From the Grassroots Up: Supporting Ukraine’s Civil-Society Change-Makers

GURT Resource Center, one of the oldest Ukrainian civil society organizations (CSOs), assists grassroots groups in their efforts to support the country’s democratic transformation. Its vision is one of a Ukraine in which “civil society, business, and government collaboratively ensure dignity, confidence, and trust among citizens at local and national levels.” GURT—which means “gathering” in Ukrainian—implements innovative projects that help change-makers develop their capacity and maximize their impact. Like many other organizations, it leaped into action when Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022. Its deputy director, Alla Zhuravel, explains its role in these challenging times.

How did your story with GURT begin?

My story with GURT has two different plot lines. From 2010 to 2012, I was its administrative assistant. Then I started my own business. In 2019, I got involved in initiatives GURT offered for businessmen and businesswomen. The more engaged I became, the more excited I got about GURT. During the third COVID-19 lockdown, I began to work with GURT full-time.

There are several aspects of GURT’s “personality” that make it a unique organization. We are constantly evolving and moving forward. We value people and the things they have to say, the ideas they have to share. GURT is one of the few organizations in Ukraine helping entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. In 2011, it established a partnership with the International Labor Organization to train trainers who can then share their practical experience with new entrepreneurs. I got certified as a trainer as well. I am excited to share my entrepreneurial experience with others and help them achieve their dreams.

This is what Ukraine needs today and what will help our country thrive in the future. Businesses create opportunities and new jobs, and they pay taxes. So many businesspeople have relocated from the temporarily occupied territories and have managed to restore their activities. I am amazed by what I see. It is a privilege for our organization to assist these people and to provide them with new opportunities to help their communities.

Did GURT change its operational strategies after the full-scale Russian invasion began?

GURT supports change-makers in their communities to help them become effective advocates and to inspire others to participate in the community-business-government triangle.

Every actor, every community, every change-maker works toward Ukraine’s victory. We put our efforts into assisting organizations that provide psychosocial support to people who are living through war. We provide grants to organizations to strengthen their institutional capacities to get certified as psychosocial support facilitators and successfully assist their communities. In the second half of 2022, together with our partners, we provided primary psychosocial help to 4,500 people who had suffered in the war.

We are determined to continue to provide this support, to raise awareness of the importance of group therapy, and to promote self-help groups as primary psychosocial rehabilitation. The demand for this help grows by the day. This year, it rose fivefold compared to last year. The number of war victims only increases.

When people receive immediate help, they can establish new routines more efficiently, for example, adapting quickly to new communities and communicating with their families. All these people’s lives have been turned upside down: They lost their homes, their communities, and their support systems. These are the stories our partners and implementers share. It makes me proud that we do urgently needed things.

We do not have medical doctors or psychiatrists who diagnose patients. The therapy groups consist of ordinary people who share the same experiences. Some have lost family members. They discuss their strategies for surviving these experiences. Each group has a facilitator who helps and leads the process.

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Self-help group from a partner civil society organization during a session. Photo credit: GURT Resource Center

Where do these facilitators come from?

The number of war victims is rising, so we need more facilitators. Just recently, GURT announced a competition for mini-grants for local nonprofit and charitable organizations that provide psychosocial support. We will have ten organizations training facilitators. We expect to get 30 to 40 new facilitators, but obviously it’s not enough.

If we look at the Ternopil region, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) registered there is 87,000. And this is just one category—not the veterans or their families. There are between 23,000 and 27,000 IDPs in the city of Ternopil itself. Ten facilitators are not enough to work with this number of people.

We need resources to train facilitators to work with self-help groups. We constantly search for additional sources of funding. The demand is enormous. To some extent, every Ukrainian is traumatized by the war: veterans, their families, volunteers, and ordinary civilians. No one is left who would not have been through some trauma. Constant shelling and air sirens cause an increased feeling of anxiety, and this influences a person’s ability to work and to be a productive community member.

What do you think when you hear about Ukrainian resilience?

We have always been resilient. Perhaps before we didn’t see it on the scale we see now. We can’t give up; we can’t step down. Everyone understands that every decision, every small thing we do, aims to bring our victory closer. The armed forces fight to protect every inch of Ukrainian land. I can’t compare our civilian bravery with their bravery and sacrifice. Still, victory also depends on what we do and how active we are. Everything we do is aimed at winning this war and building a new and free country.

What is the future of Ukrainian civil society?

I expect civil society to have an even more prominent role than it has now. We already see that it is present in state and governmental institutions’ external and internal policies. We see many activists and civil society members representing Ukraine around the globe. They attend important meetings, hold gatherings and discussions, shape our country’s positive image and reputation, implement ongoing and sustainable reforms, achieve international trust, and bring humanitarian and military support to Ukraine.

The cooperation between civil society and the government will grow more robust, and its influence will be even more visible.

We see how active Ukrainian women are and how eager to participate in change. What should we do to support this tendency?

Women have more opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities now. Martial law prohibits men from leaving the country, so women represent it abroad. They encourage the world to stand with Ukraine.

About 80%  percent of GURT’s facilitators and about 70%  percent of the participants in entrepreneurship programs are women. We have examples of women relocating their businesses abroad in 2022 and continuing to succeed. The tendency of women to be proactive will only grow.
Could you share GURT’s plans for the future?

We continue to work on psychosocial support. We want to scale this initiative and train more people who can work directly with the groups in need. We hope to implement the Launch and Improve Your Business program. We see the demand from entrepreneurs and want to assist them with workshops, study groups, and professional development courses. And the GURT Resource Center portal, which has more than 60,000 subscribers, provides our followers with up-to-date information on opportunities, resources, and grants to encourage people to participate actively in positive change-making in Ukraine.


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