We were shocked and saddened to hear that Johanna Raffan MBE has passed away.
For many years, Johanna Raffan was part of the executive Committee of ECHA as a long serving secretary. Her knowledge and understanding of how organisations helped ECHA to be the professional entity it is now. Johanna cooperated with several ECHA Presidents, and supported them in an incredible way, keeping them informed about all the rules and regulations while encouraging progress for the organisation.
Apart from that, she was a warm, intelligent woman, with a good sense of humour. When I first entered the General Committee, I admit that I felt was a little bit “afraid” of this woman, who had such great knowledge. It took only a short while to get to know her better; she supported me and introduced me in the work of the Secretary, when it was clear I would succeed her in this position. I remember pleasant times together, when committee meetings were still ‘on site’, and I learned some nice new (for me) English words, like the night we walked together in Münster, and she said the weather was so ‘balmy’; I love that expression and every time I use it, I think of Johanna, an amazing woman. May she rest in peace.
Eight years ago Professor Csermely was elected President of ECHA in Münster; four years later, in 2016, ECHA’s members voted for him again. His term in office, which is no longer renewable, has expired recently. This interview is about his 8 years spent as President of ECHA and changes in his life in that period.
What did you think about the importance of ECHA eight years ago and what made you accept the post of president?
It was Franz who invited me to the post. “What if I appointed you president?”, he asked without any preliminaries. An interesting invitation, considering that I had not participated in ECHA’s work before. I did write about talent support in Hungary several times, but I had no scientific publication in talent support. I believe in gradual development; I do not consider it natural to suddenly invite someone to act as president. I knew that my election could lead to a special situation, i.e. the post of president of ECHA being filled by a person hardly known to its members, with only a few exceptions.
So why did I accept the post of president in an organisation that did not know me? The networking efforts of the Hungarian Talent Point system had been remarkably successful by 2012, and I was very confident that it was worth setting up a similar network in other countries and in Europe as a whole. Organisations such as ECHA could play a potentially decisive role in this process. In fact, this was the most significant reason why I got into such a challenging situation.
As president, I had to learn a lot in the first year or two about how to run a European organisation. I had to understand the different frameworks of interpretation that stem from the diversity of European culture and make them acceptable to members to be able to work together.
ECHA has always brought together the most significant talent support researchers of Europe and the world. As president, I realised that ECHA gives little ground for my original concept, the “organisation of organisations”, due to its structure. Although the opportunity has been there, no more than 4-5 organisations joined ECHA over the years, that is, an “organisation of organisations” in talent support could and had to be created, and this is what ETSN was about. By the end of the second year, we had got used to each other with ECHA, and that was when the main principles of the European Talent Support Network (ETSN) were accepted.
It is still not clear to all that, despite their similar objectives, the two organisations, ECHA and ETSN, have highly different memberships and profiles. Many keep confusing them, and they fail to understand why the second had to be set up. However, despite their similarities, both have their raison d’être. ECHA is an organisation of individuals; ETSN of organisations. The long-term cooperation agreement of the two multiply the power of both.
Do you consider organisations relying exclusively on persons, such as ECHA, outdated?
Not at all. Talent support is a highly diverse, continuously changing science and practice, demanding diversified approaches, and requiring permanent international consultations. Permanent consultations not only between organisations, but also persons. Many do not, or do not want to affiliate to organisations, and that is fine. Talent support is a personal thing, and it has developed its niche in science cultivated by persons, not organisations. ECHA has a very long future ahead, as indicated by the fact that it has stood the test of time for more than three decades.
How different have you become over the past 8 years, how much has the post of ECHA President changed you?
I have become a completely different person over these 8 years. I could perhaps say I am the same person, but my dominant characteristics are different now. Interestingly, when I read into my writings from 10-12 years ago, I find that I would now describe many things the same way, but they have a completely different meaning for me.
My view of the world has deepened in recent years; I feel I have gained something of a “new understanding”. This new understanding essentially means a much more direct relationship with Totality, where by Totality I mean God, I mean Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, but here, in this context, I would like to highlight the meaning of Totality. I have gained a more ordinary and live understanding of the un-understandable, of what Totality, of which we realise various small slices in our own lives, is in the world.
