Written by Dr. Les Lenkowsky (introduction) and Diane Thomas, M.A. ’09
Diane Thomas had already raised a family and been a leader in the Indianapolis nonprofit sector when she enrolled in the M.A. in Philanthropic Studies program, earning her degree at the end of 2009. She served as president of the International Center of Indianapolis through 2016, when she took an unusual step: she joined the Peace Corps. Earlier this year, she (and two other philanthropic studies graduates, Bryan Roesler and Ashleigh Graves-Roesler) began training for assignments in Ukraine, a country in the throes of economic and political change, as well as conflict with neighboring Russia.
Diane is currently located in Lviv, the largest city in the western Ukraine, founded over 750 years ago. She is working with the Lviv Education Foundation to assist civil society groups in the city. (The Ukrainian Catholic University, located in the city, sponsors Ukraine’s only graduate program in nonprofit management.) As she describes in the following note, the work is challenging – and opposing armies are not far away.
Almost five months, and I still can’t speak this language! But, I am beginning to understand more. This is my true challenge; feeling so isolated at times when I cannot understand what is being said at home and at work. In both places there are English speakers, but that is only when someone wants me to know something. I want to know everything!
I now live with a young family with three small children (ages 7, 4 and 2) so it is a very active home. We all get along, and the 2-year-old calls me ‘Babu,’ short for Babucia or Grandma. At the end of November, I can move into my own place.
The Peace Corps placed me in a nonprofit called the Lviv Education Foundation. I am still in the process of discovery and am thoroughly enjoying working with a young staff of future leaders. They are all between 22 and 32, full of energy, optimism, and most importantly hope for their country. Their enthusiasm is contagious and makes me believe that Ukraine will indeed succeed as a nation.
A little background is needed to appreciate today’s reality in Ukraine. This is a country that has been repeatedly traumatized over the centuries. Invaded by every imaginable empire and neighbor, they have only ruled themselves for a short time in the early 1900s. However, there is a real sense of nation, even if the west is more ‘European’ and the east more ‘Russian.’
You can see this in the language, where in the west only Ukrainian is spoken, and the further east you travel, the more Russian is spoken. In between there are a number of dialects that mix Ukrainian and Russian. Everyone over the age of 25 was educated in Russian, as the use of the Ukrainian language was banned under Soviet rule. Each invader coveted the rich soil that feeds much of Europe and Russia, and the fourth-longest river in Europe with an enviable geopolitical location.
Freed from the Soviet Union 25 years ago, the Ukrainians have wanted to become a western democracy in spite of widespread corruption, an apathetic older generation, and the Russian threat to the east. They endured the Chernobyl disaster, a corrupt government that they threw out during the Maidan revolution in 2014, and most recently the Russian occupation of their Eastern region. It is a nation at war, with a very uncertain future.
But where I work, these young people are undeterred. Most were in Kyiv during the Maidan revolution, and for them there is no turning back. They work with families in crisis throughout the country in different ways. With nearly 1000 volunteers, they rebuild homes that have been damaged by the war in the east, enlist local volunteers and businesses, and hope to build more than structures.
This grassroots movement is about civic engagement and building community. The work is difficult in a post-Soviet society that has known only distrust and lies. There are projects to work with families whose children are at risk of being removed by the Ukrainian social services to be placed in horrible orphanages. Everything here needs reform; social services, education, the judiciary, and the only actors able to bring these reforms are the fledging NGOs led by young, inexperienced, but inspired individuals.
So what’s my role is all this? To bring a bit of order in all this chaos, and to provide support and encouragement. At first I tried to introduce a few basic tools like time management, activity calendars, meeting agendas, to no avail. I would request a meeting time, all would agree, and no one would show up. Yet, I was responsible for planning the staff retreat at the end of July and could not even find out what they wanted to accomplish.
Finally, I just threw a fit! Not so professional, but I was out of options. Since Ukrainians greatly value relationships, they worried that their relationship with me and the Peace Corps could be damaged, and that would be unacceptable. So we started working … goals and objectives, budget, facilitators, fantastic retreat, organizational capacity assessment, and we are on a roll! Best of all, I think they really enjoy this ‘capacity building’ work.
I close this episode with the knowledge that 30,000 NATO forces are amassed in the Balkans and Poland, and that 100,000 Russian troops will be doing military exercises on their western border in September. Guess who is in the middle?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.