Acquiring the Tools to Make a Difference
01 August 2000

Over the last seven years, hundreds of young people have taken part in courses on the values which undergird true freedom, run by MRA's Foundations for Freedom programme. Anna Christine Christensen from Denmark first took part in 1994. She caught up with participants new and old at the first of this summer's conferences in Caux, Switzerland.

What are the values I live by? How do I go about changing things for the better in the world around me? What ought to be different in my own way of living?

These are important questions in a world that is developing so fast that the amount of information tends to be more confusing than enlightening. And yet they are questions you are rarely encouraged to think about today. 'What can I get out of it?' and 'Why don't they do something about it?' are more likely topics of conversation.

That was what fascinated me about the Foundations for Freedom (F4F) programme when I encountered it in 1994. Here was a group of young people, mainly from Eastern and Western Europe, spending time discussing things that really mattered: the problems our countries were facing, ways that we could approach these problems. In the process of learning about each other, we discovered new things about ourselves and our own background. We began to feel like participants rather than merely inhabitants in the world.

F4F made me feel that I could make a difference in the world if I wanted to, and it gave me tools that I could use to do so. It also made me part of a group of people where I felt that I could be totally myself--accepted, respected and cared about--despite the fact that we were all so different.

When, around 1990, Eastern Europe opened up, several people in England had the same thought: there must be a way that we can help the young people of Eastern Europe to develop some of the values and skills needed to build up a society that is free in both the political and personal senses of the word.

Over the next couple of years they put their ideas together in the Foundations for Freedom programme, which started up in 1993. This non-profit programme has three main parts: visiting courses, international courses and regional meetings.

The 12-day visiting courses go to different countries on the invitation of young local people, who organize everything themselves; finding participants, accommodation and funding. In the last seven years there have been 19 courses in eight countries.

Each course starts out looking at society: what makes it work, when does it go wrong? It then moves on to the role of the individual in society: what part--if any--can one person play in a society of millions and a world of billions? Finally the participants look at themselves in the light of what they have discovered about society and the role of the individual. What are my values? Do I live in a way which is likely to make the world a better place? In other words, am I a part of the illness or a part of the cure?

F4F teaches you to ask yourself questions and to listen in silence to your innermost being in order to find new ways. This is probably something that all cultures, traditions and religions have been practising over time, but that we seem to have forgotten in our scientific age. Rediscovering this very basic tool opens up a whole new range of possibilities: almost a whole new world.

You also learn to measure your thoughts and actions by such fundamental values as love, honesty, unselfishness and purity, in order to be aware of your motives and to improve your integrity.

Because of the nature of the course, the participants get to know both themselves and each other in a new way. When the course is over, it leaves behind a group of young people who have seen a greater picture of their role in the world and can encourage each other to walk a road of responsibility in the months ahead.

The three-week annual international course takes place in Britain and is attended by young people from many countries, who build on what they have learnt at the visiting courses. As well as listening to lecturers from various walks of life, the participants share insights from their own countries: politics, education, family life, business....

I remember two entirely different things which impressed me.

One was a lecturer who had started writing to politicians when he thought they had done something good. It seems so simple, but the fact is that we tend to criticize when things are less than perfect, but forget to praise when they are good. The result was that the politicians felt so encouraged by his letters that they started asking his advice once in a while. Lesson learned: positive feedback when something is successful may make a greater impact than negative feedback when it is not--and anyone can make a difference.

The other thing that is still a clear memory in my heart was listening to a Croat and a Serb presenting their countries to the course, at a time when their nations were at war. The two men knew that they might some day meet each other in uniform on opposing sides of the line. Having the heat of the world situation brought to me in this way showed me how important it is to understand and respect each other. And it made me more sensitive to the details of such deadly conflicts.

The regional meeting is also held once a year, usually in an Eastern European country. It lasts about five days and is arranged by young people who have been on an F4F course. It provides a chance for people to get together in less structured circumstances and exchange their experiences of using the tools they have acquired through F4F: questioning, listening, evaluating.

The demand for F4F courses is so great that the programme's organizers cannot find enough people to lead them. The courses teach young people to ask themselves essential questions, and the answers can be life-changing, as I discovered when I talked to some of those attending the session organized by F4F in Caux this summer.

The conference at Caux this summer was largely planned by a group of Moldovans, who, after a visiting course, had structured their ideas into a programme of change for their country, concentrating on such issues as business ethics and electoral culture.

'One of the things we have planned is a "Think and Vote" campaign to increase the electoral culture and education of the Moldovan population,' says Veaceslav Balan, a 22-year-old law graduate who works at the State Agency for the Protection of Industrial Property. 'We are organizing a series of discussions at the university on the role of the citizen in decision-making. The situation in our country is very poor--but we have to understand that a poor government is the result of the people's poor choice. At the moment most people in power only work for their own pockets. An electoral culture is the stepping stone necessary to prevent power always ending up in the hands of the handsome and eloquent.'

Balan was attracted to F4F three years ago when he saw an announcement at the university for a short course entitled 'Search for Freedom'. 'Many have general ideas of what freedom is, but no in-depth thoughts about it. It was very helpful to use the four values of love, honesty, unselfishness and purity. In that light I realized that life in Moldova was not free.'

