Asta and Este

Another article for Decat o Revista, right as I left Romania in late 2012…


By late June 2012 I’d been in Romania more than 6 years and knew I would be leaving sometime soon-ish. Time for that 3rd tattoo. I get them at times of major transition. One celtic dragon when I headed to off to Mongolia at the end of university, symbol of a moral code embodied by a fraternity I had never expected to join but ended up loving. The second, a symbol of the Community Foundation I started in Odorheiu Secuiesc in 2007. They are statements of what was, a way to connect memory and skin through one painfully cathartic process.

The idea of forgetting and being forgotten has always bothered me. Tattoos somehow instill permanence. There is also part of me that smiles to think of archeologists confusedly discussing my inked up mummy in some distant future. So, I found a tattoo parlor – a pretty hipster place to say the least – and checked the design with some trusted folks. Time to ink why I chose to stay in Romania longer than I have lived anywhere else and start taking those deep, controlling breaths when the needle first cuts in and there is no way back.

So why Asta ≠ Este? I guess because it equates to what I have been trying to live, to be, for six years.

The challenge of living Asta ≠ Este has kept me pretty busy as I also try to figure out what I believe in and care for. Testing a lot of things and leading to an interesting array of descriptions from community cowboy (must be the boots), philanthropy geek, post-hipster, some nicer and less nice things too. I’m an oversized leprechaun of an American who has been outside the States more than in it, a wandering trainer and social entrepreneur, activist and die-hard believer in people. I like getting physical, and can lay concrete with the best of them. My friends in Harghita invite me over when they need a tree chopped down. They know I can’t resist feeling like a lumberjack sometimes. On the other hand I like nice horses, sailing and fine living; and roasting pig fat on a stick over a fire with a strong palinka. Managed to start Romania’s first Community Foundation, designed the ReStart Challenges which have reached hundreds of thousands, have a pretty bad Hungarian accent when I speak Romanian, play a mean flute. Tattoo my beliefs.

Rewind to May 2006, the beginning of the Asta ≠ Este challenge. I don’t remember exactly what that particular trainer was reacting to, only the response – “Asta Este.” That was on day 2 of Peace Corps training,fresh off the plane and filled with that glorious naivety that explains why America loves a super hero. And here some trainer was telling a bright-eyed, mid-twenties-ish volunteer, ‘asta este’ – you can’t beat it kid, you can’t win, don’t even try, that’s just the way it is. The volunteer deflated.

After a rather short debate to make sure my moral indignation was at least partly justified, I asked that the phrase be banned from Peace Corps and that everyone drop a RON into a box when caught saying it (which on a volunteer salary could seriously threaten the personal beer fund). Was I over-reacting? Good question. Was I joking? Not really.

Asta Este has no place in Peace Corps, that Kennedy-built global voluntary service program that has been dropping thousands of volunteers in Romanian towns and villages over the last 20 years but is now closing in the wake of EU accession. Peace Corps is driven by the intentional hope of those starry eyed, yes-we-can-sters and thrives on their belief in the possible. Asta Este has no place in such a reality and, as far as I am concerned, it has no place anywhere else in civil society or relative social discourse either. Asta Este offers fatalistic absolution. It is not only about ‘tough shit’ or life is not fair. I can accept that. If that is all it was, well right on. But Asta este is also about ‘and I have no responsibility to do anything about it either.’ The hell you don’t.

Over that summer of 2006, 76 volunteers-in-training worked on our Romanian and prepped to move off to our respective sites. Ten hot weeks in Ploiesti, back before it got its current coat of lipstick. Lot’s of beer, shaorma and the occasional ‚personal’ train north to the mountains or south to the big city (though on 80 ron a week, minus beer, it was necessarily pretty occasional). Learning to love the smell first of chestnuts, then of linden (tei) with the acrid overtone of petroleum. Why Ploiesti? Like most of Peace Corps, a lot of it seems pretty random. You don’t chose where you go – they send you for two-and-a-half months of language and prep for your job in teaching english or civil society development, then 2 years at a new home.

