Strolling down the narrow cobblestone streets, our breath condensed into tiny clouds. Alongside the graffiti and walls of peeling plaster, trams rattled by the pastel colored buildings as we made our way to Prague’s Old Town. Accordion music echoed through the streets. Soon we arrived at the Old Town Square where ornate, gothic facades were lit up in a stunning contrast against the dark night sky. While a nighttime walking tour of the city seems like a typical tourist thing to do, it provided needed context for the history embedded in this post-Communist gem of Central Europe.
We moved off the typical tourist route on our first full day in Prague when we met with Tereza, co-founder of a social entrepreneurship company, Pragulic, that employs the homeless to give walking tours of the city. Based off the basic tenet of positive psychology – that building on strengths is just as important as treating problems – Pragulic is a prime example of course theory in action. While most discussions of the homeless focus around their lack of a place to live (which, don’t get me wrong, is important), Tereza and her co-founders realized that the homeless also have something to offer: their knowledge of the streets. Pragulic re-frames the problem of homelessness as a solution; in return for leading these tours – each based on the individual’s story – those who participate get compensation, build self-confidence and marketable skills, and have access to psychological and medical care.
Walking through the city with Zuzka, our guide, gave me a new perspective on Prague and the narratives that are often hidden to the tourist eye. Zuzka’s story was one of overcoming great adversity and pain – something we were going to see a lot of on this trip. As a psychology major and mental health advocate, this is the stuff I live for. So, you can imagine my excitement when I found out that we were visiting a café that employs people with psychotic illnesses and other serious mental disorders.
Green Doors Training Café has a philosophy, similar to Pragulic, that aims to give work and the feeling of competency to often underutilized and stigmatized groups. Walking into the actual café where the trained employees work, Mlsná Kavka, you wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps one of the best aspects of this project is that it doesn’t discriminate based on diagnosis. While Filip, one of the founders, explained that more patience and training is needed for this specific endeavor, employees are not looked upon as being any less capable than other workers. Yes, their medication may make concentration harder and memory foggier, but it also means that when skills are developed it fosters a greater sense of accomplishment. Employees also have access to peer consultants – basically peer counselors who have faced similar issues but are now stable. Meeting one of these peer consultants, Veronika, was one of the most inspiring moments of this trip.
Veronika shared her story of childhood violence, drug abuse, and suicide attempts, as well as rising above that. In positive psychology, we term this “post-traumatic growth.” Many of us who have faced trauma or hardship can relate to the resilience we build in overcoming it. Veronika now uses her story and her past to help others in similar situations, and she excitedly told us that one of her clients just became one of her colleagues as a peer consultant. I find it incredible how you can travel across the world, and despite all of the cultural differences see that we are all united by our common human struggle to find security, connection with others, and meaning in life. Before ending this post, I’ll share one more example of someone who chooses not to be defined by his disability.
When Radek was born, his spinal cord was torn; he’s been wheelchair bound for his entire life. But this doesn’t stop him or any of the people at the Jedlicka Institute from doing what they love. Touring the Institute, founded for those with physical disabilities, I got an incredible sense of community. The facilities were beautiful and decorated with student art and handicrafts. Everything was accessible and designed so that there were no barriers to doing everyday activities. The students seemed happy, but also just like any normal students going about their daily life. We ended at the café, run by students, having a conversation with Radek.
He kept telling us how lucky he was, a sentence none of us were expecting. When the full meaning of his sentiment sank in, I understood why positive psychology is such a necessary academic study. Conversations on everything from homelessness, to mental illness, to disability are focused on the lack of something; shifting these conversations away from a deficit perspective to a more nuanced view of how, amidst life’s troubles, we can foster well-being and even flourishing is something I aim to do for the rest of my life. For that, as well as the exciting moments in between, I thank Zuzka, Veronika, Radek, my professor Salman, and my classmates. The consensus among our class is that Prague is one of our new favorite cities. Below are some photos of our explorations of the beautiful, dynamic city that is Prague. I would recommend that everyone come Czech it out. 😉