What is the role of the state, what is the role of society? Zuzanna Krzątała works as Project Coordinator at Humanity in Action Poland where she leads an educational mentorship program for young activists from Poland, Ukraine, Germany and the US. Aspen Leadership Awardee 2022 Zuzanna Krzątała talks about active citizenship, politics, young leaders’ approach and her experience with Ukrainian immigration in an interview with our publishing editor Jenda Žáček.
Jenda Žáček: You were born in Poland but lived in the US for some time. What is your story?
Zuzanna Krzątała: I was born in Szczecin, a city very close to the German border. This whole region is rather progressive compared to the rest of the country. When I was 18 and graduated from high school I had an opportunity to spend a summer in New York. I ended up staying 11 years – studying and working – and returned back to Poland just before the pandemic.
What made you want to come back?
I came back to Poland drawn by the energy that erupted after the parliamentary elections in 2015 when the Law and Justice party came to power. It was a shifting moment for me. It coincided with Donald Trump being elected in the US. All of a sudden, I felt like an immigrant who was not welcomed anymore – although I was realistic that being Polish it was not on his agenda to expel me. However, I began to feel what it is like to separate people into “us and them”.
So you became a Polish immigrant to the power of 2?
It is somewhat interesting that I came back to Poland which is a country known for outward immigration. You can find Polish people everywhere in the world. For me it was a reverse decision and I do not regret it.
It has been an epicenter of things for the past three years –whether we are talking about women’s fight for reproductive justice, the judiciary system, freedom of the press and speech, LGBTQ+ rights and now obviously the war in neighboring Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Another reason why I started to rediscover my Polish roots, was my beloved Professor Elżbieta Matynia at The New School for Social Research in New York —she was by the way the editor of the book An Uncanny Era. Conversations between Václav Havel and Adam Michnik. She set up the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies and for nearly 20 years has been bringing students from the US and Central and Eastern Europe to Kraków and Wrocław. She was the one who reignited my Polish fire!
Did you somehow manifest being a Pole while living in the US?
Yes, it was in New York where I started organizing marches and protests. At that time, there were massive protests in Poland and we mirrored them in New York, gathering outside of the Polish consulate. It was a really interesting experience because I was one of the youngest, surrounded by people who had escaped Poland in 1968 after the Jewish Purge. Also there were many intellectuals, who had left in the 1980s due to the introduction of martial law and the brutal suppression of the opposition. So I was a representative of the young generation but without any direct contact with the young generation back in Poland.
Early on, when the Law and Justice party came into power, we had this sweeping movement, Committee in Defense of Democracy, the largest civic mobilization since the peak of the Solidarity era. Everyone put a great deal of hope in it as a way of mobilizing the opposition. And it never really materialized. The opposition is still very much fractured in Poland.
What does it mean in terms of leadership? Do you feel a lack of leaders with the ability to change Poland?
When we talk about political leaders, yes. In the young activist circles, there is resistance to calling oneself a leader.
Amongst my friends working in the climate, justice and feminist movements there is a resistance because they associate leaders with positions of power that are not horizontal.
And yet, we would be naïve to think that any movement can succeed without having a leader, who can amplify the message of the whole movement. It’s rather the question of who that leader is. Is the leader an instigator of change or a person who can see through the process until the end? Usually it is not the same person.
I believe that there cannot be a good leader without a structure, without a movement. I think that it is the challenge faced by many of these movements. They form spontaneously, reactively, under powerful emotions and strain. I am myself a product of that. I act under emotions.
Is the vision missing? Is that why they only react spontaneously?
The long-term planning is missing. No movement is immune from experiencing people dropping out because they cannot sustain themselves. That is why it is important to build those movements in times of relative peace.
Many leaders have this false sense that they are irreplaceable. Find me a leader who is already thinking of a person who will come to replace them.
Every leader needs to build a team. They cannot be taking everything upon themselves because it is very shortsighted.
So you try to engage and empower people.
It is very important to shift from the leadership tunnel-vision to collective empowerment. We were able to use this approach in February 2022, when Ukraine was invaded by Russia and millions of Ukrainians sought safety in Poland. Polish people really came together and that was an unifying and empowering experience.
Is there a way we can benefit from it now? Has society become more coherent?
It was an important lesson for Poland to know that for once we were not the bad guys. For the past seven years we have been associated with Orban and Hungary. There was nothing to be proud of. I would always speak of Poland in negative terms. Russian aggression in Ukraine was a very black and white situation with one enemy that everybody was united against —this is not the usual scenario in life.
