Rescuing Rural Schools

Posted October 21, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

In the early 1990s, Poland began an overhaul of its political system that transferred considerable authority to local authorities, including ownership and management of the public schools. Local governments were suddenly responsible for paying for education from local funds. In many of the smaller, less densely populated areas, there wasn’t enough money to keep the schools going. As a result, thousands of schools were closed.

There is considerable debate in Poland over how many schools were closed during this period. The government claims about 2,000, while the opposition puts the figure closer to 5,000. Alina Kozinska-Baldyga, an education advocate, estimates around 4,000.

In 1999, Kozinska-Baldyga was a teacher just starting in on a PhD at the new Graduate School for Social Research in Warsaw. She received many requests from rural areas desperate to save their schools. “I still have a map that shows 800 villages from which citizens were asking for help,” she told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. “Closing a school in a village differs much from closing school in the city. Closing a school in the village basically means the slow degradation and decline of the entire community.”

The crisis in rural education compelled her to abandon her PhD and throw herself into a new project to save rural schools. “A couple of my colleagues and I started to meet in my basement and work on a plan for how we could help those people and rescue rural schools,” Kozinska-Baldyga continued. “We prepared materials and wrote the statutes for the association of rural development that in fact was supposed to replace the closed school and establish a new ‘citizens school.’ The current regulations allowed us to apply for financial subsidies from the local government as long as the proper building was found. These types of schools are similar to charter schools in the United States. We made it possible totally by accident and this was really wonderful. The fact that villages begun to establish associations and open schools was one of the most amazing things that had happened after 1990. At the moment around 500-600 schools were established as a result of this initiative.”

The problem of rural schools is part of the larger crisis facing the Polish countryside. “Because I am an archeologist, I see important changes not in 10-20 years perspective but more in terms of changes in civilizations,” Kozinska-Baldyga told me. “A long time ago, we had a matriarchal civilization, but now we are at the last stage of a patriarchal civilization. The most visible victims of this civilization are men from rural areas. They are not educated, but they own small plots of land. These are the ‘poverty farms’ that allow men to have a job and not to starve but at the same time does not produce enough for market. We have 1.3 million farms, but only 300,000 produce enough to have a good position in the market economy. The rest are so small that they only allow the family to make a living but do not bring in any additional income. The only heritage this uneducated man can leave his family is this property. Moreover, he does not have a chance to find any other job.”

Poland is going through a process that many European countries endured a generation or two ago. Ireland, for instance, went through a similar process of rural school consolidation, and it took advantage of the crisis to transform its educational system. It shifted the emphasis from vocational to higher education and thus prepared for the country’s dramatic shift from a largely agricultural society to a successful player in the information economy. Poland can access EU funds to help in this modernization process, but it’s not a change that takes place overnight.

Kozinska-Baldyga is accustomed to thinking of integrated, long-term solutions. When I met her in 1990, she was involved in an innovative multi-generational housing project called ATRIUM, a cooperative housing estate that would bring together orphans, senior citizens, disabled, and the medical staff necessary to care for this community. Twenty-four years later, we met up again and talked about the fate of this project, her views on religion and feminism, and the advantages that NGOs enjoy over political parties.


The Interview


You were saying that the June 4, 1989 election was very exciting, and if you could have voted all day you would have done so.


I was voting in Zoliborz, in my old school, where I was a pupil as a child. It was on the first floor of this commission building.


Now, tell me first of all what happened with the plan to build a housing estate with a mixture of disabled and abled people. You received three hectares , and you had some support from a foundation and you have started to identify some people who would stay there. So, what happened?


Well, first I spent one month with my family in Denmark, where we were talking about this house estate. In Denmark, our friends connected us with a group of people, including a very important person interested in this idea of a housing estate. So, Denmark wanted to help us to build this estate. But the local government, in an area north of Praga, said that they were not interested in this kind of help.

We’d prepared everything. We had three hectares and we decided to give half to a businessman, who was providing money to build a tall building to sell office space and retail. And that left half of the property to make our integrated estate. We’d prepared every paper. We had everything. Except that we needed the approval of local government.

