, Mikuláš actively cooperates with media. In the beginning, in order to reach wide and diverse audiences across the country, Mikuláš has partnered up with the Czech national radio where he has co-founded a weekly radio program “Stories of 20th century” that has quickly grown to be one of the most popular radio shows in the Czech Republic. Then in the partnership with the Czech national television and TV channels of other CEE countries, he has set up the annual “Memory of Nation award” which identifies and promotes role models among the interviewed historical witnesses exemplifying courage, freedom, and human dignity from among thousands of crowdsourced stories. The life broadcasting of the award ceremony annually reaches up to 100 000 -300 000 viewers in the Czech Republic and in other countries of Central Europe. Mikuláš believes that this provides Central Europeans with convincing role models speaking for value-driven decision making, empathy and changemaking.
Third, in order to “surround” people with history and its lessons in their everyday life, Mikuláš is connecting familiar geographical places both in cities and rural areas with witnesses’ stories. He is doing so with the help of the mobile application called “Places of Memory of Nation” which allows individuals and families to spend quality time together in a format of interactive quests while at the same time exploring details of nation’s history through engaging personal connections of historical witnesses and historical events to different geographical places. To date 3000 families started using it across the Czech Republic, and Mikuláš works to increase the outreach as he believes that discovering familiar places from the new perspective can cultivate responsible attitude of young people towards public life and space, and their ability for empathy and solidarity.
Fourth, Mikuláš realizes that in order to contribute to truly lasting change in people’s perception of history and its role, he needs to ignite a movement of decentralized and self-empowered exploration of history in the regions. Building on the base of over 1,300 members of “Friends of Memory of Nations” club, Mikuláš now aims to activate them so that they grow from regular donors and moral supporters into active drivers of change in the home regions. By supporting regionals ambassadors in establishing their own brick-and-mortar documentation centers of memory of nation in every region of the Czech Republic, Mikuláš believes he will contribute to activating community life around sharing and discussing history and its lessons, identifying and, if needed, supporting witnesses of historical events in the communities, bridging intergenerational gap and strengthening the commitment to human rights among people across the whole country. Mikuláš’s vision is that in the next years such a documentary center will reach each of 14 Czech regions and thus contribute to closer bonding of thousands of people.
Finally, Mikuláš believes that learning from history cannot be complete without providing young people with an opportunity to practice changemaking skills and thus anchor their learnings from encounters with historical witnesses about the value of human rights, empathy, cooperation and active civic engagement. Therefore, Mikuláš is now piloting the next engagement level for young people who have completed their interviews with historical witnesses. In partnership with another Czech education Fellow Zdenek Slejka, Mikuláš is developing a program which would encourage young people to work in groups and start their own initiatives to support elderly who often do not get enough care and support upon retirement, cultivate public space and renovate historical heritage. Such program would create a missing link between elderly and public space striving for care and grown-up “Friends of Memory of Nation” willing to donate for the causes without having an opportunity to implement the programs. Mikuláš envisions this engagement of young people as an opportunity for them to very tangibly connect with the historical legacy of previous century and experience the success of bringing about small change that would help them bring about more significant changes in the future.
Mikuláš’s approach to scaling consists in working with stakeholders willing to replicate his work and open source methologies which helps him to start bringing his work beyond the Czech Republic, e.g. to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Germany. Mikuláš is also aware that in order to solidify his scaling strategy, he needs to establish solid impact measurement, focusing not only on the outcomes of his programs at schools but also on the framework change in the long-term perspective, on how his programs influence young people’s decisions to enter civil society or political arena as active shapers and contributors.
A boy born in the era of normalization in Czechoslovakia and surrounded by dissident family, Mikuláš witnessed the acts of civic courage and participation, dilemmas of daily ethical decisions and passionate determination stemming from people’s strong believes early on in his childhood. His father was active in dissident work against the communist establishment, was imprisoned for a while and was one of the signatories of famous Czechoslovakian civic initiative addressing to human rights violation called Charta 77.
His own first changemaking experience came in his teenage years, after the political breakthrough in 1989. Together with his friends, he started to work on restoring from scratch a scout group which had been forbidden for nearly two decades. The culture and deep relationships within the scout community has positively influenced Mikuláš’s whole life, leading to his consciousness of three key pillars including family, scout principles and values and faith and. His work has been imprinted with these ever since.