Emilia Lisichkova, AGORA Platform: Don’t Stop, Keep Walking

Emilia Lisichkova

We partnered with Bulgarian lifestyle magazine EVA to present female leaders from the Bulgarian nonprofit and public sectors. The result was EVA’s Optimistic Issue: 15 Stories of Success. This is one of the featured stories, republished with permission.

Text: Lilia Ilieva
Photography: Kostadin Krastev-Koko and personal archive
Translation from Bulgarian: Lika Pishtalova

Emilia Lisichkova is the president of agora, a platform designed to stimulate and support active civil communities for local development and life quality improvement. Emilia’s background is in philosophy. She served as an associate at the Center for Democracy in the NGO sector, as director of the Yanko Sakazov Foundation, and as a national coordinator of a United Nations Development Program project.

For 13 years now, AGORA Platform, cofounded by her and a few associates, has united local communities in Bulgaria around common causes, backing their efforts to address challenges together. In cooperation with community centers, civic organizations, cultural institutions, business associations, and municipalities throughout the country, and with the long-term support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and other partners, AGORA has helped bring about hundreds of local initiatives, causes, and festivals.

“Change can only be achieved by an active community that does not wait for someone else to take responsibility for its future.”

How and why was AGORA created? And who came up with the name?

It was established in 2008 after years of social innovation experiments and designing positive changes in communities following the model of the Bulgarian community centers. The name is the Bulgarian acronym for Active Communities for Development Alternative. I have put a lot of thought into coming up with a name that closely matches our organization’s mission. We support communities in identifying their problems, needs, and expectations, and the community centers are our partners in this process. We have consistently been developing their management experience and social capacity, elaborating and implementing social innovations, and upgrading their skills and knowledge to enable them to work in today’s dynamic technological environment. With AGORA, we have built a network of over 600 community centers throughout the country with a variety of views, skills, capacities, and perspectives.

What was your first cause?

One of the first projects we worked on was the AGORA Competition. We pioneered it in 2009, and it subsequently grew into an annual national event. We have already had 13 editions of the competition, with 65 community centers as winners and 545 implemented initiatives. The competition is already known as the “Oscars” for community centers. It encourages active, innovative, and locally engaged community centers to seek new opportunities and pathways to develop their communities. AGORA nominates successful community center practices in the following categories: Community in Development, Solidarity and Humanity, Art and Culture for Development, Prospects for Growth, and Most Productive Partnership. The top prize is awarded to the best of the five category winners on the basis of in-person and online voting.

How did your partnership with the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) start, and how did it help you put your ideas into practice?

We first met back in 2009, while both foundations were being established. Our interest in local community development intersected with that of then ABF Board Director Joe Borgatti, ABF President Frank Bauer, and ABF Executive Director Desislava Taliokova. The ABF Board of Directors visited some of our sites, met with our partners, and decided that it was worth supporting our pilot project entitled “Activating Communities through Community Centers in Bulgaria.” Since then, thanks to ABF, we have designed successful, sustainable community development practices, including a long-term program for municipal funds supporting local initiatives, the AGORA approach, the Developing Philanthropy at the Local Level Program, the Handbook for Community Centers series with five special editions, training programs in civic participation, leadership, philanthropy, volunteering, entrepreneurship, cultural heritage, and many others.

In recent years, as a result of numerous discussions, we have directly supported more than 40 civic initiatives and nearly 170 local ones. All this was possible due to AGORA’s partnership with ten municipal funds that supported local initiatives.

Our partnership with ABF gave us the opportunity to dream, to be bold, to look for non-standard solutions, to experiment. To us, ABF is not simply a funding organization. For 15 years now, it has been our partner and a source of inspiration, supporting us as we walk the difficult path of democratic change in Bulgaria. ABF gave us the courage to face different challenges, to take risks, to be innovative and creative, and to stand up for our principles. ABF’s support has been invaluable to us!

Which AGORA story has made the strongest impression on you so far?