And they said no. They said that there was no sewage system. And we showed how we were going to be very innovative with the sewage system. But they weren’t at all interested. In fact, they wanted the land back. After 1989, there was no government-approved budget for financing housing complexes for poorer citizens. Although we tried many things finally we had to give up most of our ideas. Now we had only one goal. The housing estate has been built but not in the way we would have liked it to be built. Our group fell apart. From the urban planning point of view I don’t think the implementation of our concept was right, and I am a bit ashamed of this project.

In the meantime many things have changed, and people have changed in parallel with the changes of political system, particularly in their attitude toward money. They have moved away from thinking about the common good. You can easily trace the change in social consciousness by watching the changes that took place in our cooperative.

One of the reasons I engaged in welfare work in the first place is that a very good friend of mine from university has a handicapped son, Kubus. He is now 24. When I started my community work they were living in a small two-bedroom apartment. The family was living in one room while the grandmother stayed in the other. The only thing that changed is that the grandmother died and now they can occupy both of the rooms (if you would like to make a movie I would love to show you this because I believe it is very important). They live on the fourth floor. He still goes to school, and the parents have to lift him down every day. And my friend is smaller than I am. My friend’s husband is the head of the cooperative (the one that I left). One of the businessmen engaged in the project promised that when he finished the last part of the housing estate he would build a flat for this family. That is an achievement. However they have been living in this flat for their entire life. They do not have other children because the living and financial condition did not allow them to have more.

In order to publicize the story of Kubus, I contacted and engaged with the Feminist Committee, the organization that gathered feminists who wanted to take a part in the conference in Beijing in 1995. We were working on the report regarding the current situation of Polish woman. I was working on the part about the situation of mothers with disabled children by describing the story of Kubus. Generally speaking the situation has changed a lot. There are a lot of organizations of parents with disabled children that are supporting people with disabilities and integrated schools.

These changes, however, do not apply to construction. During the Communist period, we were building 260,000 apartments. Now we build only 110,000. During the Solidarity times we were often talking about the apartment deficit while now it is assumed that the real estate market is already in abundance. At the same time my daughter, who lives in very small two-bedroom apartment with her family, which she rents from a family, keeps saying, “Mum, I cannot afford an apartment. Even the both of us can’t.” She cannot afford to take a mortgage even though there are two adults and two kids. Still they consider themselves lucky to have what they have.

I am fully aware that the tragic demographic situation in Poland is directly related to the housing conditions. My brother works as an architect and developer. Together with his team, he conducted research that showed that in 94% of the cases the decision to build a new house is related to the birth of the new child. I can assume that the housing situation only got worse since now a smaller group of people is able to enhance their housing conditions. The fact that migration is a growing phenomenon in Poland and Polish families in the UK are having three children demonstrates the poor governmental regulations. None of the political parties has proposed any good housing program. Even if there would be a political option to change housing regulations I doubt I’d believe in that change.

In our case, many inadvertent mistakes were made. Take the 2003 Land Management Bill. I am not a specialist on that matter but I will tell you what I wrote. This bill was based on the report written by a group of young town planners, lawyers, and Polish citizens that worked on the report for free. If you are familiar with Hausner reports, you know that land management in Poland is described as bizarre. Moreover, my brother is a member of the town planners-lawyers group, and he translated the work of a Swedish specialist regarding land management systems in the EU and non-EU countries. The author does not write at length about Polish land management system, but he evaluates it as being very poor. This system generated 130 billion zloty of public debt that has not been made public up until recently. People have begun to talk about that, but they still don’t understand what the debt is about. This public debt though has become a big burden. An architect and urban planner I know from the small borough of Lesznowola near Warsaw claims that this debt is leading the region to bankruptcy. The borough is willing to develop, to prepare land management plans, assign freeways, and right after that start with the investment and construction. Before that, though, a special fee needs to be paid for assigning the freeways. The land management plans do not include public space management of schools, parks, or kindergartens. This is all the effect of the 2003 Land Management Bill. The people in power were incompetent. When political parties are fighting over power, they tend to surround themselves with and transfer power to their own party members.


There were some people in the government who used to engage in such subjects, for example 20 years ago Jacek Kuron was one of them. When he worked in government he had an idea what steps should be taken in that regards.


