Team Red in Sofia (May 2-4)

What is the first word you think of when I say Civic Education?

– (Crickets…)

After a quick stop in Ploiesti, where our lovely hosts Tudor and his mom sacrificed their Labor Day for us in return for a series of selfies, we continued our journey to Sofia. In some languages, including Bulgarian, there is no direct translation for Civic Education. Even when there is, it remains a vague term that encompasses a plethora of topics we should be concerned with to be prepared for Life (with a capital L) as constituents of a collective, such as financial literacy, sexual education, public health, minority rights, traffic rules, and more. Once the students of the schools we visited had an idea of what we were going to talk about altogether, with the help of our host and AEGEE-Sofia president Elitsa, we were not surprised to find out that they had a lot to say.

To the question “Do you feel that your voice is heard?”, unfortunately, only a handful of students agreed. They identified two big issues. Number one: The generation gap. Bulgaria has been undergoing a big transition. A student explained that older people are not willing to listen to younger people and accept their way of life, because they are nostalgic about socialist times, “when everything was better.” Meanwhile, young people are leaving the country – the so-called brain drain. There are too few options, yet there is too little competition, according to one interviewee. People don’t like the options they have. As a young judo champion explained, people only think about themselves and they can always find a way to redirect funds to their own pockets, representing the second problem: Corruption. He is proud to represent Bulgaria in international judo tournaments, but he shared that the authorities always find an excuse to not give you the money to go, so you have to pay yourself. For this reason, athletes go abroad to represent other countries instead…

After our school visits, we had a meeting with a collection of NGOs working on Civic Education, including Foundation for Alternative Civic Education, the Students’ Club of Political Science at Sofia University, and NGO PravoDach. We learned about the influence of and on minorities in Bulgaria, which represent 1/6 of the population. Like the judoist alluded to, the lack of trust in authorities and politicians means that people only vote out of self-interest – “What will benefit me?” A target audience for manipulation, minorities are a subject to a variety of political practices in Bulgaria (such as buying votes). As most organizations on Civic Education are situated in Sofia, it is a challenge to reach the people who “need it” the most, since “there are too many people who are only concerned with the bills they need to pay tomorrow and the table that is still empty,” but we stressed the importance of including if not prioritizing them in social initiatives and interventions for progress to occur.

When talking about formal Civic Education, there were two main questions: Who should teach CE and how should it be taught. A speaker asked, “If our current teachers do not even understand the democratic system, a system they did not grow up with, themselves, then how are they supposed to teach it?” Regarding how it should be taught, we discussed the trade-off between centralization of the curriculum and the magic that can occur in more democratic, seminar-style class environments. As it is harder for NGOs to gain access to the blackboard, it seems that Civic Education in Bulgaria continues to be mostly taught by teachers that lead by personal example, which is something everybody can do.

We really appreciated the opportunity to meet different groups of people in Sofia. We were especially inspired by our conversations with the high schoolers after the workshop (we may have heard/ignored a bell or two), in which they shared their stories and dreams with us, full of energy, motivation, hope, and determination; the ingredients for a better future.

Thank you AEGEE-Sofia for hosting us, and see you somewhere in Europe!

Written by Eleanor Denneman, Photos by Paweł Lenarczyk