I hadn’t thought much about Romania before leaving my old home in Minnneapolis – I knew about Ceacescu, Nadia and Dr. Nick Riviera from the Simpsons (yep, he’s Romanian – why else would he occasionally exclaim ‚Great Ceacescu’s Ghost’?). So, when Peace Corps called 1 month before I had to report for duty, and after 1 year of interviews, I googled. The first pics were the Retezats. Awesome. Can’t wait.

Ploiesti was not exactly the Retezats but perhaps provided a more instructive and particularly industrial lens through which to get acquainted with Romania. Surrounded by the concrete detritus of socialism, Asta Este became more understandable (but no more forgivable) as I learned about the interplay of Romania – – the State, the Church, the weakness of civil activism and relative bankruptcy of social capital. And it was there that I learned how to use Asta Este sarcastically thanks to my Gazda. She was a fantastic 70-ish lady with steel teeth who used to run restaurants during communism. She would stand over you while you marched through salata de beouf, soup, another soup, and at least 3 courses before desert… all the while smiling maniacally and softly crooning ‘iti place?’ Why yes, it was good… and yes her rubbing my back on occasion while I ate did seem to mysteriously aid digestion… Then I told her that my wife and I were heading to Odorheiu Secuiesc (because Peace Corps had decided we did a good job with Romanian thus must be lingual savants and therefore able to learn Hungarian in about as long as it takes you to say egeszegedre). She put down her cleaver. Glaring, she said ‘you are here to help Romanians … (long pause. I didn’t blink)… and … they carry knives you know!’ This from the lady who frequently gardened with a WWII era bayonet. I looked at her, smiled ever so sweetly, shrugged and said ‘asta este.’ She harrumphed and got back to cooking.

Odorhei was indeed different. When people asked how I liked living in Romania I only half jokingly replied that I didn’t know, I lived in Odorhei. The only time I heard Romanian spoken on the street there was when I got pulled over for talking on my phone while driving. Gave the cop my American license and he started speaking Hungarian too. Ha, interesting leap of logic buddy.

Odorhei is a warm, supporting, lovely community. Of course Asta Este was there too, though they do seem to pronounce it differently. Falling in love with the funny little town I decided to get serious about the fight between the Asta Este mentality and the power of people who, while saying it, were not happy with where it took them. Though my main project was working with a local NGO who dealt in rural development and environmental protection, I started talking to folks about taking control of their time and place through what I know best – philanthropy. In particular a community foundation. Community Foundations are all about fundraising local money, from local people, for local projects, led by… you guessed it, locals. All about supporting people to realize that if they are waiting for the government to take care of them, they may be waiting a long time.

Why this particular expression of philanthropy? It is kind of like a bank for philanthropy, necessarily driven by fundraising, and the community did not have a particularly strong recent history of giving. Maybe to see if I could change that. Maybe because I seem to have always been fundraising. Apparently when I was about 8 years old, I saw a NY Times article about someone running a charity marathon and said ‚I’m gonna do that.’ Why? How? To pay for my university. The plan? Take out an add ‚poor kid needs scholarship, willing to run for it. Then you won’t have to pay mom.’

I didn’t actually run that marathon (minimum age requirements) but it would not have been a surprise if my liberal lefty, highly educated parents had said ‚why not kid?’ They, after all, are the ones who lived for years in the Honduran jungle setting up co-ops and took me to Botswana for my childhood… But I kept dabbling in fundraising, winning prizes for door-to-door selling of random things for school fundraisers, before, while still in University, I started leading my first community development organization. I graduated with degrees in classical flute and theater performance and left school carrying the knowledge that I didn’t want to do either – I can’t sit in a practice room all day, and actors are no fun at parties. I went back into fundraising and over the next couple years became interested in way more than the millions of dollars my teams and I were bringing in. What did all that cash represent? How do dollars reflect social capital? How did they communicate an investment in humanity and Goodness and how could your donors, big or small, feel that, more than just giving, they are an important part of something? How do you ensure that even if they give very little, they feel good and respected as if they were that million dollar player?

I was still a volunteer when I started the Foundation to answer these questions in a Romanian context. I still hadn’t made up my mind to stay – my wife wanted to go home and it looked like one hell of an experiment to bet on… It was a bit crazy, in retrospect, because, again, people were not really giving to NGOs who served obvious basic needs like children’s health, the environment or elderly. So, why support a community foundation which challenges you to invest in a fund now, with the understanding that one of your fellow citizens is going to come along with a good idea sometime in the future and lead it in order to make your community a better place?

