Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Hungary
Fellow since 2016
This description of Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi's work was prepared when Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .

Introduction

Tessza is fostering the culture of democracy through the support of changemaking and movement building among marginalized populations and shifting the focus of Central European citizen sector organizations from service-delivery to framework change and addressing the root causes of social problems through impact-driven, systems changing interventions.

The New Idea

In the context of Hungarian government taking an authoritarian turn leading to weakening of civil society, citizen sector organizations themselves being mainly focused on direct service delivery, and online citizens’ platforms - on empowering mostly already active middle class, Tessza aspires to alleviate social injustice in Hungary by cultivating the culture of changemaking among people who find themselves at the margins of society. She is shifting the self-definition of people facing housing poverty, refugees, physically and mentally disabled, sexual minorities and others, from seeing themselves as a target group of services and beneficiaries of charitable activities to growing into first-class citizens and becoming changemakers and thus addressing their individual and collective powerlessness by fostering the culture of self-efficacy and social movements.

Tessza’s work has evolved from a single-headed activism for the rights of homeless people to the master organizing of a broad social housing movement in Hungary and later to the creation of an empowerment hub, the School of Public life, for people facing different kinds of social exclusion, which has the potential to scale up the social movement culture in other Central and Eastern European countries.
Having originally founded an initiative City Is for All working with people facing housing poverty, Tessza from the very beginning was not confining her efforts to physically putting homeless people into housing only. From beginning on, she has been successfully working to stop criminalization of poverty and homelessness, put an end to violations of human rights of poor people by the Hungarian authorities, and draw the attention of general public to this situation by empowering people facing housing poverty to understand their rights, and learn how to defend their rights individually and collectively.

Consequently, learning from her experience in the field of housing, building up peer support groups and an effective broad alliance of CSOs, Tessza has co-founded an educational and empowerment hub, the School of Public Life. Through this hub, she is building the culture of social movements in Hungary by empowering people who experience different types of social inclusion to organize around political education, grow into champions of their own rights, peer mentors and even movement builders in order to join efforts in advancing human rights as universally accepted values in Central European society. She also underpins her work. by shifting the focus of major Hungarian citizen sector organizations from direct service-delivery to addressing the root causes of social problems through impact-driven, systems changing interventions owned by those previously considered as target groups.

The Problem

More than two decades after the transition to a multiparty democracy, Hungarian society suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Since 2010, the Hungarian government has taken an anti-poor and authoritarian turn that has led to growing poverty and the weakening of civil society. In 2013 the Hungarian parliament passed the package of constitutional amendments that can be considered an affront to democracy, ranging from significant limitations of freedom of expression to criminalization of homelessness.

And while more and more citizens become attracted to the exclusionary and nationalistic ideas of the extreme right, which has been quite successful at recruiting frustrated and disappointed members of the Hungarian population, organizations that provide democratic values, social justice and inclusion are not deeply embedded in society and many of them fail to secure the active involvement of citizens.

Despite the democratic transition in the early 1990s, research shows that in Hungary the power of civil society is weaker and everyday political participation is lower than in Western Europe. The citizen participation in public life is often confined to occasional donations and volunteering, the majority of the population is not equipped with the skills to participate in formal and informal politics, articulate their needs and voice concerns, defend their interests and influence decisions that affect them.

In general, decisions are made above people’s heads and grassroots efforts are not strong enough to exercise democratic control over elected representatives, while media mostly controlled by the government cannot become an effective watchdog either. This weak democratic culture at the collective level therefore leads to meaningful political participation being confined to a relatively small urban elite.

Political disempowerment is particularly true for vulnerable citizens. Here belong especially those living in poverty (about one third of the total population) and the Roma (around 10% of the population), but other groups as refugees, physically and mentally disabled and sexual minorities are also affected. While voter turnout may not be significantly different for various demographic groups, there are vast differences in political awareness and social impact according to social and cultural capital. For example, in 2012 in the context of an information vacuum about homeless people in Hungary, Tessza coordinated a survey with them according to which 58% of homeless respondents acknowledged that they were either not aware of their human and civil rights, or only partially aware of them.

Furthermore, while 75% of them have experienced discrimination for being homeless, only 9% of them have filed an official complaint. Larger representative studies indicate that an extremely small fraction of those who suffer some form of discrimination talk about these challenges, let alone report it to an official authority. Therefore, the absence of strong collective advocacy leads to policies that penalize poverty, reinforce wealth inequality and discriminate against ethnic and sexual minorities.

Most existing civil society organizations that work with marginalized populations in Hungary provide crisis relief or professionalized services, but often shy away from participating openly in public life, exercising meaningful critique or taking a firm stand in pressing social issues. Neither do citizen sector organizations provide citizenship education, actively support poor people to speak up for themselves, fully participate in public life and form social movements with a strong social base and a positive long-term vision. And while there the number of changemakeing initiatives in Hungary has been increasing in recent years, emerging social initiatives are often segregated along class lines and demonstrations are dominated by middle-class intellectuals. As a result, poor and marginalized citizens know little about the institutions and processes of democracy and have hardly any representation through either elections or civic associations.

