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Let’s Meet Around a Table: A Story of Trusting In Togetherness

In Turkish, there is a saying "Do not even trust your father," which is widely used and shows the deep roots of distrust in the culture.

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In a society like this, where there is deep polarisation and mistrust, surely it cannot be said that standing together is the easiest goal to achieve. However, the Checks and Balances Network (CBN) has made it real. Now the network is Turkey’s biggest civil society platform serving as the most concrete evidence that diversity can speak together around a table.

It was five years ago when 33 organisations came together, formed the CBN, and said: "If liberty, equality, stability, justice and prosperity are to be guaranteed for all, then a strong checks and balances system is a must in this country.”

During the following years, this small yet determined initiative turned into a huge network of 285 Turkish non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from various political backgrounds, stands and sectors with a capacity to reach 200,000 people. Aiming at a new constitution with checks and balances mechanisms, compatible institutional reforms and a democratic civil and political culture, the network is evidence of a common movement for a fairer system despite a highly segregated society and a polarised political environment.

Esra Aksu, Head of “Diyarbakır Business Women Association,” one of the network's member organisations, summarised the CBN’s progress in this way:
"We needed a table to sit together with all of our differences, a table where we can collaborate and produce solutions for our common problems; a table which can gather people around from Adana to Samsun, from Diyarbakir to Istanbul; a table which makes us look at each others’ faces and talk.”

Aksu says CBN was founded in 2012 and the new constitution debates were on the agenda. Everybody was eager to participate in the writing process of the constitution but no one seemed to have an opinion about how to do it. That was the time when CBN took the initiative and set the table.

Taking the first step and setting up the table was the hardest part, but this was just the beginning. At a time when polarising and unyielding voices dominated Turkey’s political and media space, how would it be possible to overcome the cultural, social, ethnic, religious and political differences of the table?

First of all, the network opened space for citizens where they could themselves and act without feeling any pressure of being judged. In time, people realised that they would be able to use their freedom of expression as long as they showed patience to listen to those who did not think like them. This brought tolerance and, thus dialogue to the table.

Serap Çelik, representing “Sustainable Local Development and Social Cohesion Support Association,” from Gaziantep said that you cannot understand how tolerant you are without challenging your limits: “I live in a social environment where there is no diversity. I am surrounded by people who have the same worldview and I believe this limits me. For the first time in my life I am sitting at the same table with an LGBT person. Some platforms promise I will be among my soul sisters, others have prejudices against me. This network has forced me to question the limits of my own tolerance and whether I could be a more tolerant person.”

Since the beginning, the CBN has paid special attention to working with an impartial approach. This is the second important thing the members have managed to protect under the “diverse togetherness model,” meaning - no matter what the issue at hand is, they always focus on the main problem and its solution from the checks and balances perspective. They also use accurate, non-partisan language. This approach helped to create a trustworthy image of CBN so that it can respond to society’s demands for reliable and objective information on serious issues like constitutional amendments. At the end of the day, CBN has gained expertise and is reputed as a reliable source in the field of checks and balances.

The coverage of the campaign, which led up to the constitutional referendum presented a good example of this. While organisations active in the referendum produced materials designed to rally support among constituents with already formed opinions, the CBN turned its attention to undecided voters and worked to help them understand the risks of the referendum in terms of checks and balances. In this way, the network stood out against a backdrop of polarising propaganda and provocative messaging unrelated to the content of the constitution.

Mehmet Tursun, the Head of Baran Tursun International Global Disarmament, Right to Life, Liberty, Democracy and Solidarity Foundation, based in İzmir, said: “Being impartial is just an inevitable result of trusting in togetherness. It was a must to take an impartial stance through the referendum process, because we were not only representing one group or the other one. We were and we still are the voice of people who support the amendment, who protest against the amendment and those who are neutral about it at the same time. When you choose to trust in togetherness in the beginning, there is no other option left than keeping yourselves in the equal distance to every segment of society. Because the common characteristic of these three groups is that all of them deserve to reach reliable and objective information.”

The CBN’s goal is to lead not to oppose, to present options for constructive civic engagement, and to generate new ideas, approaches and solutions to policy, politics and governance. As opportunities arise, just like in the constitutional amendment process, CBN has not stayed back from applying its “togetherness approach” to address specific challenges affecting the country as a means to advocate a new political and civic culture based on mutual respect, dialogue and participation.

Another successful indicator of this attitude was the project that was carried out with young people in summer, 2016. Diverse youth organisations in and outside of the network were gathered from the local level to the national level and worked together to elaborate their dreams and present their vision of a better future including their work life, education system, neighbourhoods and cities. The main focus of those meetings was “how to live together.” Through entering into creative dialogue with others from different political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, youngsters experienced a culture of cooperation and claimed responsibility for the problems society faces instead of accusing other parties as the source of problems.

In the fifth year of its journey, CBN continues to play a unique role in Turkey as the only network capable of bringing together diverse constituencies. More than ever, CBN’s approach “different but together” is needed to address the chronic challenges this country faces. The table is set for everyone. The rest is all about trusting in togetherness.

This article is a part of the TACSO Project Storytelling Capacity Building Activity in which Checks and Balances Network participated from May to July 2017. The TACSO Regional Office in Sarajevo organised the Storytelling Capacity Building Activity for CSOs interested in additionally improving their communication and storytelling skills. The activity included one-on-one coaching and mentoring through online channels such as Skype, Facebook and e-mail, during which time a number of topics were discussed and approached through various practical exercises.