I was still that bright-eyed idealist volunteer –exhibit A in the display of American naivety that simply believes in the ‚Right’ thing, that one that says you wanna put on tights and take on the world? Go for it, we need go-getters. And I get competitive when people tell me something will never work while I am surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

It was clear that there is and was trust and social capital but that civil society was looking to western models to define it. I am convinced that civil society, social capital etc… are not weak in Romania, but rather the terminology of the Anglo-Saxon military-industrial philanthropy complex is simply not suited to describing the beautiful, small, community reciprocity that I was seeing. Civil society development organizations, out to define social change, were looking for organo-grams and sustainability and skipping right over the local choir groups, dance clubs, mothers organizing a protest about drivers disrespecting prams, etc… So I set out on a small-is-beautiful, citizen-intent-before-all-else mission to extract and build upon the Good.

But first there had to be a perspective shift. Locals were not seeing the trust they relied upon either. This became apparent late one day when a colleague and I were waiting for the bus home from a village where we were working on building a training center out of an old barn and a biogas unit (kind of like a concrete igloo which farmers dump manure into and then siphon of the methane – funnily enough, I had a plan to built a small empire on those but Romania lost it’s carbon trading credits. Sad. I could have made an entire life out of bullshit). For some reason, on that particular night, the bus drove straight past us – literally leaving us in the dust. Plan B was hitch hiking. Unfortunately I look like a Viking and my colleague looks like a Hells Angel. We didn’t hold much hope. Sooner or later, the autumnal darkness of Transylvania descended. We were considering a campfire when a gentleman stopped. As we made small talk on the ride the kindly driver asked about our work. My buddy talked about environmentalism and I shared the Community Foundation idea with this Average Janos. The helpful chauffeur pondered the concept for a moment then said, “No way. People here don’t help each other.”

Let the irony sink in for a moment. Here, the man who stopped to pick up two strange characters in the middle of the night was arguing that people like him do not perform mutually supportive acts. The icing on the cake was when he would not take any money to cover his gas. “My pleasure” he said as we thanked him.

Scenarios like that played out a lot as we talked to people. One idea kept coming up – – kalaka (claca in Romanian), – – community gathering to build things for community. It was how the schools, hospital, churches and other glorious old buildings that pepper Odorhei had been built – it was a point of pride and visible, tangible, representation of what we were hoping to do. So, we looked around as we asked people – what should we kalaka-up?

Joking about pimp-my-bloc campaigns (but dropping that name out of respect to MTV) we settled on the 36 public playgrounds that had not been kept up by the local administration – desolate little sores strewn across the public mind. Since the mayor didn’t think anything would come of it, Hunor, my 2-meter-10-semi-pro-basketball-playing-side-kick employee and I got permission and started talking to people again. ‘Buy stuff’ people said. Out of self-righteous community activist gall and lack of funding we said ‘No.’ Fix it with us, then we might buy stuff. Ok, but we are going to need people – time to knock on doors and drum up volunteers. A funny thing happened. Conversation at the first door: will you come out to fix up the playground? Yes, sure. My kids play there. Great. And your neighbors? No. Move on to the next door. Will you come out to fix up the playground? Yes, sure. I read there sometimes. Will your neighbor? No. Hundreds of times and we realized we were in a community of 37,000 good people who did not see itself as a Good community.
Asta Este.

The night before the first claca I was interviewed on local TV. We had decided to do 5 playgrounds in 5 different neighborhoods because we were apparently incapable of doing anything the easy way. Reporter says ‚this all sounds great but you know, no one will come.’ Will you come I ask? Sure. The next morning. 8 a.m. in the main square. Tshirts, paint brushes, rubber gloves – all donated. All the essentials. He was there when 150 people showed up. I handed him a paintbrush.

The next week he calls. I hear you are doing another kalaka? The mayor called and said there are some kids making a basket ball court in the big drainage ditch out on Idependentei, can you ask them to stop? I would if I knew them.

The next weekend, in a separate incident of spontaneous claca a group of pensioners got together with a case of beer and started fixing things.

