Having lived and studied outside of Poland for quite some years, Natalia Grzankowska and Julia Konarska are no strangers to a conflicted sense of patriotism. They met in Warsaw during the Humanity in Action Poland’s Human Rights Academy in 2019 aka the Warsaw Fellowship. The experience of the Fellowship – being immersed in the multicultural and diverse group of Fellows, as well as hearing firsthand from the members of minority groups about their struggles – has made them more attuned to a wide-array of views and perspectives.
The idea for the Action Project came from their shared experience as young immigrants feeling disconnected from their motherland and wanting to explore what it means to be Polish in today’s fractured political climate. To stray away from the far right-wing brand of patriotism and reclaim some positive aspects of it, they set up an Instagram account where they could share “reflections on Poland, national identity and whether one has to like pierogi and vodka to feel Polish”.
The name of their IG profile @kto_ty_jestes, is borrowed from Poland’s famous nursery rhyme titled “Catechism of the Polish child”. Who are you? A Polish child. What’s your emblem? The eagle in white – goes the first stanza of the poem that dates back to the 1900s. Memorized by generations of Polish children, the poem was supposed to instill a sense of national identity from an early age. While the wording of the poem remains the same, the answer to the “who are you” question is a lot more complex than it was 100 years ago.
This fundamental question serves as a starting point to tell personal stories of belonging and identity, in particular giving voice to Poland’s historically marginalized groups. Contrary to the divisive and exclusionary political discourse, Julia and Natalia wanted to show the diversity of personal opinions and lived experience of Poles in the context of their multiple and intersecting identities.
There is Miriam Synger (@jestem_zydowka), an Orthodox Jewish influencer and educator, who uses her platform to give an account on what it is like to be Jewish and living in Poland. There is also a Polish drag queen (@polishremoveher), who has moved out of Poland 7 years ago:
Despite the support of my family and friends I didn’t like Polishness, being in Poland, thinking like Poles. In a way this has changed after I came to Britain and met other queer Poles, once the Law & Justice party began to tear the country apart (…). It was then that I realized I cannot cut myself off, I cannot stop calling myself Polish when so many of us are harmed, when the LGBTQIAP+ community is persecuted and the rights of people with disabilities are taken away.
Having little experience with social media Natalia and Julia credit the skills workshop on Instagram activism – organized as part of the Action Project Academy after the summer Fellowship – to help them kick start their project. One of the challenges they encountered in the process was managing the negative comments coming from far right-wing IG accounts. While Natalia and Julia tried to reason with some of them and respond whenever they had the energy for it, they also applied the ‘no-platform principle’ and sometimes opted for deleting the hateful comments.
In the second year of the pandemic, as we are all longing for the in-person interaction, Natalia and Julia are considering taking their project offline. What they have in mind is organizing workshops in Aberdeen and London, where participants from different countries meet face to face and discuss what patriotism means to them (or if it means anything at all) and what are the positive and toxic examples of patriotism in their own countries. Stay tuned!