Monday, March 29, 2010

Mtshteka, Gori, and Borjumi -30 March

What a day.

Twenty of us took two people carriers for a tour of some local Public Achievement sites.  Unlike the last three days, which we fortunately spent indoors doing the workshop, today was brilliant: clear skies (other than the Tblisi smog), light wind, and a very warm sun - it was maybe 60 degrees most of the day.

Our first stop was in Mtshteka, the ancient capital of Georgia.  There is no PA happening, but there was also no way that our Georgian hosts were going to let us leave Georgia without seeing Mtshteka.  The center of the city, which is beautiful and clean, is the cathedral, built in 600 CE.  It was beautiful, as are all cathedrals, and Mass was happening while we were there.  I bought some gifts (this is very unusual for me, since I am often the one buying gifts at the airport on my way out) at the market in Mtsheteka, but our stay was brief.

We took beautiful backroads to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.  What a strange place!  There is a massive statue of Stalin in the town's square.  There's a Stalin museum, complete with the house in which he was born, around which has been built a covering portico.  We visited a Public Achievement project there that was fascinating.  Manana is a woman who is the leader of the local IDP community.  After going to Poland for Public Achievement training in 2007, she returned and organized the different IDP settlements using the Public Achievement process, and the results have been really encouraging.  Where once there was no running water, now there s running water; where once children had no schools, they have schools (with computers and Internet connection).  The list is long.  It is almost as if the settlements were waiting for a tool.  They had the skill, the intelligence, the wherewithal, but they didn't know how to act on this.  PA provided an avenue for their talents to travel.  We visited Manana at her headquarters (she had three cellphones - all of them ringing at one time or another during our 15 minute stay - and two computer screens shining brightly), and then we visited a settlement on the edge of Gori.  This settlement used to be a very informal wayside rest with some two-story dwellings.  Since 1993, 25 families from South Ossetia have lived there.  There is no municipal garbage removal, so they have had to figure out what to do with their waste.  There is one running water spigot for all 25 families.  They allow the water to run, this in a country where everyone is predicting a water shortage.  Public Achievement has been an organizing tool for the people of the settlement.  One family's steps - the dwellings are two-story - were so rickety that they had to stop living on the second floor, so they all agreed to fix the steps.  The government supplied the materials, but the people had to provide the L-shaped design, pour the concrete slabs, and build the stairs.  The families wanted a kindergarten, so they used PA to organize the work and how it would be done by the community.  The families wanted a computer classroom, complete with Internet connection, and so they worked with Manana to gather new computers.  How they created their network, I don't know, but it is an impressive room.  The women, after attending a PA training about social entrepreneurship, gathered some money, purchased a loam, and have been weaving wool.  They create beautiful tapestries, which they paint and sell.  They used PA as an organizing tool to plan and implement a room in which the women can do their weaving and sewing.  It's very, very impressive.

