When she was asked to apply for a Fulbright Scholars Award, political scientist Patrice McMahon had no way of knowing just how relevant her research into grassroots activism in Central Europe would become in 2022.
Now, as she prepares for her 2022-23 Fulbright project to teach and conduct research at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, war in the region has made her plans even timelier.
“We’re relevant and we’re right,” said McMahon with a laugh about the research she and colleagues, including her Polish graduate student Lukasz Niparko, have been doing for years. Such real-time affirmation “doesn’t happen very often for academics.”
When McMahon, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, applied for the Fulbright, she had COVID-19 on her mind as a transnational challenge that put the importance of civil society and public-private partnerships center stage.
“My research project will allow me and my Polish colleagues to better understand the role of nonstate actors and how they work with states and governmental actors to respond to transnational security threats,” McMahon wrote in outlining her proposal. “Put differently, although states continue to be the central actors in international relations, increasingly philanthropy, civil society organizations, universities and other nonstate organizations are indispensable — in both domestic and international affairs.”
“Of course, I couldn’t predict what happened just a month ago,” she said.
McMahon uses the terms “civil society activism,” “grassroots activism” and “everyday activism” to describe what’s emerged in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe since the Soviet Union broke up. It’s been on prominent display, often in moving ways, since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24.
Many Poles have stepped up to help fleeing Ukrainians — mothers leaving strollers at the border for refugee families, people taking strangers into their homes and packing trucks to move refugees to safety.
“We have an obligation to our neighbor. … It is my obligation as a human being and scholar to do what I can,” McMahon said. “What we’re seeing is a crisis and how people who have a vibrant civil society respond to that crisis.”
“This is very much a return to my roots,” said McMahon, who studied in Poland as a college student, including a stint as a Fulbright student. She has continued to conduct research, with colleagues in Poland, the United States and Canada, into how activism in Europe has evolved since communism’s fall.
“People are very informed and interested in what’s happening politically, socially and economically,” she said. “Polish civil society is shrinking in some ways, shifting in other ways and strengthening in really important ways.”
For example, “we have now for the first time — and it gives me goose bumps to say it — a real women’s movement” in Poland, focused on Europe’s most restrictive abortion limits.
There are key similarities and differences between civil activism in the United States and in Poland and other countries.
Although they have ideological differences, Polish activists are more likely to unite around issues involving concern for educational, environmental, economic and other outcomes. In contrast, she said, Americans tend to shut out people with different ideological views, even on issues where common ground is possible.
McMahon’s research in Poland will further her decades-long interest in how nonstate entities work with government to respond to transnational security threats, whether from disease, civil conflict or inter-state war. It will encompass her current research, including her study of civic activism in central and eastern Europe 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She will work with colleagues and graduate students in Poland and the United States.
While at AMU, McMahon, who also is director of the Honors Program at Nebraska, plans to teach a graduate seminar on American foreign policy in the post 9/11 era, with a focus on U.S.-Polish and U.S.-Central European relations. She also will experiment with creating a “global virtual classroom” to connect her graduate class in Poland with a similar class at Nebraska on U.S. foreign policy or global security issues. The Adam Mickiewicz University was also interested in McMahon because of her interest and experiences with international programming and helping internationalize college campuses.
McMahon will begin her formal work in spring 2023 but plans to visit the region this summer to reconnect with longtime colleagues and participate in refugee-assistance efforts.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between Americans and citizens of other countries; counter misunderstandings; and help people and nations work together toward common goals.