He was visionary. But today, Poland lacks ideas, not money. Money is wasted. Trust, authority, and common sense are missing. We are currently facing a bad economic situation. It can change, however. There have been some important changes made, for example a far-reaching decentralization. Significant powers have been transferred to the local community, but without the proper budget for exercising those powers. In this situation local communities can do two things: either ask the government for help and follow their instructions or stop watching the government and turn to the citizens. In my opinion the only chance for Poland is for citizens to organize themselves.

The best area for that is education. That’s what we need if we want to have a genuine democracy in Poland, and that is what I am working on. The NGO that I am working in was established in 1999 when the education reform was introduced. It’s now one of the biggest of its kind in Poland. Due to the tense political situation, the government led by Jerzy Buzek (1997-2001) drafted four very quick reforms in health, administration, insurance, and education. But to understand what a small group of people and I did at that time, I’ll have to explain a few things about my background.

My story starts in 1991 when I founded a school for my daughter called the “social school.” These kinds of schools were established by the initiative of parents and teachers who demanded a change in the educational system. I was working at that time at the Institute of Archeology. At some point, when seeing my own children going to school, I realized that Polish democracy required us to change the educational system. Although my children already finished their studies, the schooling system did not improve. The fact that my children graduated is only because I was aware of the problem and could protect them from the consequences of the poor educational system. I met good teachers, but I also met bad teachers that should be banned from the profession. The educational program, the teaching methods – many things were wrong.

When I founded this school for my daughter and the association, I quit my job in the Institute of Archeology and started to teach. This is how my professional career took a turn. I have taught in high school for five years. Then I started to work in a Teachers College and simultaneously I was engaged in work at the Batory Foundation. The most important point in my professional career, though, was the moment when I started studies at the Graduate School for Social Research founded by George Soros. I began to understand many phenomena when I learned the theories of Karl Popper. I could not finish the PhD only because I was busy with the organization that I founded in 1999.

I told my students in Teachers College that I wished that my influence on them would be at least partially as strong as the effect Popper had on Soros. “Of course you can be even a businessman if you want,” I told them, “but please keep in mind what I taught you in training college.” I believe my teaching influenced their future careers. A couple students called to tell me that now they understand why I taught them those theories. I am also very grateful to Soros for giving me those four years of intellectual adventure and of meeting wise people. One of my professors was Leszek Balcerowicz, which obviously gave me a totally new perspective.

Moreover, at this school we founded the association that later established the Federation of Educational Initiatives. Although the organization does not exist anymore, it was an important initiative especially when Buzek introduced his educational reform. The most serious effect of this reform was closing schools in small villages. Closing a school in a village differs much from closing school in the city. Closing a school in the village basically means the slow degradation and decline of the entire community. In Spain, for instance, around 2,000 rural schools had been closed and this led to the deterioration of those villages and the exhaustion of the land. Now Spain is trying to reverse this process.

The Polish reforms had their pros and cons like any human activity. We stressed, from the very beginning, that if it will be implemented in such short period of time it is going to have many blind spots.


Thanks to Balcerowicz?


Balcerowicz was not in the government anymore. Buzek has been using Balcerowicz’s approach but not very extensively. It was 1999, Buzek was prime minister and parliament was led by the coalition of AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action) and the Liberty Union. Balcerowicz was the head of Liberty Union. At the same moment when they started to close rural schools we realized that it was a great mistake and thus commenced cooperation with Irena Dzierzgowska, the then-minister of education. As a member of Liberty Union, she wanted to correct this mistake but she was not able to since the coalition broke up and she was not in the government anymore. No one else wanted to listen to us about this mistake.

This education reform is a great example of the incompetency of people in power. They want to govern, but they don’t understand the problems faced by people in the rural areas. They want to be in power so badly that they are afraid to share their doubts, intuitions, and fears. There are some very wise people, no matter left or right wing, but they are working in very destructive environment. I believe that representative democracy is the wrong system. We should introduce participatory democracy with mindful citizens. However in order to do so we would need to reform the education system first.