He describes himself as 'a great optimist', who attempts to be a realist too. The ideas behind Foundations for Freedom can seem a 'bit naïve and fairy-taleish', he says, but he believes they are reachable. 'Here in Caux everyone understands each other so perfectly although we are so different. You know you can rely on each other because everyone tries to follow the four values I mentioned. Mutual trust is basic to understanding and co-operation.

'In Moldova we need moral and spiritual assistance, a sense that we are not alone. People from the West still do not understand the problems of Eastern Europe. When we talk about corruption they tell us to 'speak out'. But how? People do not publicize their honesty and you cannot go up to people and ask them: are you honest? We need to create activities which make people of integrity come forward so we can stand together and create a critical mass of people who can move on together.'

Balan's plea to Westerners is to take a broader view of the problems. 'You are more educated in methods of solving problems, but blind application in the East does not work. It would be good if we could find someone from our own country who could serve as a consultant to F4F: someone who understands the mechanisms in Eastern European cultures. But such a consultant would have to be certain of sustained moral support from the West.'

Balan was one of 14 Moldovans at Caux. For him, F4F is more than an extracurricular activity. 'It is a way of life. Do this always!'

Michaela Grönqvist, 24, from Finland, is studying Political Science with a special interest in environmental politics. She is currently working as an assistant to a Member of Parliament.

'I have been at both an international course and a regional meeting--and now I am here in Caux!' she says. 'There was a workshop here on family values and democratic values. To me there is harmony between the two. But I found out that in Eastern Europe, family values often lead to nepotism--and then suddenly they are in opposition to democratic values. It is good to find out things like these, because there are so many things you take for granted.

'What is so amazing about F4F is that here you get to talk about deep issues you do not even talk about with your friends at home. You can open up to anybody here, because you feel they will not judge you. It is total relaxation--you are just yourself. I have been wondering where in my ordinary life I can get this feeling, so I can keep it up... I guess I will have to come back to F4F, but I will also try to share it with my friends.'

Iryna Mishakov, 27, works at the Canadian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine. Her husand, Vadim, 32, is a translator. Iryna had attended an F4F international course, but Caux was Vadim's first encounter with Foundations for Freedom.

'It is interesting, but we have to think before we implement these thoughts,' Iryna explains. 'There is a lot of talk about God here, but the Orthodox church says: do not use God's name in vain. For us it is something you only talk about in church or in your family, so it is uncomfortable when it is used in public all the time.'

Like all the other participants in the conference, Iryna had been part of a community, which met for discussions and to do such practical tasks as serving and preparing meals. 'To me what has been most interesting at this conference is discovering unselfishness in a practical way, and experiencing honesty in our working community. I will try to implement that to a greater extent in my work when I come back home.'

Vadim had appreciated hearing so many different points of view. 'Back home we do not hear other opinions--and we do not discuss such topics in public. Maybe it will make us more flexible. It may be a step on the road to freedom.'

Nineteen-year-olds Andrew Nyamapfene (right) and Munatsi Manyande from Zimbabwe are both spending some time in England before going on to university in South Africa and the USA respectively.

Andrew was particularly impressed by the Moldovan group in Caux. 'They have got together to do something about their country, and that has inspired me to do the same. The situation in Zimbabwe is quite similar and I think that sharing ideas would help a lot. If they can do it, then why not us?'

Munatsi agrees. 'It is really encouraging to see young people doing what the Moldovans are doing. You can draw inspiration from that. The most useful thing I have learned is that I can do it. I want to do things in Zimbabwe after I return from my studies in Business and Finance in the US; not necessarily under an MRA-umbrella, but using the experience I have gained here. Also, I now take spirituality more seriously.'

Oleg and Iryna Savchyn, aged 29 and 23, come from Ukraine. Oleg is a translator and Iryna is finishing her degree as a speech therapist.

For Iryna this summer was her first experience of Foundations for Freedom. 'The session that I learned most from was one where the Australians told how when the government would not officially apologize to the Aborigines who had been taken away from their families, they themselves arranged a Sorry Day to show their regret. I was struck by the readiness of the Australian people to respond and to remedy the situation. Ukrainian history is quite controversial, there are many complex issues.'

Oleg adds: 'What has struck me most about this conference is the balance between the individual and the collective. It is necessary to balance these components in order to build a society where the individual and social rights of each person are respected.

'For many years Ukraine disregarded individual principles: there were violations of human rights and freedom, and disregard for human needs. That caused a tragedy in many lives. Now we have to find the balance so we do not go to the other extreme of individualism, where each person thinks only about his own needs.

'As individuals we can implement the principles that we have heard here. We can try to make others understand what we have discovered--that if they implement moral values in their own lives it will slowly spread through the population. It has to be passed on from individual to individual, creating a network of individuals with integrity.

'I already believed in living out moral values before I took part in F4F courses, but they gave me confidence that I should stick to my ideas. Regular courses are important; they strengthen you and give you a chance to--as we say in the Ukraine--"synchronize our watches" before an important decision.'

Quinh-Tram Trinh, a 28-year-old market researcher from Australia, is also involved in women's issues. She is of Vietnamese origin, and has been living in Australia for 15 years.

'Some friends from Australia encouraged me to come to Caux while I was in Europe. I chose to do the compressed version of the Foundations for Freedom course which was offered during the conference and I really appreciate the deliberate thinking behind the course. It confirms and expands what I have already learned from experience. These ideas can act as guidelines in my encounters with people.'
Anna Christine Christensen