Observations on the differences between civic engagement in Estonia and the U.S.

Author: Andreas Sepp

At first sight American soccer groups formed on the internet don’t have much in common with social campaigns in my home country Estonia. Yet, as a former soccer activist founding community club and current amateur player, I will try to analyze the mechanisms behind civic engagement in Estonia and the U.S.- such as the sense of accomplishment, by using my own observations and experience as a journalist. As a result, I suggest that differences between Estonians’ and Americans’ mindset play a key role in defining these mechanisms. Reshaping the mindset, however, requires changes in education and the flow of information.


Everywhere I stay for a longer period of time, I always want to play soccer. Not only does it keep me physically fit, but I am simply very passionate about the game and would not imagine myself practising any other sports although I’ve tried. Finding a place to play in Washington D.C., where I’m interning this summer, was more difficult than I thought - even though soccer is popular there, finding out how to join a group of people playing in the parks required lots of research. When I finally found a website that spread information about such possibilities, it took the administrators 3 weeks to approve my application, i.e. allow me to access information about playing times and places. After having played with this team for a while, I can say it’s one of my best experiences in the U.S.
In Spring 2008 a previously unknown Estonian NGO mobilized 50.000 people (about 4 per cent of the country’s population) to come together for a day in order to collect trash from forests, highways, and other such places where it’s being illegally dumped. A year later, the same organization initiated the so called national brainstorming, where every individual could propose ideas how to improve life in Estonia. Only about 11.000 people showed up, even though the campaign was being widely supported by public and private media.
I define civic engagement as something that unites people with similar interests. The result is usually a movement, group, organization, or something similar. The sustainability of such a “unit” is dependent on two criteria a) do the people involved in a certain kind of activity really love what they are doing per se; b) whether it is able to give its member a sense of accomplishment.
If the answer to both is “yes”, then most probably something in the society will essentially improve thanks to the activities carried out by such a group. Even if government policies contradict this particular area of civic activism, or the state does not provide any significant assistance to accomplish the group’s goals.
When I was 15 years old and established a NGO, a soccer club, I did it because I love the game and still do so. Ten years later I still appreciate the experience that came with it in terms of how to lead an organization. Furthermore, I got my first job because of this club, as our active participation in Estonian soccer caught the interest of its leading figures. Did something improve in the society after the formation of this soccer club? Well, probably not, besides the fact that most of its members are my best friends. And if people are able to keep friendships relations, then they probably are less dangerous for the society than lonely individuals.
Coming back to the Estonian brainstorming campaign and my soccer experience in D.C. Why did the organizers in Estonia have to SEARCH FOR PARTICIPANTS for such an event by using all possible communication ways - and yet the turnout was a huge disappointment? Why did I have to wait for 3 weeks to finally GET INFORMATION where to play soccer (it is also worth mentioning that the field is often overcrowded, so sometimes “illegal”, i.e. previously unregistered players are asked to leave)? What could be the reasons behind the obstacles pointed out in these examples and do they somehow refer to any principal differences  in the way how grass-root activities are being conducted in Estonia and the U.S?
My fellow countrymen possess a slightly more obedient mindset in comparision to my American friends, which, I believe, is a result of living more than 50 years in a political system based on fulfilling the orders coming from above. Estonia’s educational system, although I’m generally happy with it, carries such philosophy within it even today, because students are graded based mainly on their ability to memorize information. Developing creativity is considered to be of secondary importance.
No wonder then, that collecting garbage, a very result-oriented and easily measurable activity, turned out to be more popular than collecting thoughts, a field where there are no right or wrong answers. One ton of trash is more tangible than one idea and that’s why Estonians as people who carefully consider their every step decided to support the former. In both occasions though, by the time each project had reached the implementation phase, it almost looked like a government campaign, because the majority of politicians supported both of them.
After restoring its independence and leaving communism behind, Estonia functions on supply-demand relations just like the majority of former Soviet republics. Interestingly enough, I cannot really see the demand for the campaigns just mentioned. The supply side, in the form of information overflow, was definitely more visible.
For some weird reasons, which I will not be discussing further due to their non-relevance to the topic of this essay, the supply-demand relationship doesn’t really seem to work around D.C. area soccer fields during summertime. Demand for playing exceeds supply so much that they can be balanced only mechanically, i.e. by blocking information.
Yet bringing one’s idea in front of a whole nation to be discussed further, should be more attractive then kicking ball on Saturday mornings, especially when taking into consideration the sense of accomplishment generated.
Maybe Estonia is still recovering from a positive shock of freedom that flowed into the country in 1991? This “unbearable lightness” of freedom could have scared away people from the brainstorming campaign instead of encouragin them to take part in it. Our country is free, but what about the mind?
I am happy for, and at the same time I envy, some of my friends who are the same age as me or a bit younger and who successfully combine business models within the NGO framework. They seem to be enjoying their work and the results certainly help to improve the society, because they involve concepts such as youth participation, promoting volunteering and public health campaigns.
In comparison with these young leaders I feel that I even more belong to the group that did not take part of the brainstorming campaign. I would have loved to go and collect garbage, but my work schedule didn’t allow me to do so. If I would have been there, I probably would have felt very proud of myself, in addition to the fact that I just loved the idea of combining a nice spring day with cleaning up public space.
Compared to the brainstorming campaign, the trash project was an idea that emerged from a Soviet mindset. For the former to succeed, the entire population needs to be accustomed to free decision making. As it is in the U.S., where students are encouraged from a very young age to choose their curricula themselves.
In addition, Estonians need to start showing more initiative. Which reminds me of a story that my current supervisor told me, about some local sixth-graders who collected $ 10.000 in donations for a clean water project. This project is somewhat similar to the garbage campaign idea, the main difference is that Estonians would not have needed to clean up our whole country, if our mindset when we were in sixth grade would have been more similar to that of these American kids right now.
When I was in sixth grade, Estonia had been independent for about 2-3 years. Current American sixthgraders live in a country that has been free for more than 230 years. How can we bring forth good ideas faster, than is the age difference of mindsets between the U.S. and Estonia?
Our generation’s main benefit compared to the past is information, the only question is, how are we going to use it. And how could we elect decisionmakers, who wouldn’t start working against our interests using the amount of information about the citizens that they will soon have in their control. And it’s not even important whether we know our real interests or not, but that we do know when they are violated. And letting others decide for ourselves, whether in Estonia or the U.S. or anywhere else - I’m pretty sure would not appeal to intelligent individuals.
P.S. It would be even worse, if decisionmakers would start controlling the information flow among the “regular” population, for example information about arranging impromptu soccer games. Because in this way people who share great ideas cannot come together to move the society further. The only problem is, that “further” is a very subjective concept...



Andreas Sepp is currently studying conflict resolution at Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and is working in a U.S. voluntary-based NGO focused on bringing sides in conflict together. He gained his professional experience as a project manager for university and high school student exchange programs and as a journalist for Estonia’s biggest daily. Andreas previously studied and interned in Sweden, Germany and Romania and obtained degrees in Public Administration, International Relations and European Integration. He hopes to become a diplomat one day.


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