In 2002, as a head of the Federation of Educational Initiatives, I was invited by Deputy Prime Minister Housner to join the group of people working on a national strategy of social integration. Deputy Prime Minister Housner is one of the most competent and eloquent politicians. Of course there are some issues that I do not agree with, but I believe that the reports he writes regarding Polish affairs are very good. He is an intellectual who is not afraid to admit his mistakes. “When I was serving I made mistakes,” he says, “but now I am a professor and citizen and I am not afraid to admit this. I want to discuss with others and find the solutions to the current problems.” That is the reason I respect him. When I started to work for the Housner team I realized that there are four tools needed to govern: money, law, education, and propaganda (PR or promotion). Education, however, should never be politicized. Instead it should be an attribute of civil society.

In 1998, when the reforms were in the preparation stage, I was working for the Batory Foundation. I’d just graduated and I was preparing myself for PhD studies. I still feel guilty that I did not do my PhD especially since I received a scholarship. I imagined my professional career completely differently. Nonetheless I believe it was my duty to help people from rural areas, and in 1999 they begged me to help them. I still have a map that shows 800 villages from which citizens were asking for help.

Thus, a couple of my colleagues and I started to meet in my basement and work on a plan for how we could help those people and rescue rural schools. We prepared materials and wrote the statutes for the association of rural development that in fact was supposed to replace the closed school and establish a new “citizens school.” The current regulations allowed us to apply for financial subsidies from the local government as long as the proper building was found. These types of schools are similar to charter schools in the United States. We made it possible totally by accident and this was really wonderful. The fact that villages begun to establish associations and open schools was one of the most amazing things that had happened after 1990. At the moment around 500-600 schools were established as a result of this initiative. The current government claims that because of the reform around 2,000 schools has been closed; opposition states that the number was 5,000. I do not know the methodology that each side has used, but according to our research it was at least 3,000 schools. I personally believe that it was more than 4,000. There are no official statistics, but I certainly doubt the government estimations because I know the type of sources they are using. I have a team of volunteers working on the statistics therefore I know that the government data is incorrect and not comprehensive.

We do not have money for this particular task, so this is voluntary work. But at least we can make estimates, and although we are not sure how many schools were exactly closed we know that the number was higher than in Spain. Nevertheless, after 13 years, we are now no longer an organization of volunteers and now we are using EU grants (our first grant came from the American embassy). We know what we want to do and how, the only problems that we face are mostly related to the way the EU funds are distributed. For example, I made a mistake by believing that a signed agreement with the ministry of administration meant approval for the project for the entire period of one year. More specifically we were doing a project involving a very innovative Internet tool for which we were granted 1.7 million zloty three months ago. The ministry of administration terminated the project based on some bad advice from one of their experts. He wasn’t a finance specialist and did not include some of the data because the employee responsible for it was on a sick leave and this guy did not know how to enter the data. I have an email where he admits this. Basically, without any knowledge about the content regarding the educational law, he declared that this is not a good project. We could not even appeal. To sum it up, we have had to learn from our own mistakes, otherwise we will not be able change our country.

The ministry did not want to learn from this mistake. They would rather lose almost two million zloty then admit that they made a mistake and search for another innovative solution. However I feel responsible for the project, and I don’t want the money from EU to be wasted. Therefore a small group of people is still working on implementing that tool. I am certain that in this case that we are right. Of course this tool needs some improvements, but nothing is perfect from the beginning. This tool is used for evaluating the mechanism of financing education in different regions. The government creates one mechanism for budgeting education but is not aware of the differences between boroughs especially when it comes to incomes. Generally speaking our tool helps the local administrationand citizens to discuss the budget for education.

Statistically speaking, education is the biggest part of the regional budget. On average, it is 37% of the entire budget, but it can reach up to 50-60%. Thus there are boroughs that receive 37% and need only 30%. But there are other boroughs that need 60% and receive only 37%, and thus the rest they need to pay from their own pockets. Moreover it’s the government that sets the wage for the teachers! In Poland we have regulations called the Teacher’s Card, which is in my opinion the main reason for the tragedy of rural education. None of the governments so far dared to stand up to the teachers’ trade unions because of their size. There are 600,000 teachers. With their families, that’s three million voters. This clearly shows the weakness of our political elite. If they would treat their citizens seriously they would try to educate people. If there is no money, they would have to explain that the government and citizens have to cooperate. “Let’s think what we can do to avoid closing the schools?” they would ask.


This situation is similar to other countries as well.