After a lunch of Coke and meat-filled dumplings (a ground meat in salty broth wrapped in an egg noodle), we drove from Gori to Borjumi. The last 30 miles, the highway was wedged between a brimming Mktvari River and 1000-foot cliffs and bluffs.  Borjumi was a popular resort village during the Soviet Union era - it is also Georgia's Evian, the site of Borjumi water, which frankly tastes a bit acrid to me, but each to his own:) - and when the displacement of Ossetians occurred in 1993, 400 people were moved into an old 12-story sanatorium.  Julie and Ala were raving about how much nicer it was since their last visit in the fall (new windows, the vast majority of hanging wires clipped), but it was still pretty austere.  The elevators don't work, and there are no lights in the stairwells. Everywhere in the public spaces (hallways, lobbies), there was a breeze.  Aufto is the PA organizer here, and he took us to his fourth floor room.  Each room is 15-feet long and 8-feet wide.  Some families of 4, 5, or 6 live in one room.  Other families, especially extended families, remodel and add doors between rooms so that they might have 2, 3, and on rare occasions 4 rooms.  It's hard to do justice to what Aufto's team has done here.  The building was without water (!) until Aufto's PA team organized an effort to lay pipe from a stream up the mountain.  (I assume that there is no purification plant - they are drinking the water straight from the mountain stream.)  Not only did they provide water for the IDP, but they also shared the water with the rest of Borjomi.  They organized to build storage garages on the grounds behind the building.  They organized to build kitchens in 26 rooms!  (Only then did Aufto have his kitchen built.)  They organized to install toilets.  Often the kitchen and the bathroom was one room, with the sink beside the shower head with a drain in the floor. The rooms we saw had created separate kitchen and bathroom spaces.   People still cook primarily on small four-legged stoves, and the venting is very, very poor.  I asked Aufto where he learned his skills - he really is a jack-of-all-trades - and he told me that he learned them when he was in the Soviet army.  I told him that at least the Soviet army was good for something (it was the Russian army that displaced Aufto in 1993), and he laughed.  He is teaching others on his team to do the work that he learned in the army.  I was deeply moved by my trip to Borjumi, and I told Aufto that the stories that are happening here and need to be told, that I would do my best to tell my version in America.  This is my first effort.

We returned to Tblisi in the early evening, and all twenty of us ate at a Azeri restaurant near Freedom Square.  We started with a bowl of soup with small noodle-wrapped dumplings with small bits of meat and spices in the middle.  The broth was salty with cilantro and chives, and each table had two small shot glasses filled with chopped garlic in oil that we spooned into the soup.  This was served with the local bread, which is delicious.  That was followed by dolomades (at least that is how I know it): stuffed grape leaves with a creamy, garlic-y sauce.  Fabulous.  Then - we danced!  Okay, I tried to dance.  We first danced to Azeri music, and then we danced to the Georgian music.  I felt like I could keep up with the Azeri dances, but the Georgian movements were a bit too quick and intricate.  Kakha and Edgar, two young Georgians, were amazing dancers, as were the Azeri women Vafa, Shahnaz, Gulshon, and Shunafa.  Quiet Elvin, composed Elvin, was the only Azeri male who danced, and he was wonderful.  What an amazing end to a wonderful day that I will never forget.  Tonight, I had to say goodbye to my translator Rodami and to Murinha, who did much of the logistics planning  for my time in Tblisi.  They were so gracious.

Tomorrow, I leave with the Azeris for Ganja, Azerbaijan.  The details of my time in Azerbaijan are still a bit up in the air, but if I am near a computer with Internet, I'll write again tomorrow.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thanks to those who have commented! Read this and the next post, too.

Thanks to Juli, Noke, Linda, Cathy, and someone anonymous (I went to high school with someone with that name . . .).  I appreciate your comments, and I invite more.  If you have questions about this trip and would like to know more, comment here, and I'll do what I can.

So, Noke, how did Friday's training go?

Juli, I welcome the meeting, and yes, I think that in the big view, what we do is very, very similar.

The Workshop Is Finished

So much for writing everyday.  None of us had wireless for the past three days, and there was one computer with an ethernet connection.  Two-thirds of the participants are 30 years old or younger.  Figure it out for yourselves: there was no way that I was going to get to that computer!

The training was eye-opening.  I have done this same type of training - not all in three days, but the individual portions - at least 20 times over the past 10 years, but this was unique (and that's an understatement).  All of the different portions of the training went very well with one exception (more on that later).  The one-to-one training, the one-to-one meetings, the public v. private training, the power training, the core concept discussion, conducting evaluations, teaching issue-problem-action (project) - all of this went very well.  One reason it went so well was because of the Theatre of the Oppressed games and exercises.  Nickia Jensen and Ben Fink provided me with valuable feedback, and their input produced some beautiful learning moments.  The Images in Transition exercise from "powerless" to "powerful" brought tears to my eyes.  The Colombian Hypnosis with multiple people was a perfect way to begin a discussion about coaching (mentoring here).  The Rainbow of Desire exercise - thanks, Nickia! - was a perfect way to introduce the core concepts.  The informal feedback has been very positive from both Julie and Ala, the organizers of the workshop, and the participants, too.  One reason for this is that we ended every half-day with a public evaluation, and the participants were beautifully honest.  They said what confused them and where they wanted more information, and Julie, Ala, and I were able to adjust quickly.  (Dennis, you told me I would have to be "light on my feet," and you were absolutely right.  By the way, you are missed here!)

