Archive for August, 2016


Solidarity Center Gdansk Poland Gate to Old Lenin Shipyard Gdansk Poland Worker in Solidarity Center Gdansk Poland

On a recent trip through the Baltic region, I had the opportunity to visit the European Solidarity Center (Europejskie Centrum Solidarnosc) in Gdansk, Poland.  This museum offers an amazing opportunity to reflect on the power and complexity of democratic social movements through the lens of the relatively recent 1980-1981 Solidarity Movement in Poland. Solidarity was the first independent self-governing trade union free of communist control in a Warsaw pact country. Not unlike similar movements around the world, the creation of Solidarity was and remains controversial.  Controversy is inherent in grassroots uprisings of civil resistance that successfully counter human oppression.

Opened in 2014, the European Solidarity Center sits near the historic Gate No. 2 of the former Lenin Shipyard (now known as the Gdansk Shipyard) on the edge of Gdansk old town. (See a photo of the gate above). It was in that shipyard that Lech Walesa, then an unknown electrician in the shipyard, gave his first speech in 1979 at an illegal ceremony commemorating workers who had been killed in an uprising in 1970. Walesa went on to famously jump over the shipyard wall in 1980 to help lead the strike of ship workers, and ultimately to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Millions of strikers and Solidarity members – 10 million by the first Solidarity Congress in 1981 – shared in the accomplishments of the movement.

The European Solidarity Center is constructed from the rusted hulls of ships built in the Gdansk Shipyard; visitors move from room to room to interactively experience political events that took place between 1970 and 1989. While in the museum one can palpably feel the incredible power of committed people who rise up, join together, and seek freedom in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  In this case, the Solidarity movement contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of freedom across Eastern and Central Europe. As I walked through the museum I recalled the famous words of Louis Brandeis displayed in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia — “The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen.”

In former blogs I have shared the idea that young children and their teachers can create the experience of a social movement through small classroom projects. All children would benefit from learning more about social movements…engaging in critical thought about the political dynamics of a democracy is essential to the life of every future citizen.  Social movements are complex and offer many opportunities to think deeply about the responsibility of citizens to stand up for fairness and freedom in society.  I believe that our current presidential race has underscored the need for much more citizen education in critical political thinking in the U.S.  While school children may be exposed to historical information about movements, the information is often oversimplified.  For example, some years ago I taught a course in the history and philosophy of education. In one class we discussed the civil rights movement and viewed a segment of the Eyes on the Prize documentary. One of my students seemed very surprised at the content of the film and said, “I don’t understand this! People in the movement seemed to have experienced so much hatred and violence, but we were always taught in school that it was a non-violent movement.”  Her words underscore the importance of deeper learning about social movements, including the ways in which in which laws and rights can be tested and upheld through the courageous efforts of ordinary citizens who are willing to take great risks.

Such civic education can be offered not only in the schools but in many other ways throughout communities. For example, some years ago in Pittsburgh, the entire city was encouraged in a “one book one community” initiative to read and discuss the book To Kill a Mockingbird. My husband and I contributed to this initiative by offering a free course on legal and educational issues in the book at a local university. Our course was attended by people spanning a wide range of age, education, work, and experience. The discussions were dynamic; I think we all taught and learned from one another.  Such community initiatives could also be focused on books about movements for human freedom and human rights throughout the world. A movement is created when people work together to address a critical social issue in order to promote social justice and the common good.  I think that the current Black Lives Matter movement is a very good example – and we are in need of many other such movements, small and great, in our world today.

The following reference was consulted and utilized to write this blog: Peters, Florian. (n.d.) Solidarność Yesterday – Solidarity Today? The European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk endeavors to combine the past with the present.  Retrieved from (Translated by David Burnett)

The photographs of the European Solidarity Center were taken by the author.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children