Yes, and we know the solution. I believe that during next several years we will be able to prepare the exact solution, which will first help us and then we will be able to help others. Since the problems are everywhere the same, we will be able to help all of Europe. Ultimately, the money belongs not to the government but to the people. We can tighten our belts but only when we are certain that the people managing this money are trying to make something good for society and not only for themselves. We should all have the same chance for education. We are regular citizens that want to have well educated children. We want to help our children as much as we can and give them the required minimum. We want to have more than one child and a calm, peaceful life. However, our government needs to create the conditions for that.


Could you please tell me something about the influence of the Church?


They are interested in education as they still search for their place when they take dominant role. This is a traditional Catholic Church – for instance, Radio Maryja. I am Catholic, and I am attached to the Tygodnik Powszechny’s open Christianity. I am interested in other religions also especially Islam since we are having a lot of things in common. This is time for significant changes hence I am very inspired by the new pope. I would like Franciszek to be open for dialog with the East, with the patriarchate and the Orthodox Church like our Pope John Paul II. In Protestantism on the other hand, I am especially interested in searching for a place for woman in the religion. I am still the head of Polish YWCA –although I am planning to leave in September this year — the organization that I represented in the conference in Beijing. Thanks to the YWCA, I had a lot of contact with Protestant women theologians who have made many interesting points that could be an inspiration for Catholic theologians. Dialog between theologians is extremely important.

Because I am an archeologist, I see important changes not in 10-20 years perspective but more in terms of changes in civilizations. A long time ago, we had a matriarchal civilization, but now we are at the last stage of a patriarchal civilization. The most visible victims of this civilization are men from rural areas. They are not educated, but they own small plots of land. These are the “poverty farms” that allow men to have a job and not to starve but at the same time does not produce enough for market. We have 1.3 million farms, but only 300,000 produce enough to have a good position in the market economy. The rest are so small that they only allow the family to make a living but do not bring in any additional income. The only heritage this uneducated man can leave his family is this property. Moreover, he does not have a chance to find any other job.

We also have a problem with a growing numbers of bachelors. Men who are 30-40 years old cannot find wives because the women are studying hard and moving to the cities or abroad. As long as they do not need to stay on the farm and can leave to earn some money abroad from time to time, it’s fine because they can still invest in the farm and grow their business. However it is still not enough money to bring a wife from Ukraine. This group of men is in the most dramatic position right now and cannot find their place in the process of transformation. This involves education, housing, and public works. Farmers with small households should also be considered a workforce. They are strong and fit since they always had to work on their farms. They can build their own houses and do everything in their households, therefore they should be prepared to work so they can support their families.

Our government should focus on two priorities – education and housing. My brother used to have a great company that employed about 100 people from villages that were given training by the company. Unfortunately, although the idea was great, the system destroyed the company and now the firm employs only a couple of people. We simply don’t have proper housing regulations. My brother believes that he would be able to build houses about 40% cheaper. I really like the houses he builds, especially the fact that they are energy efficient. I would not mind living in a house like that. Everyone can have his own vision about a house and does not necessarily need to follow the traditional model. But the most important thing is to build houses suitable for the local community: energy efficient and compact so that maintenance can be cheaper.

It is very important to build local communities that naturally help each other — for instance, integrated housing. In such housings would be living some older people, and some houses would be built for the disabled. There would be a kindergarten and an area for common activities. This was our idea to build such housing from EU funds when we started to work on ATRIUM. Housing was to be built first, and then the school in turn was supposed to be funded partly by the EU and partly by us voluntarily. Actually, the idea was to build the schools voluntarily. I believe parents can work voluntarily to build schools for their children, even if they are providing only symbolic work, like raking leaves. If a community creates its schools, it will help with integration, as people will get to know each other. Such a school is the beginning of different approach to life. Therefore it is important that disabled persons be engaged.

As a matter of fact two days ago I visited a school founded by a woman who set up her association according to our guidance. They built a fantastic school. She said, “Do you see this field behind the fence? We would like to build there a building for senior citizens. I believe the association could even get some money from that. It is not far from the Poznan highway so I guess there would be quite a few people interested in moving with their children to this beautiful neighborhood by the lake. We could organize some integrated programs so children could spend some time with seniors. Grandparents could have youth close to them.” She came up with this idea by herself. She did not need to read about our integrated housing. She openly says that we have to connect, that we have to build in a way that suits everyone. This is exactly what we wanted to do, and it means that our project is ready to be implemented on a bigger scale because people are starting to understand its significance. The only thing we need to do is to change the law and the way European money is spent.

