Prior to my Marshall Memorial Fellowship trip in Fall 2012, I had only traveled once before in Europe, primarily in Paris. I began this trip with a preconceived notion that, in general, Europe is older and more established than the United States. While the history, architecture, and many aspects of European culture date to before the existence of the United States of America, I was reminded that in several of the countries we visited, the concept of democracy does not.
One of the stories I find myself repeating most often from my travels is from a district mayor in Romania. He shared that he was born in the Kingdom of Romania under King Michael, lived through the communist regime, including Ceausescu, and now serves as an elected official in Bucharest. It is hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to live through three very distinct types of government. While the United States has struggled with a variety of extremely divisive issues, from slavery and women’s rights to the definition of marriage today, at the core, the principles of our Founding Fathers have remained relatively stable since the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The lessons from a young democracy like Romania are many. First, it is exciting to witness the potential and hope for a country that in many ways is only 23 years young. I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who works for the United Way of Romania, a new organization—and a new charitable concept— for a country that has had little exposure to nonprofit organizations. By contrast, the United Way of America has roots dating back to the 1880s. In addition, we met with a foundation that is looking to expand food entrepreneurship and micro-financing opportunities. As Romania works to address some of the issues it faces, the emergence of a greater social service network may be key, despite philanthropy playing a different role in Europe than it does in the United States
In addition, while I was traveling in these young countries, I felt a clear passion for democracy and what it represents. Everyday citizens, young and old, would share stories of not-so-distant times when there were unbelievable limitations and restrictions on items such as food, travel, and purchases. My fellowship in Europe made me look at our own country, where we just survived a very contentious election (with barely more than half of our eligible population casting a vote) and the precipitous fiscal cliff. The relatively young love for democracy I witnessed in some parts of Europe made me long for a way that passion for democracy could be channeled again here to unite our country, rather than divide it.
Mary Barr is Executive Director of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and a Fall 2012 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.