Celebrating 30 Years: From 1989 to now, how and why we partner for peace and democracy

by Julia Roig   October 30, 2019

It’s been 30 years since PartnersGlobal launched when we initially arrived in Poland to spur participatory decision-making and peaceful change, then under the name Partners for Democratic Change.

In 1989, we had a different name, and it was a very different time. There were no cell phones, internet or social media. Today, those technologies make modern life feel like the world is changing faster and faster.

But from our early days in Eastern Europe, we know that, in reality, the world was changing just as quickly then. When the Berlin Wall fell, it brought about a remarkably fast transformation: the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. In the months and years after, engaged citizens began building a civil society from scratch, and Partners for Democratic Change was an important part of that process.

Our founder Raymond Shonholtz created Partners in that moment of rapid transition to help drive change that was both peaceful and democratic. He had a vision for creating local organizations in these new democracies that had real staying power and that would help give people a voice. As Partners, we understood that our critical role was to help individuals and institutions in these emerging democracies to be able to manage the conflicts that emerge in any open society.

The definition of “democratic change” in our original name and in our current tagline acknowledges that anywhere there is freedom to have a difference of opinion, conflict naturally arises. We believe that conflict can be healthy, enabling the best decisions and policies to emerge.

But people need a guide to manage intense moments of change and to find ways to collaborate, so we at PartnersGlobal work to productively transform those conflicts, helping diverse communities learn to respect differences and institutionalize inclusion and democratic decision-making. Our mission of helping individuals and institutions to create a culture of peaceful change met a critical need in 1989.

An ever-critical mission today

Three decades later in 2019, our mission is as relevant as ever.

In our line of work, we have to be a step ahead and understand how societies are evolving in both good and bad ways. Today, levels of violence and political instability reach all corners of the world. We are collectively alarmed by the vitriol and deepening polarization in our societies.

When PartnersGlobal started, we did not have to think about social media strategies or how Facebook and Twitter could unite communities, but also incite such extreme divisions. Our original commitment to create safe spaces where true discussion and differences of opinions emerge remains critical now more than ever.

PartnersGlobal has been carving out these spaces where we work across generations and across partisan differences with young people around the world, not on their behalf, but with them. The skills we began teaching in 1989: How to resolve conflicts peacefully; how to facilitate coalitions; how to create partnerships with unlikely bedfellows; and collaborative leadership are just as needed now both online and off.

We are supporting many activists and social movements — of young people, of brave women coming forward to demand change, of climate activists, and of LGBTQ-rights activists; and social justice “warriors” addressing inequality. We are working with these diverse actors to discover new advocacy tools that restore societal relationships and to promote new narratives of peace, so activist communities are not contributing to polarization.

In the dynamic environments where we work, readiness to adapt is the key to an organization’s resiliency, and Partners has had to adapt in ways we never would have imagined. As our network has grown, we now find ourselves working in conflict-affected environments like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Colombia, El Salvador, Nigeria. Working in these countries is not only about democratic change. It is about stabilization, safety of communities, addressing violence, guiding reconciliation and transitional justice efforts; and working on hard security and the rule of law, always with an unwavering commitment to human rights.

The Partners Network now spans 20 countries. We began in Poland to support the unfolding transition to democracy and to build civil society in a post-communist era. The newest Network members are Partners Lebanon and Partners Iraq, which are both facing difficult post-war challenges, including the impacts of mass migration due to ongoing violent conflicts in the region. Now, we are supporting those transitions to peace. We are collaborating with a thriving civil society sector in Lebanon through new arts for peace programs; and, in Iraq we are fighting for women to have the legal protections to play their rightful role in rebuilding their country.

Our core DNA then and now

For more than 30 years, we have been known for establishing a network of strong local organizations dedicated to working for democratic change and helping communities around the world to have a voice. We are truly committed to building bridges across differences and to showing how it is possible to come together in an inclusive, democratic society.

Not only are we experts in the technocratic aspects of peacebuilding and democracy-building, we are true drivers of change. We act as integrators to break down siloes and bring people and organizations together. This is in our organizational DNA.

We don’t just guide others to collaborate more effectively. We ensure that we operate in a holistic way with as many other actors as possible. We are committed to establishing lasting relationships that help to achieve the most meaningful long-term impact. It is those collaborations and relationships with so many colleagues from around the world that have allowed PartnersGlobal to flourish and adapt for three decades.

Focus on resiliency in the decades to come

After 30 years of working with our network members and civil society in more than 50 countries, we know firsthand how hard it is to sustain this type of work. The operating space for civil society organizations to function is closing in many parts of the world, and our very values are in question by political leaders. The important role of civil society as a vehicle for citizen participation and oversight of government decision-making is subtly and aggressively repressed in many parts of the world.

This is why we recently launched the Resiliency+ Framework to help civil society to continue to thrive in some of the most difficult environments. Our Resiliency Framework takes a different approach than traditional organizational development by: enhancing adaptive strategies within civil society; creating more effective public narratives in support of our values; ensuring we operate with transparency and accountability to our constituencies; working with wider networks across the public and private sectors; fostering an entrepreneurial mindset that is open and able to garner new sources of funding; and, overall, having the ability to adapt with an awareness of quickly changing dynamics facing civil society as a sector.

PartnersGlobal and our network members are here today after 30 long years because we have learned hard-earned lessons and lived these resiliency factors. In our next decades, we are committed to working with civil society around the world to accompany them on their own resiliency journeys, and we remain dedicated to serving as an integrator for the local, global, technocratic and activist work we are all doing to have a bigger impact on the social change we want to achieve.