The Strategy

Tessza’s strategy to alleviate social injustice in Hungary can be paralleled to an onion which is gradually adding new layers of complexity and impact, while Tessza is deepening her understanding of the root causes of the problem. Her work has evolved from a single-headed activism for the rights of homeless people to the master organizing of a broad social housing movement in Hungary and later to the creation of an empowerment hub, the School of Public life, which helps people facing exclusions and citizen sector organizations to effectively connect and organize around social movements. She is now working with the populations across the whole country and has representation in two major Hungarian cities.

Tessza’s first initiative was City Is for All that aimed to encourage people facing housing poverty to understand their rights and recognize situations when they are violated, speak up, learn how to defend their rights individually and collectively. To this end, the organization Tessza has co-founded, The City is for All, recruits people experiencing housing poverty across the country through a large network of partner CSO’s and tailors learning opportunities that enable people living in housing poverty to explore the root causes of their social challenge and start envisioning solutions. In the words of Habitat for Humanity director, “in a context in which systems funded by the government treat homelessness as a technical problem, seek to put homeless people into institutions and manage rather than enable their clients (…) helping a movement owned and run by homeless people to address these issues is revolutionary”. Newly recruited members who face housing poverty participate in interactive learning courses and peer discussions about the root causes of homelessness and poverty together with people coming from the middle class who feel the urge to join forces with them. Ensuring the mixed composition of participants (80% people are facing housing poverty , 20% have secure housing) provides for a unique and effective cross-pollination between the social classes and also leads to stronger social cohesion when both groups bring in their insights, experiences as well as social skills and cultural capital.

The next, more advanced engagement opportunity for people facing housing poverty is engaging in Participatory Action Research which allows them to grow from research objects to researchers, which goes completely against the existing practices of research institutions. This empowers them to decide what questions and how to ask among their peers in order to better understand the roots of their own problems and experiences. This way of collecting and analyzing data not only provides a much more accurate and very much needed picture of the needs and concerns of an overlooked group in a country, but also serves as a strong empowerment mechanism for affected people to develop and own the solutions in the future.

After recruited members come to better understand the social challenges they are facing and are equipped with data that they have acquired themselves, Tessza’s organization equips them with necessary skills and tools for organizing effective self –help groups and hands-on advocacy. As a result, homeless changemakers become active spokespeople about the overlooked injustices they face and are able confidently recruit peers and work together with them in order to improve their situation. Examples of collective action organized by people facing housing poverty include hundreds of cases of physical protection of people from being forcefully evicted without any alternative placement and stopping the illegal demolitions of shacks by the authorities. The variety of precedents that this collective action is creating thus pushes authorities to adopt new standards and norms in social housing field.

After years of building The City is for All as a grassroots and deliberately decentralized housing rights initiative, Tessza has come to understand that the collective action of the empowered people facing housing poverty alone will not be enough to achieve true systems changes in the housing field. What is needed is the development of a coordinated effort of several citizen sector organizations which have been working on the same cause but in isolation. As a result, in parallel to further developing the changemaker empowerment work of the City is for All, she has started to develop and orchestrate a social housing movement in which multiple citizen sector organizations clearly distribute roles, share resources and coordinate actions.

In Tessza’s vision at least four different kinds of organizations have to be at play for a strong housing movement to develop: first, a strong grassroots political organization pointing at human rights violations,; second, a more formal lobbying organization that provides viable alternatives and demonstrates tangible solutions ,third, a legal advocacy organization that provides legal advice in concrete cases and works for large-scale legislative changes and fourth, an organization that provides high quality direct services for people in need of secure housing. With this vision, Tessza is working on maximizing the collective impact of organizations like The City is for All, Habitat for Humanity, Streetlawyer and From the Street to Housing Association (most of which she has co-founded herself). She pairs this effort with the activated energy of empowered people facing housing poverty, awareness raising campaigns driven by over 50.000 movement supporters and influencing the way policemen and social workers are trained. All this results in effective pressure on the government, creation of important legal precedents that prevent future arbitrary violation of human rights and gradual development of a palette of solutions that the state can offer to a person who finds themselves on a street.

Having participated in the development of a successful housing movement in Hungary from scratch, Tessza has also consequently realized that for a social movement to make a real difference in the long run, it cannot be an isolated as a “light in the darkness”. It needs to be deeply embedded in the citizen sector and a broad culture of democracy where citizens and politicians are well-versed in a wide range of democratic practices and participation. In order to avoid for the housing movement in Hungary to work in a vacuum, Tessza has thus established the School of Public Life with the goal to, on the one hand, trigger new diverse and impactful social movements in Central Europe owned by people facing different types of social exclusion, and, on the other hand, strengthen citizen sector organizations in Hungary by helping them gain strategic focus, move from direct service and aspire for systems and framework change.

