Adrian Kowalski

Fellow Ashoka
adrian-kowalski_0.jpg
Poland
Fellow Since 2004
This description of Adrian Kowalski's work was prepared when Adrian Kowalski was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .

Introduzione

Adrian is reforming the way social welfare services are provided to the long-term unemployed and their families in industrialized centers in Poland. His approach builds on the foundational principle of partnership (rather than charity) and offers municipalities a low-cost alternative to rehabilitating some of Poland’s most underserved communities.

La nuova idea

Starting in the industrialized south-central region of Poland, Adrian is enabling a miracle of transformation for those communities most in need of help. The approach he is pioneering looks at street children in context: as part of a larger systemic failure that can be corrected by reaching parents as well as children, fostering personal and group responsibility, and reestablishing the interdependence of children and parents as well as of families and the greater community. Having demonstrated the efficacy of his neighbor-to-neighbor approach, he is now redesigning the way close-to-the-ground social institutions work. Adrian sees an important opportunity in the country’s recent move to devolve budgetary responsibilities to the district level. He shows governors the humanity and efficacy of the approach and offers it up as a low-cost alternative to the rehabilitation efforts currently in use.

Il problema

The region of Silesia, where Adrian has begun his work, is known for its coalmines, steelworks, and car and heavy machinery factories. Its recent history reveals two periods of rapid change, the first starting 30 to 40 years ago, when Poles from all regions poured in to fill jobs and take advantage of the state-funded offerings of newly-built apartments, job placements, regular salaries, and other attractive incentives. The second, which came along in the 1990s, devastated the communities that had just gotten situated: industry privatized, thousands lost their jobs, and factories and mines closed down. Laid off a decade ago, many adults survive on the little money that comes in from social aid. Similar communities exist throughout the country and the Central European region, sharing a history of rapid industrialization, and now a common set of urgent problems. These are the most bleak, most hopeless communities. The infrastructure for industry persists, as does the memory of better times.

In the neighborhoods where Adrian has focused his effort so far, the social infrastructure that once supported children and families is likewise in a state of disrepair, many would say total collapse. Neighbors are mistrustful of each other, if they know each other atall. Alcohol dependency affects 90 percent of families, and one in three adults is unemployed and has been for years. Parents go on episodic several-day-long binges, leaving their children to fend for themselves on the streets. Such children create surrogate families by banding up with peers in whose company they find social standing and security. These informal groups, born of necessity, meld into crime, prostitution, and drug rings, and children end up dropping out of school altogether, developing chemical dependencies of their own, and resorting to petty theft to feed themselves.

The solution proposed by municipal aid efforts and preferred by the police is: take the child in dire straits or living temporarily on the streets out of the family, send her to a centrally managed correctional center, then return her once she seems healed. The premise is sound, as is the intention. Many children and teenagers show progress while in the centers but return to an environment that hasn’t changed and fall apart all over again. Moreover, the costliness of this approach—a rehab or correctional center can cost the state as much as 12,000 zloty (US$3,200) per month per child—suggests the need for real rethinking. It’s a need that many governors are considering carefully as Poland enters a period of budgetary decentralization, and governors struggle to fit into their already-tight allocations aid for the most desperate communities. They are looking for citizen-led efforts that show results, but the citizen sector has come up short, with most groups addressing one problem only—alcoholism, drug use, unemployment—and doing it with narrow vision.

La strategia

Adrian aims to keep children who end up in the streets in the community, which requires changing the whole community, which in turn requires establishing an enabling tone of partnership in all activities. Through his Katowice-based organization, Adrian is demonstrating the viability of his approach; to spread the effort to similarly destitute communities throughout Poland (and more broadly), he works with citizen organizations and social welfare professionals, helping them to re-imagine their role, to develop and apply professional standards, and to link efforts to realize results.

Adrian first arranges pairs of “street pedagogues” (one male and one female) to involve the children first, not only because they are the main beneficiary group but also because children provide the link with parents and the community. They find the children in the streets, and start a conversation, come back the next day, start a ballgame, come back the following day to talk and play again. They establish trust by being the only counted-on aspect in many of these children’s lives. After an initial period, and usually in response to a child’s stated needs—he is hungry, for instance—Adrian and his team invite the children to join them at the nearest of the organization’s youth centers. They ask to speak with the children’s parents first, though, and if they are told that the parents are drunk or don’t care, they insist on speaking with them anyway. Getting to the parents serves two purposes: the first, to establish trust with the parents by introducing themselves and explaining their aim, and second, to simply meet the parents because the change for the child must start with a change in the family.

