Active Citizenship and Activism for Desired Change | Interview with Natalia Tchamiashvili

Activism is one of the best ways to achieve the change we seek – it requires a lot of effort, commitment to the cause, and a belief in one’s abilities. The experience of Natalia TChamiashvili is vivid proof that active citizenship is more than effective – it is contagious. Natalia and a group of friends founded two organizations – Volunteer Hub and W4W [“Women for Women”] that unite thousands of people around the common goals of empowering young people and building a society where women have equal rights and equal opportunities to succeed.

Natalia wholeheartedly believes that society’s transformation depends on young people, and that access to quality education is a basic precondition for youth empowerment. It is toward this goal that she brings people together, drawing on her tremendous energy and motivation. Natalia is currently studying Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of York in the United Kingdom and plans to apply the knowledge and experience gained there to empowering Georgia’s women after returning home.

Photo Credit: Tsitsi Chkheidze / Indigo Fleur

Forbes Woman introduces Natalia TChamiashvili, who shares the story of how she helped found the largest youth organization in Georgia, discusses why and how people should fight for the changes they seek, and shares her views on the responsibilities that we as citizens of Georgia have at the beginning of a new decade.

What are your thoughts about civic engagement, active citizenship, and civic participation in decision-making processes – why is it important for people to fight for desired changes?

We elect politicians through elections and give them resources in the form of the taxes we pay. We provide them with the power, too, to make crucial decisions for us and create laws. At the same time, they become accountable to us. However, often they forget how they got this power and [forget] their duties toward the society they represent. It is crucial to identify such cases on time and to have the courage to protest if there is a need. We must always bear in mind that no one else will do this for us. Georgia is now at a specific stage of development when we do not have the luxury to turn a blind eye to these kinds of matters. If we want to exist as an independent country and create a prosperous future for young generations, we don’t have any other choice than to be active citizens.

What are the qualities that make you an active citizen?

Once, while talking about activism, I was told by a great person that you cannot be a good activist if your whole being is not bothered by something you want to change. That is the philosophy I have based my work on. It bothers me that Georgian youth lack access to quality education and women face too many barriers to professional development. This gives me a lot of energy that I don’t apologize about spending. I believe that active citizenship requires profound knowledge and understanding of world experience. It is pivotal to have critical thinking that enables the activist to understand when, how, and what should be changed in society.

What kind of civic responsibility do you feel today, in 2021, in Georgia?

As an activist in the field of education, I am most focused on eliminating the problems we face in moving educational activities to the online space throughout Georgia. There is a need for massive mobilization in regions such as Racha where Internet access simply is not sufficient. Likewise, teachers and lecturers have a problem using the programs needed to carry out online activities, and so on. That is a core reason why we try to advocate for issues in the regions, train teachers, students, lecturers, and people working in the non-governmental sector, and develop and distribute video lessons and guidelines for online teaching and work.

How did the “Volunteer Hub” start, and what are the main results you would use to evaluate your work?

A few of my friends and I had the opportunity to get an education abroad. This experience made us realize the importance of volunteering. In my case, absolutely everything changed when I studied in the United States with the Global Ugrad program. It was the first time I had the opportunity to volunteer. When we returned to Georgia, we decided to work on the “image” of volunteering – we wanted people to look at volunteering positively and to realize the impact that such activities have on our personal and career development, how volunteering fills us with positive energy, how we as individuals inspire others, and so on. That’s the story behind “Volunteer Hub.”

At first, we thought it would be enough if we only devoted our free time to this cause, but the very first event we organized was quite large. We realized that people liked and needed what we were offering, so we decided to leave our jobs and focus our efforts on developing the hub.

Today the organization has more than 60,000 beneficiaries. More than 700 people have been employed through our programs. Many people have viewed volunteering positively, with hundreds of applications coming into our database every day, often even challenging us to decide where to direct the energy of these people. More and more volunteer organizations are being formed, the more experienced volunteer organizations have also changed how they communicate with volunteers based on our example and we see that they are carrying out their activities more successfully.