So the mayor decided we might be useful and asked us to survey the community about a renovation project in a very public park. Then he dropped the ball on actually doing his part of the job (the work part). The bloc associations, now used to getting their claca with their morning coffee on the weekends, either organized by us or their own, started pushing. The mayor calls me a year later – so we doing that park project or what? Well, did you finally find the money? Yes. Good. Why do you ask? Those bloc association leaders you worked with on the park survey said I won’t get elected if they don’t get their park.

Oh no Mayor, sorry to hear that… the public is asking you to fulfill a promise? Asta este Sir, asta este and I smiled as I hung up.

That’s the asta este I want.

I loved fighting asta este in little ways and creating those spaces (games?) in which people looked around and saw their neighbors, challenged those basic presumptions and perceptions and looked at things a bit differently. As the community foundation grew up, eventually reaching 5 staff, 5,000 families donating every month, about $300,000 and around 60 grants/year serving thousands of volunteers and beneficiaries, I became more and more convinced that, as the community took over, my work there was wrapping up; and that this this kind of work in Romania (and everywhere for that matter) is incredibly important – – for organizations and institutions and actions which might create ways for people to remember they are the fundament of society – where they can engage in their own time and place. Where they can realize their own power to change things and make a country as they wish. So, thinking of leaving, I got my second tattoo, our claca symbol, a hand with tools for fingers and the skyline of the community built in.

With all that local good I was also starting to play more on the national scene and my faith in the future of organized Romanian civil society went from sarcastic to worse. Sarcastic in the sense that I believe in the power of the citizenry and I couldn’t find many serious national NGOs who were connecting in any way with individuals. Small rant: I do not believe that civil society without a citizen mandate – – without a group of people asking you to lead and supporting you to do so – – is much of anything. Civil society is about behavior change. It is about moving people from one place to another. Looking at most organized civil society back then, at those larger, recognizable NGOs you could name, I saw folks talking to themselves about themselves. Not that I don’t like talking about myself (obviously) but where does it get you if no one asked and no one is listening?

Then there were the researchers and white paper people who fight for new laws and reform and can retort that they were think tanks and didn’t really need to talk to regular people. Cool, I gotcha and agree that ultimately civil society should challenge the laws that need challenging and write new ones based on the interests of the people. But changing laws without changing regular people, legislating morality as it were, seems to be a bit… questionable (#prohibition).

I became worse-than-sarcastic because I saw civil society acting in ways supremely un-civil and un-social. Stabbing each other in the back in the rat-race for funding and prestige. Organizations willfully sabotaging processes out of greed and somehow missing the point that in doing so they were pissing on their own shoes. I went through this personally after spending a half-year, a lot of time and a decent amount of money developing on a thrilling fundraising mechanism for Romanian NGOs only to have it pirated thanks to someone’s inside connections. Cool. ‚Cause that’s what civil society is all about – stealing.

Catty behaviors like this end up debasing what little good faith we are allowed and rely on – leaving us looking like squabbling babies crying over a lollypop instead of mature social change makers. It was behavior like that – driven by the ridiculous thought that there is not enough to go around (there is if you learn how to ask) that led to my leaving Special Olympics and joining Peace Corps in the first place.

Increasingly happy with the local but pissed off about the national, I started thinking about leaving Romania. Fighting with people who don’t want to change and I didn’t really believe in was not an Asta Este I particularly wanted to fight. Probably thanks to my insider/outsider role bonus points, but hopefully thanks to some interesting approaches to using grantmaking as a community builder, I do a lot of advising on the flow of philanthropy in the region. When talking to someone at a major foundation about what I was pissed off about, they asked what I would do. Simple. Cut all the funding for a couple years and see who survives. I think you would lose 50%+ of recognizable civil society. I wonder if anyone would notice.

That said, I am not saying there aren’t awesome NGOs. Or leaders. Or great micro things happening. Or that there weren’t some at the time. I just couldn’t find many on the national level.