The Katowice-based effort has two youth centers—one near a railway station, the other in a residential neighborhood, a recent gift from the mayor of Katowice. Both have recreational rooms, a kitchen, beds for children and teenagers who need a place to sleep for a night or longer, and round-the-clock adult supervision. The children and teenagers (ages 5 to 20) who are part of the network may come to the centers as often as they like; 30 to 40 stop by everyday. The centers offer a structured environment with some rules and a lot of room for personal choice. Children learn self-reliance and responsibility through group accountability. An illustration of the kind of thinking that goes into center’s operations (and the kind of thinking that undergirds Adrian’s approach generally) is found in how meals and food preparation are handled. Children—mixed-age groups of, say, 8 to 12 at a given time—are given a small allocation of 2 zloty each (about US$0.50) per meal. They can spend this on their own, or they can choose to pool their money, buy the groceries, and prepare a proper meal in which they all partake. Children learn to act in the group’s best interests; they learn to consider the needs of others, a marked shift from the survival techniques they have learned. Over time, and through frequent voluntary visits of an hour or an afternoon, participating children develop friendships, play sports together, watch movies, and eat together.

To restore a healthy interdependency of families within community, Adrian and his team very quietly guide small projects that can be undertaken in groups more easily than alone. The projects—renovating someone’s house, for example—provide a framework for establishing trust and mutual reliance. An initial project lays the groundwork for neighbors to help out in more serious situations when children and their safety are at stake—for example, when a parent goes on a three-day binge, locking their children out of the house, or beating them. The neighbor-to-neighbor approach Adrian and his colleagues enable guarantees that another family will take the children for those few days so they will not sleep on the streets.

The impact of the approach is evident in ways large and small. Participating children stay in school rather than drop-out or pursue paths to crime or fall into addiction. Adults begin to care; they arrange small bouquets in their windows and pick up the litter. Journalists have begun to take notice of the transformation Adrian has begun, and publicize the effort throughout the country.

Adrian and his team are ready to spread the effort throughout Poland and more broadly. They are doing this along several parallel tracks. The first aims to train other street workers and professionals in his method, showing them what he and his team have learned and providing intensive one-year job shadowing and mentoring opportunities for new recruits. Careful selection of the recruits is non-negotiable. Last year, the first class of 20 recruits were paired with mentors, from whom they began to learn the principles that guide the approach—partnership, empathy (but not sympathy), and neighbor-to-neighbor reliance. They gain experience through observation first, then through action. Adrian expects to increase the training capacity to 80 by January 2005.

Adrian is spreading his approach through associations of professionals that work on reintegration and social aid issues, for which he has held several conferences with three hundred participants each. He helps them re-imagine their roles as enabling a change rather than prescribing action, delivering welfare, ortaking the high moral ground. With this broader network, he is working to set professional standards and reorient aid efforts to enabling self-reliance and full citizenship through the strategies he has demonstrated in the Katowice communities.

Adrian is encouraging the adoption of the approach by governors around the country, for whom he arranges night shifts in the communities—he calls these shifts “shock therapy for the bureaucrats.” Particularly effective in securing local government buy-in is the economic argument for the adoption of his approach. It is far cheaper than existing reactive approaches—300 zloty (less than US$100) per month per family—and far more effective than hand-outs.

Adrian’s organization has a core team of four and is otherwise largely volunteer-based. In fact, he has designed a “professional volunteer” track for committed volunteers who contribute 40 hours or more per month. (There are 30 in this role now.) Important to the strength, financial sustainability, and national reach of the effort is its “Circle of Friends”—a coalition of 1,500 lawyers, doctors, and other supporters around the country who provide some funds and arrange in-kind donations (such as vans to take children on recreational trips), but most of all are committed to the values of the organization and offer a broad base of citizen support.

La persona

Adrian grew up in a Catholic family in the industrial region of southern Poland. His early involvement in the church offered opportunities to experiment with a variety of leadership roles and styles, and provided early lessons in social justice and responsibility. As a teenager, he led groups of ministrants and taught parish children. He grew interested in children’s families as well, and saw parents torn apart by alcohol dependency, demoralized by chronic unemployment, and neglectful of their children. Very small children lived in insecurity, not sure when they should go home or in what state they might find their mothers and fathers—loving, drunk, hungry, abusive. What he saw compelled him to go to seminary, which he did, becoming a priest in his early 20s.

Leading a group of clerics in 1991, Adrian organized a Holy Mass for homeless people at the Central Railway Station in Katowice, an effort that introduced him to the problem of glue-sniffing among children and teenagers. One 10-year-old boy spent an afternoon and evening with him and led him through his world, where Adrian met hundreds of children and teenagers living on the streets, some temporarily, some longer-term. They slept in makeshift paper shelters thrown together in heating tunnels, giant water pipes, abandoned playgrounds; many used drugs and drank. This experience of this other world inspired in Adrian deep empathy and a resolve to fix the system that drove children and their parents to such desperate measures.

Adrian began to spend much of his free time with the children he met at the station. He found and talked to their parents, solved some of the family problems himself, and took the parents along to social aid centers and health clinics to help when he could not. With minimal professional experience or training, but led by his own intuition, he began to put together what would grow into a more formal support network for the children and their families. At first he gathered 6, then 30 people he knew he could trust to organize activities, such as summer holidays, and arrange food and clothes. He saw that the expense was not great; in fact, it was nothing really. The important part was setting a tone of partnership and mutual respect and using resources—time, energy, money—efficiently and in support of the partnership.

Adrian recently stepped away from the priesthood and runs his organization full-time.