We are thrilled that we were able to provoke so many changes.

We are also pleased that the priority is given to youth and their education – many public and non-governmental institutions work on this topic. However, young people are less involved in the process. I believe our organization’s success is connected to the fact that it is created for young people, by young people. No one knows better than young people what we need and what challenges we face. The same goes for women. Therefore, when working to support a specific target group, it is essential to have representatives of that group in the organization.

What are the distinctive challenges women face today, and how does W4W respond to them?

The restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 have left an unforgettable mark on women’s daily lives. Before the pandemic, most women were employed in the service sector. Today, many of them are left without a job. Our organization is trying to find alternative employment opportunities for them. We also help them to digitize their activities. For example, we provide training for women entrepreneurs and teach them how to sell their products online. Our platforms quickly and frequently offer cash assistance to women who face special needs due to a sudden circumstance. We pay special attention to their emotional support and encourage them to share their stories as we realize that the pandemic has negatively affected many people’s mental health.

You are receiving a formal education in gender and women’s studies; what additional knowledge and experience are you gaining, and how will you use all of this in your future work?

York University allows me to get acquainted with the latest teaching methods and literature. In general, this program has helped me better understand the importance of the feminist academy and its connection to activism. I transfer the knowledge gained here as much as possible, I use the Georgian context, and I try to raise discussions on these topics. I often have live shows about the feminist academy on our platforms. We have set up a small working group to discuss these topics in Zoom format, translating important feminist literature. I very much hope that in the future, I can do the same in the university space and strengthen the Georgian feminist academy with new knowledge, research, and energy.

Education is a top priority for you – do you see it as a tool that significantly improves the quality of Georgia’s democracy?

Education helps us better understand what we are entitled to, what rights we have, who is accountable to us, how we should demand that they perform their duties, and so on. We formally have the right to participate directly in decision-making processes, although [many of us] do not know about it. For example, a few of my trainees knew that they had the right to participate in their municipal budget planning process. Also, as I mentioned above, it is important to know what is happening globally, establish contact with people with common interests and positions, gain international solidarity and resources, and effectively express what we have to say, and so on. That is why my work emphasizes quality education and its practical application.

What do you advise other women to do? How can they overcome doubts and believe in their abilities?

I want all women to realize that most of the obstacles they face do not exist, and we have to try to do what we want to do with all our hearts. There have been others in our situation who have already overcome obstacles. We can talk to these people, ask for advice and share their experiences. We should not be afraid to make mistakes – we should not be discouraged by the very first problem, we should continue on our way, we should not stop until we reach the goal, and when we reach it, we should not forget others who are fighting like us. Everything is our business, whatever we want to do, and it will work out for us. We have the right to fight for the betterment of our condition, for independence, for happiness.

What are your plans for the new decade?

We are starting the new decade with some big projects. We are currently preparing training programs for women in the South Caucasus who have received grants to start their own businesses. We are developing the training module together with Care International in the Caucasus, with the financial support of UN Women.

This year, as in previous years, we plan to hold lectures, training, and information meetings for young people throughout Georgia. We will try our best to bring to each person experience from the world’s leading countries’ in terms of education and career choices.

I try to create a buzz about these topics and make them relevant in social networks, where young people are represented. It’s been a month since I started creating content on education and career development on TikTok. I will have my little show where I will invite various professionals who will tell us how they chose their profession and what were the problems they faced in their careers.

This year, youth centers will open in Georgia’s regions with funding from the Embassy of Israel. We are also trying to find additional resources to broaden our ventures. For example, sharing information on our platforms for commercial purposes won’t be free anymore, and the money raised will be fully spent on the development of Volunteer Hub and W4W.

Also, we will be having several new and significant partners in 2021 such as USAID, UN, EU, CTC, and Embassy of Israel. With large corporations struggling to keep up with the pace of innovation, we are especially pleased to have leading organizations trust us and support our new visions and ideas.

As for my academic plans, I am working on several papers at York University about Georgia and about women’s education. The process is going well so far, and I hope to publish a paper soon.