The future depends on all of us: collective action and lessons from Poland

Published: 15 July 2021

“It’s important to work together as we are stronger that way, especially to counter governmental attempts to silence us,” emphasises Dorota Setniewska, NGO Klon/Jawor Association.

A governmental attempt to restrict women’s rights in 2020, a proposed tax reform in 2021 that can shrink the space for independent media, and governmental efforts to curtail the judiciary’s independence marked an eventful period for civil society organisations in Poland. Amidst all developments, Polish civil society has learnt that united actions have more impact than individual attempts to counter the worrying trends.

“It’s important to work together as we are stronger that way, especially to counter governmental attempts to silence us,” emphasises Dorota Setniewska, NGO Klon/Jawor Association. “Unfortunately, a lot of people in Poland still don’t understand the added value of CSOs. We want to improve the public understanding of the nature of civil society organisations and change the perception that CSOs are mainly involved in charity work,” explains Dorota.

In times when tricky legislation drafts are making their way through, a better understanding of the role of CSOs in the public debate is needed. Having realised that already in 2018, the Civitates-supported Klon coalition is uniting actors from the civic and cultural sectors in Poland within its campaign ‘Civic organisations. It works’. The campaign aims to build the public perception that the existence of a free and independent civil society is essential to democracy.

As part of this long-term campaign in December 2020 and January 2021 different civic actors shared what they want Poland to be like in 2060. With the message that politicians don’t have a monopoly over people’s visions of the future, the coalition’s campaign aimed to call people to action and show them that the future of Poland is in their hands.

After conducting a nationwide survey, it became clear that people in Poland don’t have a sense of what CSOs are doing and how important their role is in upholding Polish democracy. The need was well-defined – civil society organisations needed a joint communication strategy to help people understand the civic sector and its work. Often associated with charity organisations working with kids, CSOs are not perceived as central to civic engagement. Under the slogan ‘Civic organisations. It works’, the campaign has the ambition to change this.

“The survey we conducted showed that the connotation for many people in Poland of NGOs is still somehow related to the government. Another conclusion from the survey was that most don’t see too many effects of NGO’s work, that people are tired of bad news and in need of more positivity. Based on these results we built our campaign. Our strategy focused on sharing positive, emotional messages while showing the stories of people working professionally in CSOs and the scale of their work,” adds Dorota.

To expand its reach in 2020, the Klon/Jawor coalition reached out to Pismo, a monthly long-read magazine that Civitates started supporting in 2021 within its fund on independent public-interest journalism. Together under the title ‘Common good’, they collaborated on a 12-piece photo series portraying civil society organisations or individuals from rural areas in Poland working for the better lives of their communities.

A photo with information about the organisation portrayed was published each month on the front pages of the magazine. The aim was to invite people to engage with those organisations whether as a direct contributor or as a volunteer.

We wanted to start our magazine with something good and give hope to our readers in the troubling times when the Covid-19 pandemic was unfolding. We wanted to show them that there are a lot of opportunities for action despite the political fuss in Poland. We were glad when Klon reached out to us because they work on the ground with initiatives from all over the country and were an ideal partner for what we had in mind,” explains Magdalena Kicinska, editor-in-chief at Pismo.

The photo stories combined different visions of what common good means to the people represented. “People felt hopeless and powerless in the pandemic. We wanted to challenge that notion and inspire them to act or get involved in and be part of the change on a local level. Small acts give people the perspective that they can change the reality around them. The idea of common good is still not very strong in Poland. Few people are engaged in civic organisations. I hope this will change in the coming years,” elaborates Magdalena.

To be able to fully estimate the impact of their campaign, the Klon/Jawor coalition will run a follow-up survey later in 2021. “We can already see that the level of trust is a bit higher. It will be a challenge to check to what extent it is a result of our work as a lot has changed in Poland since the start of the campaign,” explains Dorota.   

“The survey also showed that people expect the work of civil society to be professional, at the same time they expect it to be voluntarily. Our priorities for the moment lie in showing the work of CSOs. At a later stage, we would like to call people to act and support CSOs, a further step will be to convey the message that CSOs also need financial support.” 

The start of Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdowns forced the initial campaign design to change. Civil society organisations working on some of the most acute topics such as climate change, education, equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and animal rights prepared short videos that got popular in social media under #ItDependsOnUs.

“Climate change and other societal issues didn’t stop with the pandemic, so we needed to do something to inspire people to stay engaged and active. The short videos presented a positive vision of the future and we decided to explore this further and show those visions in public spaces. The main message is that people can act on these issues today to achieve the future for Poland they want. We also started talking to artists and invited them to illustrate some of those visions as street monuments of the future that represent the positive change. In the end, we projected these illustrations on buildings in Warsaw.”

The campaign has been a huge collective action that was the result of a joint effort that brought together actors from all corners of civic life in Poland. “We had a lot of support from the coalition members. Cultural institutions were also happy to support us not only with giving us the space for the projections but also with PR work, the same goes for some media organisations. This project wasn’t about CSOs anymore – all entities that shared our ideas united.”

The protests on the streets, stirred by governmental attempts to impose restrictive abortion rights, were also evident in the campaign through artistic representations of what was taking place on the streets. “The political situation further pushed people to collaborate for a better future,” adds Dorota.

When asked how she imagines Poland in 2060, Dorota shared that: “Young movements for change are popular in Poland and I am impressed with those active young people and convinced that when they are old enough to be in the Polish government, our democracy will be in good hands.”