Now I am starting a new foundation based on the ideas of my brother and my partner. Actually we have two ideas. One is a very interesting project regarding sewage plants. Generally, Poles have very creative ideas but they are not supported by government. Our government is in fact reluctant to support those innovations. Tomorrow we’ll meet an African company that is interested in my partner’s patent regarding sewage plants. This project would be to build energy-efficient sewage plants, different from 80% of Polish energy-intensive plants. So far we are not using this technology in Poland, so it’s perfect for our country. I think that this foundation will bring us money. It won’t be as much as Soros, of course, but it will be sufficient for our integrated housings with small schools and kindergartens built voluntarily by the local community and based on idea of solidarity. I hope we will later be able to share this idea with other countries.


I am especially interested in the situation of women in relation to development, power, and abilities of society.


I will answer the first question first. I would say that one of the most important people in our country is one of our feminist leaders, Wanda Nowicka. And we certainly have some very interesting initiatives, one of which is the Congress of Women. I consider myself a new feminist. I wrote an article a long time ago on this topic of new feminism, which was later translated into English. It was also about the new Catholic feminism. In this article, I wrote that it was very important to build a new civilization, a new partnership, through discussions in civil society. John Paul II spoke of a “civilization of love.” So, it was something similar to that. I think civil society is comparable. This was influenced by various religions, various ideas. Certainly my thinking was influenced by Father Jerzy Popieluszko, and what he said about everything coming down to the decisions one makes and how we should be more conscious about these decisions.

In terms of the new feminism, very important is the manifestation of women’s authority. Feminism requires the participation of women in public life dealing with various topics. As I wrote 25 years ago in a rather long text, the world needs women who are active publicly. We need this to protect the world from wars, to mitigate conflicts, to mediate among different interests, to build understanding. Scandinavia is a good example of what can happen when women are participating as public figures — greater social peace, public satisfaction, and so on. Today, in Poland, it’s easier for women to organize themselves and participate in a wide range of discussions, from abortion to housing.

The other important aspect here in Poland is the loss of trust. At this moment, building trust is very difficult. But to do that, it’s worth struggling. I participate in this in a small way. The organization I’m working with now has a new president. This organization, with this new direction and the support of its members, has a big chance to help improve things.


When you think about your worldview 25 years ago, what has changed?


I’ll talk in terms of experience and education. Every one of my experiences has translated into greater understanding. Very important for me were the discussions I had with people in the countryside, with simple people. Even if they didn’t have formal education, they were quite wise. They often had to take in a huge quantity of information and determine which part was most important and make difficult decisions. So, I learned a lot from them.


Was there a connection between these experiences and your political thinking?


Well, yes. For instance, on the subject of political parties and elections. The essence of a party is to separate people, not connect them. You can’t be a member of two parties simultaneously, but you can be a member of five non-governmental organizations! For me, the NGO that can change the world, that can change Poland, are institutions that are self-organized: in other words, institutions of civil society. Not parties. Parties are designed to win power. Only institutions of civil society can ultimately make the necessary changes. And the time of parties might be coming to an end. What about making the major decisions of the state through participation on the Internet? If we did it that way, parties wouldn’t be necessary.

Poland has a long history of activism. But we don’t have a tradition of direct democracy. We speak of Poland as a nation of citizens. But we make fun of civic political education. We’re in Europe. Except for Yugoslavia, we’ve had peace, stability. It’s phenomenal, given all the terrible things happening around the world. Everything is possible. I think that we can build on what we’ve achieved in Europe and create a new kind of solution that we can apply to the whole world. This is an urgent matter. We face very difficult problems such as the threat of climate change. We don’t have a lot of time. If we don’t organize something new, it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen in 10-15 years.


When you think back to 1989 and everything that has changed since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


If we talk about the situation of self-government, then it’s tragic, only 1. For me, the most important thing is people’s ability to organize themselves. I would like to see Poland move in the direction of CLLD — Community-Led Local Development. The economic situation in Poland is also not good. But if we’re talking about changes in general, then 6.