Established in 2014 in Budapest, the School of Public Life builds on the distilled experience of the Hungarian housing movement and other global social movements and aims to lead participants to act on systems and framework change level. Participants consisting of people facing social exclusion and members of existing CSOs go through the four stages of learning and development into a full-fledged citizen: 1. become interested in public life and not be afraid of political engagement, 2. gain critical consciousness about how oppression and exclusion work in society, 3. learn practical skills about how to become a changemaker, 4. either join an existing changemaker initiative or start a new one. To this end the School of Public Life has four pillars of activities - education, research, publications, and strategic planning.

Through its educational activities, the School annually works with around 500 potential leaders, mostly from the social groups facing exclusion and professionals working with them coming from across the country. A palette of theoretical and practical trainings of diverse length and intensity includes , but is not limited to strategic planning, community mobilizing and organizing, social and gender inequalities, using public data and media work and studying the practical learnings of various social movements in human history. As a result of participation in the trainings of the School of Public Life, studying comparing and discussing, participants point out their increased readiness to engage in public discourse, confidently use the variety of methods to stand up against injustice, and suggest alternative solutions. Interestingly, those who today serve as trainers, experts and educators for participants of the School of Public Life are those currently/formerly facing housing poverty who have developed leadership potential through their engagement in the housing movement.

Some of these newly emerged leaders start their own initiatives, public campaigns and work on triggering social movements, as in the example of LGBTI movement in Hungary.
Moreover, through involving more and more people facing exclusion into participatory action research and then consequently distributing publications among marginalized individuals through them, Tessza and her colleagues provide thousands of people facing poverty and exclusion with greater access to critical political opinions and analysis as well as how-to models to engage in changing society.

The fourth leg of the School of Public Life, support with strategic planning to citizen sector organizations, results in these organizations increasing understanding of the need for framework change and empowerment of former beneficiaries as opposed to direct service to them.

Therefore, the School of Public Life has become an enabler both for newly born social initiatives, such as social housing and LGBTI movements, and established initiatives, e.g. working with people with disabilities, to connect, maximize social impact and collectively develop an effective shield against civil society stigmatization coming from the government. In the long-term perspective, Tessza’s work strengthens the potential of citizen sector as a whole to be an active voice in shaping the society. In order to achieve greater impact, in the next 3-5 years Tessza and her colleagues plan to replicate the model in other cities in Hungary and through partnerships – in other countries of Central Europe.

In order to address the root causes of the problem, the School encourages its participants to assume leadership roles in articulating challenges, acquire data through participatory action research and develop communication and coordination skills in order to organize peers in self-advocacy movements.

The Person

Tessza’s first encounter with being different from the majority population happened in her teenage years when she was exploring the Jewish roots of her own family. This is when her curiosity about the motivations and behaviors of people and particularly of those discriminated against started to develop.

The first time she actively stepped up against injustice was when at the age of around nine she learned about the cruel treatment animals receive before they end up as pets in families. Her first public action was therefore to organize her classmates into a spontaneous action to buy out animals from the pet shops to save them from poor conditions. Tessza’s interest in veterinary and ethology (animal behavior), however, was soon out-shadowed by her interest in human behavior and anthropology as she wanted to understand the motivations behind people’s choices that puzzled her or where totally opposite to hers. From her university years, she started to consciously organize scientific empathy experiments for herself with the goal to study and understand the behavior of people very different from her own such as the consumers of shopping malls for example. Recognizing the importance of developing empathy and understanding others cultures, Tessza devoted most of her time in her 20’s to developing opportunities for young people from Hungary and other European countries to experience intercultural exchange.

Tessza’s first close encounter with homelessness happened when at the age of 22 she read an article about the Budapest municipal authority announcing that “in the name and interest of decent city dwellers” it aims to “clean the streets of graffiti, street vendors and homeless people”. Not being able to identify with the statement, Tessza delved into researching the topic, joined an activist group that organized around housing issues and later was key in initiating a small demonstration against a local law on silent begging. Even with 50 people being present at the town hall, they managed to block the law prohibiting silent begging in public spaces. Diving deeper into the topic of social housing or rather its insufficiency in Hungary and studying proven models from abroad (for example, “Picture the homeless” in the US), she soon realized that from the three stages of doing good (1.pure charity, 2. organizing for target groups and 3.empowering the target group itself) she had so far been fighting for homeless people but now with them and had not yet actively engaged and empowered homeless citizens themselves.

Tessza then co-founded The City Is For All group, the first in Hungary to consciously recruit homeless people and housed allies as activists in one group and support them in joining forces in the fight for dignified social housing. Consequently, Tessza embarked on the path of building up a housing movement building on the key principles of her favorite sport, fencing, such as being respectful with the counterpart but out-smarting them and taking the initiative away from them without hurting. This led her organization to become an influential player widely supported by the general public and often feared by politicians. As the next logical step in her work, Tessza has established the School of Public Life in order to actively share her experience and foster the culture of social movements in Hungary by educating people from diverse social groups facing exclusion how to organize and join forces.