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In Germany, the conversations revolving around Russia, Belarus or Ukraine are usually replete with terms like war, authoritarianism and vote rigging. Despite this negative perception, a young generation is emerging in these countries, eager to change their reality, their society and their cities. For almost two weeks, they were joined by German social entrepreneurship experts. The group discussed their visions, projects and novel concepts. One of the guests, an architect Olga Solonovich, runs free guided tours for the visually impaired in her native Minsk. When this 27-year-old talks about her project, her eyes shine and her voice quickens. She is so eager to tell every detail about ‘Mivia’, she stops herself occasionally: “I hope I don’t talk too fast!”
She runs the project together with several friends out of her home office. In their spare time, the group meets to tinker with the architectural models, to be used in the excursions later on. The models represent selected parts of the city moulded in plastic, which the excursion participants can touch, thus learning how their environment looks like. “The idea is very well received, and not just by blind people,” says Solonovich. For the seeing individuals, who can join the tour blindfolded, the excursion is an adventure too. But Solonovich is not just interested in creating “adventures”. “We want the visually-impaired —and the disabled people in general — to be fully established in the Belarusian society.”
Previously, the tendency was to exclude and to pity the blind. “But why?” asks Olga, enraged, “They are people just like you and me.” The young architect appreciated her stay in Berlin. Finally was she able to meet people who share her vision of a more just and inclusive society. “I’m not alone, and that’s a good feeling,” she says, giggling. Anna Bondarenko is a person with a vision too. The young, petite woman is an expert in the field of social entrepreneurship in Ukraine. She remarks the progress since the beginning of the movement, and seems to be participating in everything. Her biggest project is the Impact Hub Odessa, a co-working space for the creatives and activists alike, “for people who want more than just to earn money.” “We want to make the world a better place,” the 20-year old woman proclaims energetically.
“The current situation in Ukraine is great for change-making and idea-generation,” she says. The Euromaidan made it possible. “People understand now that they have to do something if they want to have a change in the society.” It was demonstrated that the social entrepreneurship is a useful tool: earning money, yes — but also for a good cause. Sergey Medvedev of the Dekabristen (former iDecembrists) association, who initiated the project with the support from the German Foreign Office, is certain that the social entrepreneurship can change the Ukrainian, as well as Belorussian and Russian societies. “Social entrepreneurship is kind of a backdoor for nurturing civil society in authoritarian states,” says his colleague, Anton Himmelspach, “ All these young people are seen as the new hope.”
The new hope representatives demonstrate their commitment in diverse ways. The young entrepreneurs are active in the medical care, they create spaces for artists and conservationists, analyze the labour market, establish well-maintained bike routes and push the art projects for the disabled children forward. These projects are often financed by crowdfunding. Each country has its own crowdfunding platform. In Russia, there are boomstarter.ru and planeta.ru, while in Belarus it’s talaka.by. “It is comparable to startnext.de in Germany,” says Leon Reiner (of the Impact Hub Berlin) who accompanied the participants through the workshop.
During the closing event he sent off the participants with the encouraging: “From now on you are the experts. Make the most of it!” We are curiously anticipating what’s next in the “faraway land” of Eastern Europe. “In 2016 we are going to organize the second Social Entrepreneurship School for sure,” says Sergey Medvedev. “It only makes sense. In many post-soviet countries political involvement can be fatally dangerous. An encouragement of the social entrepreneurship can be a good alternative in creating and consolidating the civil society.”