This morning, on the final day, I really thought that the one training that I had to do would be perfunctory, easy. 

Yeah.  Right.

The training was about the Public Achievement roles of the coach coordinator and the coach.  Coach coordinator went well.  I thought to myself, they have been coaches for awhile, they know what this is.  OMG - all hell broke loose.  I talked about the coach as a type of leader.  "Leader" here has a very particular meaning: one leader and the more followers, the better the leader; the leader tells people what to do; the leader KNOWS what to do.  Ouch!  This is not, of course, what Public Achievement espouses as the coach leadership style.  This happened before lunch.  Julie, Ala, and I huddled quickly, and we hashed a plan.  We went downstairs for lunch, and as I walk into the dining room, a group of seven Georgians are sitting at a table having an animated discussion.  I don't speak a word of Georgian, but my incredible translator was sitting at the table, too.  I politely asked if I could sit and "listen" (meaning Rodami would have to translate the highlights).  Let me tell you, folks - that was a learning experience.  There's something about the Georgian language: I felt like I was in the middle of a good shouting match.  Everyone speaks at the same time - literally, at one point, all six Georgians were speaking at once - and they seem to understand each other perfectly.  They behaved like a choir without a conductor.  On the final note, everyone stopped, sat back, and sighed a breath of satisfaciton.  Poor Rodami had to summarize this maelstrom.  After over 70 years of Soviet rule followed by 20 years of authoritarian leadership, I was told that Leaders in Georgian culture are often seen as the obstacle to what people want.  They helped me see the debate in a different way, and I adjusted.  The session immediately after lunch went much, much better, and we were able to move forward, but there is no way that this would have happened without them teaching me before I could teach them.

Tomorrow, we tour some of the Public Achievement sites.  First, we will visit the ancient capital of Georgia (and once I learn the name, I'll be sure to let you know what it is:)).  Then, we go to Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin (fill in your own commentary here).  Then we go to Boshumi, where there is an IDP settlement in an old sanatorium.  The sanatorium is a 15-story concrete tower where 400 IDPs have lived since 1991.  I have heard the horror stories, but tomorrow, I see it.  Then, we return to Tblisi to visit the PA sites here.

Tuesday morning, I leave with the Azeris for Ganja.  I refuse to be involved with my itinerary development (otherwise, I will get caught in the middle of a dogfight in which I have no dog).  Many of the PA sites are in Ganja city, so I know that I will visit there.  The next closest PA site is Mingechevir, a new city of 60,000 created when the Soviet Union damned the Mtkvari River.  That is probably a two-hour drive there, so that will be most of a day.  I'll spend part of Thursday morning in Ganja city before returning on a bus to Tblisi, where I will check into a hotel one block from Freedom Square.  I won't really sleep in the hotel, though, because my flight leaves at 4:00 AM on Friday, which means a taxi will pick me up at 1:15 AM.  I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to the 22-hour return trip.  I really can't:)

I don't know what my Internet connection will be like, but when I have a chance, I'll write more.

If you have questions, please use the "comment" feature, and I'll try to provide some answers. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day Two in Tbilisi

Actually, I had written an entire entry about yesterday . . . in Word, which means that it doesn't copy-and-paste into this blog.  Ahhhhh!  (My colleague Gill is shaking his head and wondering when I will ever learn.)

