And the “voluntary service Oscar” goes to Zivilcourage für Alle e.V.!

20 Dec 2021

The voluntary service award "Demokratie stärken" ranks as Germany’s most prestigious prize for social engagement. It has now been presented to an association whose workshop concepts are partly based on scientific insights gained at LMU.

The youngsters are in high spirits and ready to party, ramping up the music as their car stands in a disabled parking space. When a disabled driver asks them to let him use the parking space, all he gets are hoots of derision and stupid comments.

Anna Esterhammer cannot stand such behavior and immediately intervenes – although she herself suffers from a foot injury and has to get around on crutches. “When I see something like that, I just have to take action,” she says. “It’s like an impulse that I follow.” When her request for the youngsters to vacate the parking space is likewise ignored, she promptly wields her crutches to add weight to her demand. The youngsters hurry away. “It obviously made an impression when an older lady with crutches went after them,” she says, admitting that her actions were maybe a little reckless. After all, she smiles, you never know beforehand who you are dealing with.

Small steps, not heroic gestures

“The important thing is to try to avoid putting yourself at risk if you want to intervene in a critical situation,” is the advice given by Robert ‘Bob’ Harst, a trainer at Zivilcourage für Alle e.V., ZfA (Civic Courage for All). Instead, he and his colleagues are keen to teach strategies showing how to act for the best – preferably without putting yourself or other people in danger. The association’s motto is: Small steps, not heroic gestures – an attitude that is increasingly permeating the community at large. “Until a few years ago, top prizes for civic courage were given primarily to people who effectively threw themselves into the thick of the action,” Harst notes. But he sees change happening: Today, such awards go mainly to people who, for example, track offenders by transmitting ongoing position reports via their smartphone, but who do not get involved directly. The association itself has now received an award for his work: successful workshops and courses around the topic of civic courage. In early December, Harst was privileged to take receipt of the Deutscher Engagementpreis (German Engagement Award) 2021 in the category ‘Strengthening Democracy’. “This is the Oscar for voluntary services. There is no higher award in the country,” says a clearly elated Susanne Singer, Managing Director of the association. “It will give a tremendous boost to our visibility, which is obviously fantastic for the work we do.” Coverage of the award in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper also drew Anna Esterhammer’s attention to the ZfA association: “I immediately signed up for a seminar,” she says. Why? “If I intervene in a situation, I would in future like to do so based on a solid understanding of the options I have available to me.”

The “Stop” exercise is an important element of ZfA’s workshops, though these cannot be held in person at present due to the coronavirus.

© Bob Harst

Rooted in science

The strategies and options taught in the association’s courses were drawn up some 15 years ago at LMU’s Department of Social Psychology. “We ran a multi-year German Research Foundation (DFG) project about civic courage, in the context of which a lot of people wrote their diploma theses and, later, master’s theses and dissertations,” recalls Professor Dieter Frey, then holder of the Chair of Social Psychology. “These papers tackled different aspects of civic courage.”

Frey asserts that many of the workshops held today and much of the theoretical groundwork were developed and adapted by past academic staff, doctoral students and postdoctoral students. The workshops, he adds, were then further refined both in cooperation with associates of the chair and, increasingly, on the association’s own initiative.

“To this day we maintain very close links with the association. We are always sharing the latest scientific research and practical experience,” says the social psychologist, himself an honorary member of the Munich-based association, whose headquarters are in the Brunnthal district. “Dieter Frey supports us wherever he can,” Susanne Singer confirms.

As the work of such initiatives takes on ever greater importance, such backing is vital. Frey points out that, especially during the pandemic, people perceived a growing loss of control as a threat to their future. “Many see the restrictions imposed as limitations on their own freedom. They team up via social networks – in some cases with what is clearly an antidemocratic outlook,” Frey comments. “So it is very important for people to actively observe and refute this behavior, to argue and convince people, and above all to remain to stick to the facts – but preferably not on their own. How to do that in practice is what people learn when they take part in the ZfA’s workshop exercises. But we at LMU’s Center for Leadership and People Management also teach the same skills.”

Getting upset when human dignity is violated

“At our workshops, we first lay a theoretical foundation,” Harst explains. This knowledge is flanked by simulated assaults on public transport and xenophobic outbursts in a pub, together with advice on how to deal with such situations.

Domestic violence, which has also risen sharply in the course of recent social isolation, is another topic addressed by the workshops: Should you get involved if a child is screaming? When should you act, bearing in mind that such things take place not in public spaces, but in the protected realm of privacy?

All these real and simulated scenarios have one thing in common: There are courageous people who do indeed intervene. But what if your courage fails you? Professor Frey again: “There are three classic factors: fear, the diffusion of responsibility – along the lines of ‘Why me?’ – and pluralistic ignorance, which effectively argues that ‘if no one is doing anything, it can’t be all that bad’. As in the case of first aid, the important thing is for people first to acquire the knowledge they need by attending courses. They need to know how to behave in response to xenophobic chants or antisemitic behavior, for example. In other words, they need to be sensitized to such situations. Role plays can then teach them what to say and how to say it. The hope is that, armed with this knowledge, people become more aware of the need to intervene.” Frey believes this is particularly important for people who have clearly defined values and who get upset when human dignity is violated. It has a lot to do with self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Communicating these issues is precisely the goal that ZfA has set itself. Yet the team needs more support: “It would obviously be great if students, too, got involved in the work of the association,” Singer says. “They can play an active part and even lead training sessions once they have the right qualifications.” Ultimately, besides benefiting civic courage in general, this kind of commitment also looks good in any job application.

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