That is true. But what if we take the example of Covid-19, it is very much the same, isn’t it?
It is, but Covid-19 was not the great equalizer as it was initially hailed. The pandemic showed us that there are people who can benefit from it with the great majority suffering. Actually, Poland was one of the first countries in Europe with access to vaccines. We were doing really well, early on. I was vaccinated before any of my German friends. But very quickly it crashed with propaganda and conspiracy theories. I think the pandemic was extremely divisive in the end. Also, it made people distrustful of the government, science and leaders.
Can the state be prepared for such scenarios and react effectively?
No one could have foreseen how disruptive Covid-19 would be, however we elect representatives, who should consult experts once unexpected crises strike.
The war in Ukraine should have been no surprise to the Polish government and yet there was no strategy on how to act in those early days.
In Warsaw alone, we had 250,000 people arriving daily at the train stations. I was involved with Grupa Zasoby, a volunteer group that formed initially on Facebook, which matched those needing shelter with those offering it. After a month of operating on nightly shifts at the Western train station, the founders of the group approached to ask “When are you going to step in? What is the plan?” They responded, “But you are already there, we do not need to duplicate it.” But we were just volunteers, this was not our job to do.
Someone could say, it’s great that society engages in such a moment.
In the same way – maybe we did the job, we have prevented refugee camps from being set up in Poland. Maybe if the state was in charge from the beginning it would have ended up differently. When it is the citizens doing it themselves, it also leaves space for abuse, human trafficking and exploitation. Who is to take blame when something goes wrong? There is little transparency and no accountability.
This means that, on the one hand, it is a major effort on the part of active citizens which is great but, on the other, there is missing a part which is recognized by the state.
Yes, it was very upsetting whenever our President or Prime Minister would take the stage and get international recognition for something they did not do.
You have said that people from civic society do not like to be pointed out as leaders. Do you perceive yourself as a leader?
I am all for reframing what leadership stands for. I like the meaning of a leadership which encompasses a larger group of people. There is resistance to putting oneself on a pedestal when you know you are just one element of the puzzle. However grateful I am for the Aspen Award, I recognize that none of it would be possible without everyone involved.
Are people the key to leadership?
At the onset of the war, people kept saying that this is not a sprint, it is a marathon. For me it is not a marathon, a lone run towards the end goal, but a relay. It is not you against everyone else, it is you with everyone else.
It is about recognizing when you are running the course of your capacity and should just delegate the task to others.
I think that smart leadership is passing the baton. It is not taking everything upon yourself.
Did you think about going into politics? To switch sides from being an activist?
I have seen politics up close. My partner was a strategist for the leftist party. Much of it is just talk, no action. You always have to play the party line, weigh your words carefully, please everyone. That’s why I prefer the activist path, even though it is undervalued, underpaid and very often voluntary. I believe in better communication between all the sectors.
What is the most effective way to connect the sides?
I think it is very important to build uncanny alliances.
Connect with people who do not necessarily represent your line and find commonalities.
You need politicians but you also need activists who are not electable but put pressure on. The last three years showed us that crises are not going away. What happened in Ukraine will have long-lasting consequences for our region. It uncovered very important topics —the challenges of integration, the emphasis on education and healthcare systems.
What challenges are you planning to take part in yourself?
I want to forge a new program where we can connect activists and students from within CEE. It would be amazing to bring together a group of students who can learn from each other and share best practices from the region. For the next Academy of Human Rights launching in the summer of 2023, I would love to involve students from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Lithuania.
Towards the East.
We always sort of looked towards the West and I think that was also because the idea for Humanity in Action was created 20 years ago. Fellowships take place in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, the US, Warsaw, Berlin and Sarajevo. These days we no longer need to look towards the West for inspiration. We should focus on regional challenges.
You have already been working with young leaders. What is their approach to leadership?
I am 33 so I might still be considered a young leader in some circles. However, when I see 19 year olds who are unapologetic in striving for justice, who confront world leaders and call them out on their hypocrisy, I feel like I am the one learning from them. I am speaking here about climate justice activists, in particular Dominika Lasota and Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak. They make decisions collectively and share responsibilities.
Sounds like a new era of leadership?
This could be the future of organizing and politics. My generation is still walking the line, choosing words carefully.