Talent support, too, falls into place when you are ready to come across someone quite different from you and in many respects much more valuable than you any time. Why? Because that other person reflects another slice of Totality or reflects the same slice to a different degree. Consequently, we mutually disclose some part of Totality, different for each individual. In this sense, the nature of Totality is endless. Each of us, born to this Earth, gets a slice of it. Consequently, we can experience constant amazement in the world; see how beautiful it is; how much it gives us; and with what humility we should relate to everything/everyone we meet. Well, this humility had not been present in me to such extent eight years ago. As I get older and more and more experienced, not in the last about Totality, this humility is developing in me. I consider this a crucial change in myself
How did ECHA change me in the past 8 years? It gave me humility. Because an international, European, arena — if you do not conceive of it as a battlefield, as many do, but a stage for cooperation — helps you learn humility, recognise the assets that different people, habits, traditions, solutions etc. from different countries can give you. I saw this at some depth during my work at ECHA.
Would today’s Péter Csermely have accepted the post of President of ECHA?
Put this way, this is a rather “unhistorical” question: it cannot be answered, because today’s Péter Csermely is past an eight-year presidency. I have always felt people get used up in a specific position over the years, that it, it is imperative that someone else take over the tasks and give an organisation a new approach. How many years — that is a good question. Nowadays, I realise that in some positions, e.g. that of a pastor or priest in a congregation, you must be able to coexist with a community in the long term, accompany them through ups and downs; suffer and rejoice with them. These situations are not development projects that can be handed over once you had reached your goal, whatever it was.
I could not give ECHA much more. Also, in the meantime, I have moved to a brand new career: I am a university student in theology, preparing to be a Lutheran pastor. This excludes filling such an important post also in terms of time. I am very grateful to Lianne Hoogeveen for accepting the post of president of ECHA from 10 September this year.
What do you consider the biggest achievement of the past 8 years within ECHA?
I consider the establishment of ETSN and its becoming independent the most important achievement. But, in addition, I consider the launch of thematic conferences very important, as it had become clear over the years that many wanted to organise ECHA conferences, but we had to reject many offers. The aim was to have smaller and more specific thematic conferences. Of course, the coronavirus situation makes us re-evaluate many things; we will have to invent creative arrangements also for our conferences.
Another major achievement is that the ECHA education programme has received a transparent framework; for twenty years, there have been excellent programmes all over the world, but they have been far from uniform and lacked monitoring, and this has led to intensifying uncertainty. A legitimate need arose to clarify what was common in these educational programmes. I am most grateful to the Educational Committee led by Professor Christian Fischer for drafting the relevant standards and having them adopted through years of work and international consultations.
I consider it important that transparency has become typical of the work of ECHA also in many other respects: a great part of previously ad hoc decision-making has sound theoretical bases now. I would not say the process is completed, but we are on track.
I was very glad we could adequately celebrate the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the organisation, and we have also collected 25 years of history and the history of the conferences. So the history of ECHA will not be lost without a trace: it has been documented. Let’s not forget that ECHA was born a short time before the systems changes, in 1987, and one of its goals was to reconcile the two halves of Europe, that is, it has been shaped by very special times in Europe.
The above achievements, however, are dwarfed by the fact that I could take Franz Mönks to the London flat of Joan Freeman, and Joan received him there. We arrived with a large bouquet, and Joan received us with lots of photos. During a very nice conversation lasting several hours the founding president and the three-times president of ECHA made up in my presence (after almost twenty years). This was followed by Dublin, where Franz asked Joan to dance at the gala dinner. And Joan said yes. That dance – that was my most important achievement in eight years.
What do you consider the most important achievement of the past eight years in your own life?
My deepened spirituality; my more intensive relationship with Totality that fills me with infinite joy. I can live a much “rounder” life than a few years ago. And this gives me an incredibly amount of purity, humility and poverty (in a broad sense, all of them). The things really worth living for have crystallised in my life. I experienced impoverishment in the good sense, when the superfluous things are omitted from one’s life and only the ones that are really crucial remain. It is clear to me now that the crucial things all relate to Totality.
Totality is a beautiful standard; it has light and it has love. Using these qualities as a compass, one’s life starts to get settled, and after a while it turns into beautiful poverty. Of course, this settling process of my life is still in progress; I am glad I can take steps along this path with the power of grace.
What professional topics occupy you most nowadays?
I have started to realise what is truly important also in my profession. There are very few such things, 2-3 maybe, and it is not certain that you will be the one who detects even one of them, but you will be happy anyway for being involved. There are many traps and temptations also in network research: one could get stuck with certain components or consider whatever he is occupied with an enormous thing. Understanding, intuition of what is really important in a field of science requires lots of time, at least ten years, and also sufficient humility for this to happen. We do not see what is truly important in a field by ourselves, but if we are open, we’ll receive the grace for it. What I am most occupied with in network research currently is how networks change and develop; what activates their development and what makes a single cell learn and how.