Our culinary festivals supply some of the most extravagant, colorful, and emotional stories. We started organizing them in 2009, when, with ABF support, we launched the first culinary festival, Kurtovo Konare Fest: A Festival of Peppers, Tomatoes, and Traditional skills. Kurtovo Konare Fest was the local community’s response to the problems of unprofitable local agriculture. To this day, the festival celebrates the successes and achievements of the community and unites local people around preserving and enhancing traditional livelihoods. United around the community center, farmers, entrepreneurs, carriers of traditional knowledge and skills, children and students, and local artisans work in the direction of improving their lives.

Kurtovo Konare Fest was the first in a series of traditional culinary and livelihood festivals initiated by AGORA. Subsequently, we supported eight other culinary festivals. Each one of them now has a life of its own and has turned into a landmark for its community. Almost every village now organizes its own food festival.

A festival in Kyustendil

We also developed a mobile application, CulinarFest, for which AGORA received the 2021 Access to Good Food Award in the Culinary Tourism Product category at the VIII National Conference titled “Access to Good Food: Challenges to the Security and Sustainability of Food Systems.”

What inspires you in your work?

I feel inspired by people’s personal and professional growth, by the cultivation of leadership, by the energy of inclusion within a community, which leads to improving the environment and people’s way of life. Change can only be achieved by an active community that does not wait for someone else to take responsibility for its future. We work with wonderful local people to whom we are extremely grateful and because of whom we know that there are no impossible things.

What are you proudest of?

I am proudest of the community of like-minded people from all over the country who are ready to learn new things, experiment, and share their experience — civil activists, community center secretaries and presidents, local artists, volunteers. We learn from each other, face common challenges, and try to find solutions to our problems together. Thus, the community flourishes thanks to the trust we have built over the years.

I pride myself on not giving up easily. I set long-term goals, and I am systematic and persistent in pursuing them. I believe in Einstein’s thought that “an opportunity lies at the core of every hardship.”

Emilia loves partaking in culinary adventures herself.

What is success to you?

Both success and fame are fleeting and illusory. Success has to do not only with reaching your goal, but also with not deserting the path you have chosen and not giving up when the going gets tough. Success means having people to walk on that path with you, and to keep walking.

What gives you reasons for optimism?

For fifteen years, AGORA has followed its path thanks to the support of organizations such as the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and different EU-funded programs. We believe that this support has been granted as a result of our shared democratic values that provide the basis of meaningful and genuine change and sustainable long-term results and that can guarantee our efforts have not been in vain. This gives us the confidence and the courage to have long-term goals and to upgrade our processes and results in accordance with democratic values and rule-of-law principles.

At the core of our optimism lies the conviction that if we believe in ourselves, others will believe in us, too.

We thank ABF for their optimism, which proved contagious.

What does your normal working day look like?

I guess it looks like the normal day of a working woman: having morning coffee, distributing the tasks for the day, spending time in front of the computer, talking on the phone (taking part in Zoom meetings, which have become very popular recently), managing home responsibilities in the evening. A new member joined the family a few months ago — a charming Chow-Chow who has turned into a solid presence in my daily schedule. My business trips are so frequent that they also fall under the definition of daily routine.

What inspires you outside of your professional interests?

I love to travel. My professional life is in sync with my need for action and movement. I have visited many wonderful places in our country that no one has heard of. I have been to distant villages, and I have met exceptional local people who are bearers of traditions, of family stories, of food recipes, of things that the local community is proud of. All those things make me very happy.

What do you gladly invest money, time, effort, and energy in?

The civic sector attracts people committed to causes. We are all here not to receive, but to give. I am not an exception to this rule. I have gratuitously dedicated a huge part of my time and energy to the cause of community development. The AGORA Competition is only one of our initiatives that have been implemented entirely on the basis of voluntary work and donations. I also support in every way I can the campaigns of our partners that are designed to do good. And, on a very personal note, I love the poetry that some of my friends write, and I am happy to support the publication of their works in any way possible.

What are your most interesting work-related encounters?

These are the local people I have met during our culinary festivals — colorful, knowledgeable, wise people, guardians of tradition, of local self-esteem and pride. It is not only that they are exceptionally good cooks; they can also sing, dance, tell stories, smile, have fun, and carry the type of energy that makes me believe that all our efforts have been worthwhile.

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