Meet Jacek Purski

Jacek is a political scientist, activist and educator. In 2016 he established Institute of Social Safety (IBS) and in 2017 he joined the International Organisation of Social Innovators ASHOKA and became an Ashoka fellow. He has designed and carried out many training workshops for the police force, teachers and local government officials. He regularly participates in meetings of Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) working groups, at the European Commission, and is a member of RAN Expert Pool.

The revelatory moment

Jacek grew up in a neighbourhood in Warsaw where there was a lot of racism-motivated neo-fascist violence. There was an organised group of skinheads. They would beat people up in the streets, produce neo-fascist graffiti on walls. This had a huge impact on him as he felt he wasn’t like these people. He strongly felt that what they were doing was wrong, evil, and it had to be countered. When he had to do an internship during his studies in journalism, he wanted to get involved not with a standard media outlet (TV etc.) but work with a civil society organisation and that’s how he found his way to ‘Never Again’ Association. He worked there for 15 years, did several projects, social campaigns, he was responsible for co-operation with volunteers in various occasions, including during the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship in Poland. He then started to cooperate more closely with Radicalisation Awareness Network (European Commision) and became more interested in radicalisation.

Jacek’s main motivation is to prevent and counter evil that he has seen in the streets. He feels that radicalisation concerns us all, it affects our safety and the media or the Polish state are not addressing the issue.

The first victory

When thinking about the victories that marked his path, he remembers the first article he wrote for ‘Never Again’ – he had the impression that he was saving the world. Also, the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship was a great and important event because it introduced the issue of preventing and countering radicalisation into public debate in Poland. He also remembers the first time he appeared on the stage at Woodstock Music Festival in Poland with an anti-racist message. Of course, the establishment of Institute of Social Safety (IBS) was a great moment too, it was “his baby”, it has contributed to changing the narrative and approach to radicalisation. But all in all, when he thinks about his greatest success, he thinks about the fact that after over 20 years he is still working and doing what he does.

The bumps in the road

At IBS, they have been attacked many times for their anti-radicalisation activity, which many people would perceive as a failure, but he thinks they turned this into their success as they have always gained the upper hand. Working against radicalisation is hugely stressful work. The level of stress and responsibility connected to running an organisation and working with such issues as radicalisation and violent extremism is enormous. He believes that those that say that working on these issues is a breeze are on a straight road to burn-out. Stress is an integral part of this work and you need to learn to manage it. He is looking for fun ways to unwind and get away from it a bit. He loves cooking and getting involved in some tasks linked to music production.

Coping mechanisms

With all the stress involved, he thinks what he and his fellow activists are doing is important and useful. here are not many people who are competent in the area of combating extremism and radicalisation in Poland, who know what to do. And Jacek believes it is really needed because it has a direct impact on the safety of Polish people and the way they live. This is his biggest motivation – “I care about safety, it is that simple”. He is equally motivated by the people he works with, all the people he meets professionally. If it hadn’t been for the people, he would not have been doing what he is doing. You can’t do much alone.

Extremism explained to a 5-year-old

If he were to explain to a 5-year-old what he does, he would say that there are bad, evil people in the world and they want to threaten our daily safety. And very often they find too simple answers for difficult questions and they explain themselves the world in too simple a way. They are also influenced by other people who just fool them. “We are trying to stop these bad people, we are doing our best so that their evil approach to the world is not dominant and in order to feel safer in our daily lives. I like to think that countering radicalisation and violent extremism is countering evil.”

Extremism explained to family and friends

Even though it can be reduced to a peaceful vs evil situation, Jacek is constantly aware of how complex, long and multi-faceted the process of radicalisation is and wants to make his friends aware of this. Radicalisation is a process in which an individual or a group of people head towards terrorism, use ideological and violent rhetorics and narratives and resort to violence itself. They become radicalised in their views and actions. This process has many important aspects, both in terms of the phenomenon itself and its prevention and countering. For example, he believes that when discussing radicalisation we need to take into account the following, apart from the obvious acts of terror and hate speech: recruitment online and offline, fake news and propaganda, manipulation, symbols and clothing, pop culture, prisons and football stadiums as places of recruitment etc. While thinking about prevention and countering we need to include, among other actors and aspects: police, prosecutor’s office, local governments, social and street workers, prisons, education and prevention etc. Searching for one definition of radicalisation and one approach to it may unfortunately limit our thinking about this complex issue.

Adequate responses in uncomfortable situations

If someone that responds to radicalisation meets backfire, Jacek’s advice is to not be afraid and don’t give up, try out many different solutions and approaches.
1. Be brave! Courage is key.
2. Be consistent in what you do as part of your anti-radicalisation actions. Even if your actions are not backed up by expert knowledge but you are consistent, it counts and can be effective.
3. Use non-violent communication and skills in dialogue but also use the rule of ‘no platform’ – do not involve in dialogue or debate people who consciously break the law and promote illegal contents (or extremist contents).
4. Learn more about the process of radicalisation and extremist groups you’re standing up against. Also, refer to the law as much as you can, use it to your advantage and hold people accountable if they break the law.
5. Try to find allies in your closest environment, in your community – people who can help you and support you as experts or simply other human beings. Build a wide network of support of like-minded people and encourage other people to join you and help you – at any stage of your action or initiative.

Some thoughts for undecided activists

When it comes to countering radicalisation, Jacek strongly believes the most important thing is to react, to react to any sign of radicalisation and extremism. He would advise a high school to respond to hate speech on the internet and not to let anybody recruit them online to join an extremist group or movement, to watch out for any extremist propaganda online and violent narratives. They could also organise a campaign or an action in their school or community to raise and discuss the issue of radicalisation. To a teacher he would say that it is important to watch out for any extremist symbols or clothing in school and the language students use. They could also teach about the threats and consequences of totalitarian regimes, about fake news and mechanisms of propaganda.