Yesterday, I spent the day trying to stay awake during the daylight hours.  I walked three times for a total of 4 1/2 hours (probably about 9 miles).  The walks were in the three directions possible from my hotel.  I didn't see any of the major landmarks of the city, but it was good to see people walking.  That said, this is definitely an automobile-crazy city.  Everywhere I went, I saw, heard (honking seems random), and - worst of all - smelled cars.  Crossing some streets was a matter of courage.  Usually I waited for a mother, child in hand, to begin to walk, then I would join them.  Pathetic, I know.  Throughout the walks, I not once saw a person on a bicycle nor a runner.  So it goes.

Julie, Ala, and their friend Charles flew into Tblisi this morning, and we spent the morning getting acquainted.  What amazing people!  Ala is Polish, and she told me the most remarkable story about her involvement in Solidarity.  It brought back so many memories for me of television footage from Poland throughout the 1980s, but her story put a face and a name - and a specific story - to those headline snippets.  Julia is from New Orleans, but she has lived in Poland since 1991, when she came to work at a school that Ala and her husband had started.  She is a linguist by training, and a people-person by nature.  Case in point: while walking today, we came upon an old synagogue.  She struck up a conversation in Russian with people sitting on a bench outside the synagogue, and the next thing I know, I am walking into the synagogue - kippah tentatively set upon my head - and it was beautiful!!  (I wish I could get my photos to load to the blog - I'll keep trying.)  There was an upstairs and a downstairs.  The downstairs was cold and dark; the upstairs was stunning.  The man who guided us told us that the synagogue was left untouched during the war.  (Actually, we saw two synagogues today.  The other one was completely renovated and very beautiful from the outside.  It's gates were locked.)  Had Julia not been with me, I suspect I would have taken a few photographs from the outside and been on my way.  Charles is a friend of Julia's.  He is the son of the Merrill of Merrill and Lynch fame (and the brother of the poet James Merrill).  He took his inheritance and created two remarkable schools in the U. S.:  CommonWealth in Boston and Thomas Jefferson in St. Louis (BTW, I heard on CNN this morning that the Texas Board of Education has erased Thomas Jefferson from all new history textbooks - how is this possible?).  Charles is indefatigible.  He is 89 years old, and he came along because he is curious.  May we all be as able and curious when we are Charles' age.

This afternoon, I ate my first Georgian meal.  Greens (parsley and radish greens), beans (lobi), and a steamed dumpling stuffed with a beef and pork mixture (I am bending my kosher diet in significant ways).  It was the first meal that I had had since arriving, and I felt stuffed.  My sense is that I will need to find many different and polite ways to say no to more food while I am here.  It is part of Georgian culture to be hospitable, and that means plying one with food and drink.

We walked from Freedom Square to the river.  There is money in this part of town, and I saw more than one Cadillac Escalade, some with Georgian plates and at least one with Azerbaijan plates.  Of course, this is mixed in with many street beggars.  Capitalism might benefit some, but there is no question that it does not benefit all.  (Of course, I needn't come to Georgia to know this.)

Tonight, we dine with the Azeri delegation, who arrived this afternoon, and tomorrow, the training starts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Lost Day

I left Minneapolis at 1940 on Monday evening, and I arrived in Tblisi on Wednesday at 0340.  Technically, Tuesday wasn't lost: I just spent it either walking around the Istanbul airport or flying.  It's good to be on the ground. 

I am staying just outside of the main city center in Tblisi.  It's mid-day, and I am heading out for a walk.  I hope to spice up this blog with an occasional photograph.  It's a bright and clear day, perfect for some photos of the city. 

