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Before multitudes from the Eastern European borderlands emigrated to the Lower East Side around 1900, and before many others perished or were resettled in the hell of WWII, the little town of Sejny in northeast Poland was home to Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Russian Old-believers, Belarusians, Roma, and Germans. As immigrants, they brought their borderland identity with them to the multicultural experiment of America.

For a long time people had been emigrating from Sejny. Today, this little town is exporting to diversified societies worldwide its pioneering methods of community work as a laboratory for multiculturalism. The aim of Borderlanders: Finding a Voice is to present the ideas and practices of the Sejny-based Borderland Foundation in building bridges between cultures and ethnicities. Multiple identity, exile, immigration, and the arts' creative role in multicultural community work are the themes that relate the festival's events to each other.

THE BORDERLAND FOUNDATION (Pogranicze) was founded in 1990 by Krzysztof Czyzewski, Malgorzata Sporek-Czyzewska, Bozena and Wojciech Szroeder in Sejny, near the border with Lithuania and Belarus. Along with its Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations, the Foundation is an NGO with a mission to research, revive, and nurture the cultural diversity of the Eastern borderlands of Poland that was nearly destroyed by two world wars. It promotes multi-cultural education and understanding locally, but also, more recently - in response to global threats arising from the rebirth of old ethnic and religious conflicts and a growing hostility to the "Other" - it serves as a model for cross-cultural dialogue in regions of ethnic tension worldwide.

In 1989, when communism in Poland collapsed, Czyzewski committed himself to creating the model of a living civil society, feeling "called to action" by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and exiting his experimental theater past. The Sejny model involves the whole community, but especially young people, as its mission is to educate them to be community builders, in the belief that they first need to understand the past in order to shape the future.

For the benefit of both scholars and local youth, the Borderland Center - located in a former Hebrew school, yeshiva, and synagogue - includes a documentation and research facility with a collection of 4,500 films on the ethnicities of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as well as a museum, galleries, and studios for film, photography, music and other arts and crafts. These facilitate lively hands-on workshops for young people, such as the Musicians Raft on klezmer music and Jewish traditions led by Michael Alpert and other New York artists, or the on-going children's research-and-theater project, The Sejny Chronicles.

In just over a decade Mr. Czyzewski has won an international reputation, helping to set up about a dozen similar centres as far afield as Mostar in Bosnia, Uzhgorod in Ukraine and Arad in Romania, remarked Stefan Wagstyl of The Financial Times. Czyzewski has been constantly proving that culture can be applied to establishing dialogue when peaceful communication is prevented by politics, war, or ethnic and religious conflicts - current or remembered ones.

A New Agora: Reinventing the Agora in Modern Society - In this new mission, the Foundation translates the experience gained in its own multicultural environment into a more universal language. The New Agora is a mobile academy enriched with workshops "laboratories of intercultural practices" - in different parts of the world. One of Borderland's most significant actions was involvement in dialogue after the war in Bosnia. The Bosnian Triptych (2005), embracing the arts, humanistic reflection, and work with children, attempted - through art practice - to find new ideas in response to the challenges of a contemporary multicultural Europe.

Related projects are leadership training programs run by the Foundation for intercultural dialogue animators in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia, as well as in places of religious and ethnic conflict in Indonesia.

Borderland School - an annual program in Sejny supported by the E.U. that provides NGO and local community leaders, teachers, culture animators, journalists, specialists in ethnography, and historians with guidance on working in their respective regions.

International Center of Dialogue - in development as a center for teaching tolerance, to be housed in the former family mansion in Krasnogruda donated to the Foundation by Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 Nobel Prize laureate in literature.

The Borderland Publishing House has since 1993 been publishing belles-lettres, journalism, history, and anthropology, launching in 1999 its praised Meridian series of works by distinguished authors of Central and Eastern Europe. In 2000 its Neighbors, by Jan T. Gross, on the massacre of the Jews in Jedwabne, which stirred heated debate nationwide, was nominated for Poland's most prestigious literary award, the Nike.

Krasnogruda - a quarterly devoted to the culture, history, and ethnic problems of the borderlands, named after Czeslaw Milosz's nearby family estate. Most volumes focus on specific regions or cities, the 17th (2006) exploring Central Europe in New York.

Café Europa - At a time when many watched with horror the war in Bosnia and the crushing of multiculturalism as symbolized by Sarajevo, Czyzewski saw the need for places where intellectuals could exchange their views on art, philosophy, and shared catastrophes. He invented the "flying literary café" as an antidote to anti-multiculturalism, with the ambience of the 19th century European café and interludes of music and song. Meetings of writers from both the former communist countries and the West have been held from Sejny to Amsterdam, from Sarajevo to Iowa.

The Honorary Title of "Borderlander" is given every two years to a writer or artist whose work and life exemplify the ethos of the Foundation and the finest values of the borderlands: respect for the Other, suppression of stereotypes, building bridges between diverse peoples. The award is to promote these values through popularization of the laureates' work through publication, exhibitions, concerts, and meetings with the public. "Borderlanders" named so far are Jerzy Ficowski, Tomas Venclova, Arvo Part, and Bohdan Osadczuk.

In 2003 the Society of Friends of the Borderland Foundation was established in Alexandria, VA.
Contact: Ben Phillips,

More information about Pogranicze at:
May 2019
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