On the Edge & At The Center: Social Innovation in the USSR was an IN CONTEXT-sponsored citizen diplomacy trip to the USSR. Twenty-two travelers spent twenty-two days this Spring visiting social innovators and seeing perestroikain action. The trip’s purpose was to discover the emerging new culture and to develop deeper understandings and heart-to-heart connections – and everyone who participated felt it was a great success.
Going beyond the impossible is our continuing experience during the three-plus years we have made citizen diplomacy trips to the Soviet Union. IN CONTEXT‘s most recent tour this spring took us well beyond the usual Leningrad and Moscow (Russian Republic) to Tbilisi & Telavi (Georgia), Tashkent (Uzbeckistan), Alma Ata (Kazakhistan), and Novosibirsk (Siberia). Wonderful stories from each stop abound; here, however, I’d like to focus on a very exciting grassroots group that has emerged in Siberia within this year – a new social invention.
The "Association of Families for Friendship Among People of USSR & USA" in Novosibirsk developed in reponse to the Earthstewards Network‘s "Computer Kids" trip, which brought 20 Novosibirsk youth to the USA for three weeks in the fall of 1986 [see IC #15]. These kids made so many friendships during their stay that they and their parents wanted to continue and expand the contacts. Gradually these families (and a widening circle of friends) have become a self-conscious group, and recently they created programs for both the Earthstewards Network and IN CONTEXT, as well as cooperating with many peace groups such as Peace Table, Grandmothers for Peace, Lanterns for Peace, and Kids to Kids.
The emergence of this group is highly significant – in the past, no informal associations of this type were allowed to exist. Official groups like the Peace Committee and the Friendship Society have been the approved meeting places for Americans and Soviet citizens in the major cities (in our experience, the Leningrad Friendship Society has been especially helpful and cooperative); but informal contacts were often discouraged. In Novosibirsk, however, there was no American/English branch of the official Friendship Society. Thus a vacuum existed, which created an opportunity.
Under the leadership of Academician Ershov, the Families Association is in the process of becoming official so that it may legally raise money and create joint projects. It now supports activities such as the founding of a new children’s theatre, a children’s theatre exchange with the USA, and joint family holidays picking fruit together on the Black Sea. Even as they move to develop some kind of official status, however, they are being very careful to maintain their capacity for grassroots initiative.
Based on planning we did together in January, the Families Association treated our IN CONTEXT tour group to a wonderful series of activities unusual for the genuine sharing, cooperation, and even spontaneous playfulness involved. These included creating a mural on the wall of a school, sewing a traditional costume for our daughter, cooking dinner for our huge group of American and Soviet families, learning Russian songs and dances, and doing a TV interview. As we worked together we learned more about each other, building trust and working towards making life on the planet a little bit better and a little more sustainable. "We shall overcome," our common song, inspires us to keep pushing against the barriers – for us as well as for our grandchildren.