You talked about active citizenship, on the one hand, and people replacing the role of the state which is not doing its job well on the other. What might it look like in twenty years? What do you think is the ideal future situation?
I do not want to go this far into the future because what the recent years have shown us is that it is very difficult to predict it.
If I imagine the ideal situation, I see people who vote but what’s most important they have someone to vote for.
On the local municipality level, I would love to see that energy translated into movements. Changing the face of politics would also encourage more people to enter it. Right now it is very difficult for younger people, particularly women and other underrepresented minorities, to see themselves comfortably in such spaces. I would love for the future to be a lot less about gatekeeping and a lot more about discussions with people of diverse opinions and voices.
Direct help to Ukrainians
You worked with the International Rescue Committee and also have personal experience with Syrian refugees in Jordan and on Lesbos. But what happened when the Ukrainians arrived in Warsaw?
Poland was known for keeping refugees at bay and refused even the symbolic number of 7,000 Syrians as part of the EU resettlement deal back in 2016. With war breaking out in neighboring Ukraine, Poland had no choice but to open the borders. No one could have foreseen this would be the largest movement of refugees since WW2.
You said earlier that the state did not know how to handle the situation with Ukrainian people when they arrived. What’s been going on?
It happened very spontaneously. Whoever had a car was driving and bringing people from the border, also everyone who had a place in a house hosted Ukrainians. The day after the war broke out, I prepared the apartment that I just bought and was about to renovate. With friends and strangers, we managed in a matter of a few hours to gather 11 mattresses and some basic kitchen utensils because it was a bare apartment. The family of 7 that arrived from Kyiv and Lutsk ended up staying there for 3 months.
But that wasn’t all, right?
Volunteering at train stations, we recognized the need for shelters to accommodate larger families. A friend of a friend called me and offered a bar in the center of Warsaw, only a ten minute walk from the train station, super convenient. I was given that space for free, for a half year.
We called it Disco Shelter because it still had disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Around 4 PM, the magic hour, the light speckles would come on the wall and it just looked like a Disney movie.
We really wanted to turn it into a safe space where people could take a break for a few days and not think about what is gonna come next.
When people would get off at train stations they did not have any long term plans.
Did you make use of your network?
In the early days I used my Humanity in Action connections, our offices in Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I would connect people to direct organizations in other countries and find transportation to Italy, Portugal, Germany or France.
How did the people live together in one place?
Some of them spoke only Ukrainian, some of them only Russian and they belonged to different social classes with different backgrounds. Imagine strangers living under the same roof. We kept it small, a maximum of 16 people. Usually we had two or three larger families and they would get along well. Very early on, we had a policy that you could stay for a few days and then travel further onwards but towards the end we had a host family looking after s newcomers.
It sounds amazing. What is a takeaway for you personally?
It is important not to take everything on ourselves. In the early days, I wanted to welcome every single family. I needed to write down their names, make them familiar with me and I was afraid that if I delegated the task it would not be done properly. There was a time when I was leading a big operation but didn’t build the team enough. A dedicated team is crucial for anything to be successful.
It was important to you at that time.
In the early days, I felt irreplaceable because if I didn’t pick up the phone I would miss an opportunity for funding. We were able to sustain this shelter through the means of donors from all over the world.
2022 Aspen CE Madeleine K. Albright Leadership Award. @AspenInstCE recognizes young emerging professionals with outstanding achievements, and this year it was no different. This year's laureates are Zuzanna Krzątała and @JanaHlavacova.
Enjoy video: https://t.co/9LeHuPv3JF
— Aspen Institute CE (@AspenInstCE) December 15, 2022
How do you feel about this great help today?
We did the best with what we had. And the testimony of it is that people managed to find places to stay, many also decided to return to Ukraine, even though they had beautiful villas with swimming pools in the south of France. But there is no place like home. That was the strongest notion. It was not our place to judge.
So maybe again good leader practice?
A good leader is also a listener. You cannot think that you know better. Even if you are maybe right in the end. It creates a power imbalance. Especially when working with people in a situation where they are powerless. They often feel like they are not in the position to say no. But the very little they should be able to keep is their dignity.
Aspen CE Madeleine K. Albright Leadership Award annually recognizes young emerging professionals with outstanding achievements. As of 2022, the Award carries the name of the United States Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, a native of Prague and a friend of Aspen CE, to honor her life-long mission of educating and encouraging young leaders to have a strong value system and contribute to the growth of society.
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