Big questions of the world …
Yes, but smaller ones are not worth tackling. In some sense you need to get poor also in this context, and to start to look at life from the perspective of the universe. Then you realise that 90 percent of what you had done before was valueless, and you also realise that you’d better discard it all, no reason to carry it with you. When you omit the unimportant things, you will be much happier and lighter. Maybe sometimes not in this world…
This is concurrent with getting closer and closer to Totality in your life. This proximity, of course, does not exclude everyday activities. To the contrary! Now, for example, we are having a conversation here because of the interview, but I do not only converse with a friend, but also with Totality. It is possible to experience quality time also this way, with one more person: Totality, in other words Jesus Christ, is also sitting at the table with us, but we do not always notice Him. Whereas we should realise that it is only the presence of Jesus Christ that makes the table a table.
Was it difficult to keep ECHA, a very diverse community where theory meets practice, together?
It was difficult. Yes: science and practice meet in this community, but different European practices, different generations and disciplines also meet there, and neither are easily “kept together”.
The core mission of ECHA is to link theory and practice, to bridge the gap between the two. ECHA is excellent in this bridging role. Why is it excellent? Because in this community, scientists do not look down on those active in practice, but learn from them. Take for example Joan Freeman, who has been listening to the most practical reports with infinite humility to this day, because she can always find something of interest in each that may even be worth considering scientifically later. But Albert Ziegler is also such a leader, and I could list many others. One could say that all the decisive personalities in ECHA have been like that, including Professor Mönks, of course. This has actually marked ECHA to a large extent: you cannot conceive of this organisation any more without including attentive listening among its essential properties. This is a very nice thing in this organisation.
Do you have a talent concept?
No, I think talent as a notion is very close to Totality; it is close to a complex concept that cannot be reached by reason, only by intuition. It is a beautiful moment when, during a conversation, you realise that the person you are conversing with is highly talented, and you become certain of it. However, it is far from certain that you could also put into words why you think so. I found it beautiful that, as it turned out in conversations with the best talent supporters of the word, this was our common experience.
It is important to define, measure, develop etc. such a colourful thing as talent in diverse ways also scientifically. The essence of science, in my opinion, is that it always gives you something new, just like understanding Totality. It opens up new dimensions, and repeatedly surprises you by its depths. When you feel you are comfortably moving about in a dimension you have become familiar with, suddenly a new depth is revealed, and this process is as endless as Totality itself …
What in your opinion are the most serious challenges in talent support in Europe today?
Let me start out from the virus emergency. This is not an instantaneous condition in the life of humanity. I am convinced we got it to redirect humanity onto a new course. The previous course is unsustainable. Unsustainable in the sense that it is destroying the Earth, and also in that humanity is destroying itself, because it raises the number of the poor to an astonishing extent and gives insatiable unhappiness to the bulk of the rich. The virus warns us that with humility, purity and poverty, in the broad sense, we must restrain ourselves. We cannot continue to devour things as we have done for decades. During our astonishing enrichment in the objective sense, we failed to notice that what we accumulated was garbage, not essential things. If we return to the same way of life, humanity would be destroyed. As ecosystem, the Earth also feels that this course is unsustainable and starts to do something to counter it. It feeds back, what we experience as retaliation. Whereas this is a teaching and a message.
Crises becoming permanent is quite a new situation. Without underestimating the common sense of the average, people with high creativity can help a lot, in an outstanding way. But we have not prepared them adequately to really help find answers. Self-critically, I must admit that I have not done that myself either — talent support has not really faced this problem yet; we must start to prepare the youth much more thoroughly to provide help. As pastor student, I deeply experience the importance and incredibly rich opportunities of this.
In the past years, the number of persons who joined the ECHA Facebook group rose to six thousand. There are five hundred ECHA members… It is interesting to see that the majority of members lives in extremely poor countries without any talent support traditions, outside Europe. This alerts us to the fact that these destitute people consider talent support an outlet for being party to Europe, to talent, to European talent. We, on the other hand, must be able to give them these outlets. This is not altruism pure and simple: it is also in our own interest. I do not mean brain-drain here: we have a single Earth and we would all perish with it if we did not put its omnipresent talents in a position where they can (and want to) ease the worries of the common home. The works of field-workers, such as the head of Narayan Desai Talent Centre, India, who can offer escape routes through talent support for those who have no other perspectives is extremely important. We must try to bring part of the ever poorer population of the Earth within the scope of talent management and support.
May the Almighty grant us strength, wisdom, foresight and mercy for this effort in the highly varied terrain where the paths of our lives lead us!
 ECHA = European Council for High Ability; NGO registered in The Netherlands, founded in 1987
 Franz Mönks (1932 – 2020), former president of ECHA