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


Miraculous. 10.


And when you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate Poland’s prospects, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?


There are two scenarios. Either there will be a big breakdown. Or we’ll succeed in avoiding such a breakdown and create a new kind of Polish society. So, also 6.


Warsaw, August 7, 2013


Translater: Anna Maria Napieralska


Interview (1990)


Alina Kozinska has been involved since the early 1980s in ecology, feminism and housing activism. She is concerned not only with the transformation of consciousness–on principles of deep ecology and solidarity–but in concrete projects designed to help simultaneously ease the housing crunch and protect the most vulnerable segments of the population. We discussed this last concern first.

According to Kozinska, “Poland is the last in Europe in terms of housing resources and the rate of construction, which has so far been dominated by the state. About 20 percent of families in Poland do not have separate flats, and many families live in conditions which do not satisfy their fundamental needs. It is one of the most difficult aspects of the deep crisis experienced now by Poles and one of the causes of emigration. This strikes most severely at young married couples, families having many children, the disabled and the old. Social forms of activity evoke hopes for countering the effects of long-term neglect but we face enormous bureaucratic and financial barriers.”

In response to this pressing need, Kozinska and others formed the group ATRIUM in 1981 to design and build a cooperative housing estate that would bring together orphans, senior citizens, disabled and the medical staff necessary to care for this community. Many of the original people involved in the project were forced underground during martial law, some left the country, others simply pursued other projects. But in 1989, after becoming formally registered as a cooperative, ATRIUM persuaded the government to allocate a 3 hectare area in northeast Warsaw where it could build its integrated housing estate. Planned are two blocks of flats, 40 flats each, plus recreation and cultural centers. Ten flats would be for disabled, twenty for senior citizens and ten flats for personnel. 60 semi-detached houses–including 6 atrial ones for families with wheel-chair members–will make up the rest of the neighborhood.

So far, ATRIUM has located a group of people who are interested in living in such a community and has contacted a firm interested in building. Also, the group has talked with the Warsaw Polytechnic on various ecological questions. The financing of the project has so far come from the Father Jerzy Popieluszko Pro-Life Fund, a foundation established in April 1989 to deal with life from conception to old age. ATRIUM also hopes to get help from Western foundations.

We talked a little about the concepts behind the housing project. Alina stressed the need for advancing feelings of solidarity. She quoted the example of bringing together juvenile delinquents with handicapped teenagers as a way of humanizing the first group and socializing the second. She said that Zoliborz, where she lives and near where the estate is planned, is a very socially aware part of Warsaw. It is a district where people with money to spare live–the film director Andrzej Wajda, for instance, or Minister of Labor Jacek Kuron. The SOS project which provides cheap and even free food for the elderly and the poor is quite well-developed in Zoliborz.

We then talked a little about Poland’s ecological problems. In Katowice, genetic mutations are common because of the concentration of hitherto unmonitored heavy industy. In Lodz, a textile center, there is an enormous number of disabled children with respiratory illnesses because of the emission of fiber pollutants. The Finnish government has organized a summer camp for Lodz children, but it really can not permanently re-located the entire population. A new pollution control law will be soon passed distributing fines to industries not complying with new pollution limits, shutting those who are gross violators. Meanwhile, 10 million dollars is coming from the U.S. to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the major component of acid rain. Overall, pollution will be reduced 30 percent, in compliance with limits set by the Helsinki agreement.

But major problems remain. A new sewage system for Warsaw is expected to cost 2 billion dollars. No one in Warsaw drinks the tap water. But most countries in the region are beginning to realize that it is useless to invest domestically when the bulk of the environmental problems are being generated in Eastern Europe. 60 percent of the pollution wafting over Scandinavia comes from Poland, for instance. And, of course, Poles simply haven’t developed environmental consciousness. Alina quoted the example of Gierek, former party chief, who could retire anywhere in Poland and chose Katowice–now he is severely ill with a respiratory disease. The green movement is strongest in Krakow, but interpersonal problems have prevented unity and the movement has not posted any significant victories. Warsaw too has decided like other countries that there is little point in investing money within the city when it should be giving money to clean up Katowice and Lodz since pollution from these areas end up raining down over Warsaw.




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