On my flight I finished the second of two books that I read by Thomas Goltz.  This one is called Azerbaijan Diary, and the first one I read is titled Georgia Diary (plus, I actually ordered a third Goltz book, titled not-surprisingly Chechnya Diary).  Goltz was a freelance reporter in this part of the world during the late 80s and early 90s, just as the Soviet Union collapsed and the former Soviet states like Georgia and Azerbaijan were launching their nation-state independence.  They are both well-written documentaries of those times here, and they are important to the work that I am doing because Goltz explains the internal strife that led to the internally displaced people that are at the center of the Public Achievement effort here.  When Georgia became a nation, Abkhazia in the far northwestern part of the country wanted to align itself with Russia.  Georgians living in Abkhazia were at risk and fled in great numbers.  In Azerbaijan, an area called Mountainous Karabakh was claimed by Armenia, and many Azeris fled the area.  These (and many others) are the internally displaced people (IDPs), and they are essentially refugees within their own countries, many victims of violent ethnic cleansing.  Goltz's books are great starters for the contemporary histories of this region.

I am out the door in an attempt to walk my way through the jet lag.  More later.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Passport and Visa in Hand

God bless the U. S. Postal Service!  I called on Saturday, and the person with whom I spoke was calm and reassuring.  He also told me to call back on Monday.  When I called this morning, I spoke with a different person who was less assuring: "Well, let me see if I can catch your carrier . . . .  Yes, it's here."  I started to laugh, then I started to shake, then offered to smooch her on the cheek, I was so grateful.  She was rather detached in her reply: "Just pick it up at the front desk, Mr. Kuhne."  Waiting for travel documents is a bit like holding one's breath for a very, very long time.  I'm glad it's in my travel pouch!

I leave this evening at 1940.  My flight stops in Chicago, then to Istanbul, and finally to Tblisi (I'll have the same flights in reverse on my return trip).  I arrive in Tblisi Wednesday morning at 0340.  Oh, the jet lag! 

I wrote to Julie and Ala, the sponsoring agents of my trip, of my good fortune, and Ala's reply suggests that they were as relieved as I am.  Vali, my sponsor when I visit Ganje, Azerbaijan, sent me an email this morning wishing me Happy Novruz, which involves colored eggs, fires, and dancing in the fires.  Vali is 23 years old, and he has been a gracious and willing corespondent these past six weeks.  I look forward to meeting him.

I still have quite a bit to do before I leave for the airport, so I will keep this short.  I'll write more later today if I have the chance. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

To Georgia and Azerbaijan

I leave for Tblisi, Georgia, and Ganja, Azerbaijan, on Monday, March 22.  I am going on behalf of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship to train Public Achievement coaches in those two cities.  I am very excited about the trip (and not a little anxious - while the Embassy of Azerbaijan has assured me that my visa and passport are in the mail, until I have them in my hands, I will not be able to relax:)).

My trip is sponsored by PAUnite out of Poland, and the organizers, Julie and Ala, have been incredibly helpful preparing me for this work.  I strongly encourage people to view the PAUnite web site.  Of special interest to the Public Achievement community will be the descriptions of the Public Achievement team projects: they are doing some amazing work, and I've been inspired by the writings.

My primary task is to help the mentors (what Public Achievement coaches are called in both Georgia and Azerbaijan) to understand more clearly the dynamic role of coaching, as well as other Public Achievement roles such as mentor coordinator and site coordinator, so that the groups can work more collaboratively, both within their local sites and between the countries.  To that end, I have worked with Julie and Ala, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and colleagues within the Twin Cities Theatre of the Oppressed community to create a plan for the four-day gathering.  (I'll post the plan in a later blog.)

My plan is to blog almost-daily while I am in the Caucasus, and I hope that you'll enjoy the postings.  I encourage you to comment, too.  Depending on my technical abilities (and that is asking quite a bit), I'll be adding photographs and possibly short film and audio to the blog postings as well.

Let me know what you think.

New Settings for the Center for Civic Engagement blog

As of Friday, March 19, the settings for the Center for Civic Engagement blog have become public.  This means that using the blog should be much easier for everyone involved.  It also means that anyone, including those people not associated with the college nor the Center, will be able to view the blog and post comments.