Then something interesting started to happen – – grass-roots civil society, the real hippy stuff that doesn’t really know where it’s going but believes it will get there anyway. Full of energy and life and naivety and doing it because they knew it was the right thing to do – worth sticking around a bit and watching… Looking at what changed and the main factors I see are AISEC and Facebook. AIESEC because it seems to do a good job in brainwashing folks in hope and optimism (and because most of the organizations I have seen walk this path have some direct connection between their leadership and AISEC). Facebook because it was helping people find and connect with constituencies of friends who agreed with them. One person dissatisfied, a group forms with a ‘like,’ maybe it grows and formalizes, maybe it becomes a ‘Let’s Do It, Romania!’ (the very title of which is demonstrative of the attitude shift).

Flash forward a couple years and I’m sitting with Ambassador Gitenstein, trying to get him to do some PR for TechSoup, the second organization I built up here – we link NGOs and technology. With all the great tech in Romania, and serious American investments, it seemed like a pretty obvious idea – tech for good and our corporations are a part of it, right? But, he asks, talk about what? And we start brainstorming. What do you do in a post democratic society where civil society is lacking citizen mandate? Where corruption seems out of reach and the rule of law is flexible? Get back to the basics. You start knocking on doors and asking people what they are going to do about it.

And so we opened our virtual playground – ReStart. We started knocking on virtual doors, asking anyone and everyone online, hey, you want to come play with us? Sure. Will your neighbors? Maybe. Interesting. Some how, ReStart was… different. People were more willing to believe that it might just work. I think it was because we put technology in the ring against transparency. Every bunica knows their grandkid is a good hacker.

ReStart is a competition of ideas, kind of like X-Prize – finding the best ideas and accelerating their development from prototype through to launching new sites and platforms out to the public as fast as we can. All kinds showed up to play. Young hackers, longtime activists and people like Razvan and Monica. They are a couple of my favorite. She is a former data person who is now a stay-at-home mom. He sells washing machines. They are both in their late 40’s and exactly the kind of people civil society tends to think is too old, too jaded to take care of the country. At the beginning of the campaign they were angry adults. Couldn’t walk their kids to school with all the cars on the sidewalk. At the end, they were social change leaders, up on stage with all the certified professional types who had been doing it for a long time – pitching their vision of a better Bucharest. They didn’t win. They didn’t get cash. But they had their site – and they did it anyway. They have cleared at least one street and they helped others start sites. They exemplify what it means to be civil and social. When not selling washing machines or taking the kids to school.

Razvan and Monica were asta but not este and that is what the ReStart playground was all about to me. Opening up the dialog, to any who wanted to play and build and lead change for the better on any scale. Proving they were out there and had a stake. They don’t look at themselves as NGO types anymore than you probably do. Or care about terms like sustainability. Restarters are punks and hackers and moms and hipsters and uncles and kids. They are pissed off and they, these online complainers, and the communities that form around them are the basis for what will make this country tick. Their discontent will drive change as they take some small victories like getting the police to actually ticket the shmeker who parks on the crosswalk, and thus begin to challenge the nominal nature of Romanian democracy. They are active citizens, they are activating citizens and challenging asta este. Standing on stage last year at the ReStart gala with them was one of the proudest moments of my life. Something had worked. We all felt like superheroes that night.

So. I am leaving. I joked that when people started playing my social games without me and took over the playground, when the first thing I heard was not ‘no’ but ‘how’ that I would have to go. That when no one said asta este and just committed because they wanted to, I could get that tattoo and fly off into the sunset like the super hero I certainly know I am not but believe in anyway. Pack up my moral baggage and try something else. It has happened and it is happening. I’m not saying it was because of me – my ego is healthy but not that big. I was a part of a wave and fenced off a bit into a particular playground which we could point to as an example but others always had to come in and do the work. I have started exporting the models we built together to other countries – running ReStart Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo now and into the coming months. Throughout, I’m glad it started here, from volunteer to ReStart, with all its ups and downs, sleepless nights, ulcers and joy, grey hairs and the divorce I ultimately got in part because I couldn’t walk away from the fight.

To those who joined in my games and played in my playgrounds, thanks. Will they survive and grow? Good question. Largely up to you. These were tests and tests often fail. Even if they do, we had that time together and it led to those kids in the ditch with their impromptu basketball court, we shook up a mayor, we hacked for social good. So keep playing. And if you really need it, in those moments when you really just want people to fuck off for being people, you can borrow my super suit.


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