Karolina Suska calls herself a rural activist – she doesn’t think her position of ‘manager of a cultural institution’ adds that much to her leadership activity. She has been working with women, kids and youth from rural areas for years, proving stereotypes wrong one day at a time.
Discovering the undiscovered
Karolina Suska is the director of the Local Library and Cultural Center in Łaziska, a small rural municipality near Lublin. She graduated from Jagiellonian University, Leaders of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation Program and Academy of Culture Leaders.
She is an experienced sociologist, trainer and tutor. Apart from her work with local women, she also takes action to integrate immigrants, both self-sufficient ones and those living in a refugee centre, with people from her region. To her, inclusive leadership is a situation in which we strive to create opportunities and open doors to people from marginalized backgrounds, people who are not fully included in our society because of arbitrary reasons such as their place of residence, age or disability. The word ‘opportunity’ is crucial here, because she invites them to participate in social and cultural life of the community. Having accepted this opportunity, a person is empowered, they can bring their skills and resources to the table and allow others to get to know them. Karolina understands that finding and reaching out to the excluded, “discovering the undiscovered”, is a task that comes with the ‘job’ of being a leader.
Karolina Suska uses inclusive leadership in two areas of her social activities: working with women in rural areas and with immigrants in small communities. The first one is based on empowering women’s personal development through participation in different types of meetings and initiatives, culinary workshops, sightseeing tours, cultural events or intergenerational activities. Furthermore, they hold photo sessions to showcase the hidden resources of rural women and to disprove stereotypes about them.
An example that illustrates the model of Karolina’s actions well is the story of Teresa, a resident from a neighboring village, who felt isolated and did not see any possibility for overcoming this situation by herself. One day, she approached Karolina, whom she knew as a leader of women’s activities. However, Teresa felt anxious and reserved about finding herself in the new group and she was not ready to get fully involved immediately. Karolina tried to support and encourage her to participate, but she waited patiently for her re-appearance at the Intergenerational Club of Active Women. She gave Teresa space, time and additional support that she needed to feel more comfortable in a new situation. From being a woman withdrawn from social life and trapped in four walls, Teresa became one of the main activists in the community. She flourished and started to fully embrace life as she began travelling at over 60 years old. This story proves that you can live fulfilling your needs and aspirations at any age and in any situation.
Karolina’s second area of activity concerns women refugees and immigrants. She organizes various activities that for them are the only chance to connect with the people of the village and become a part of the community’s life outside the refugee centre. Women meet during cooking or crafting workshops, talk about the culture and traditions of their countries, as well as share their memories, which is often an emotional process that brings them closer. All these meetings provide a platform, an ‘excuse’, for a real conversation. The result? Changing the perception of immigrants, that very often people do not have the opportunity to get to know better. According to Karolina, “such actions show my deliberate efforts to include these women in the social life of the community.”
In her everyday work, she faces many challenges alongside all the successes. One of the more difficult barriers for her to overcome are people’s attitudes. She often hears that she exposes herself to danger, that what she does is not important or necessary and that she should find something else to do. However, she faces critical voices bravely and doesn’t look back at others because she has a strong sense of mission. She knows exactly why she is doing this and what goals she would like to achieve. She claims that, “if you do something once, twice, for the fifth time, you will prove that it is not an accident, but it’s a big step forward.” The crucial thing here is also support, without which it would be impossible for her to achieve the intended goals on such a scale. Whenever she comes across an obstacle, she can count on support from people from various organizations, people who trust her, identify strongly with what she does and who are a motivation for further work. Their openness and commitment fuels further development of her leadership.
Among the benefits of inclusive leadership Karolina Suska points out the opportunity to reach a wider target group, like inactive people with low social capital. Cooperation with such people often becomes fundamental for further activities and enriches the organization. It triggers development mechanisms both in the organization and in themselves. Reaching out to these groups requires a lot of courage, but it is worth the effort and gives great satisfaction. For other leaders who want to start using inclusive leadership in practice, Karolina’s advice would be “Be afraid, but do it, try and do not give up. Barriers are only in our heads. You need to know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it”. She adds that inclusive leadership can be used to work with all social groups. Her job is about confronting limitations, giving people a sense of self-worth and building a sense of control in their lives. As a result, perceptions are changed and harmful stereotypes are debunked. She hopes that activities of cultural clubs, such as The Active Women’s Club in the Lublin region, will soon cause the harmful ‘woman from the village’ stereotype to disappear completely.