April 03, 2018, 10 min read
Interview by Ronja Wagner
Having grown up in Slovenia, Cecily Corti had to flee to Austria in 1945. At the end of the war, her father was deported and murdered by passing partisans. Today, Cecily Corti is known and has received several honorary rewards for her extraordinary engagement with homeless people in Vienna.
Ronja had the chance to tap into Cecily's life experience; discussing how to overcome life struggles, to identify one's real passions and roots of happiness.
What motivates your work?
"The idea of unconditional acceptance has a deep meaning for me. Too often, change, hope and responsibility are transferred to politics and public institutions alone. Thus, we develop a society of spectators and moaners and this damages our dignity and increases fear. It is up to each individual to decide what really matters and to act accordingly.
My life has changed fundamentally since my engagement in VinziRast. There is no time left to worry or to complain. All of us who are involved in these daily activities and in the encounter with people who have a very different background feel alive and enriched by this experience."
"Too often, change, hope and responsibility are transferred to politics and public institutions alone. (...) It is up to each individual to decide what really matters and to act accordingly."
You, as a manager and woman, work in a difficult environment. What obstacles do you face and how do you overcome them?
"This is quite amazing. In the very beginning - fifteen years ago - everybody was very sceptical. Nobody took us for serious. The group of people we are dealing with is considered to be difficult to handle, none of us were experts or trained social workers. We were all volunteers, mostly women. Yet, when I founded the shelter, I was not at all anxious. I knew I would be able to cope with this challenge."
What is the reason why many women have problems to rise economically in your opinion?
"I am by no means an expert on this question. I believe it is important first to find out what really matters for yourself and then stand up for your opinion, in spite of resistance from outside. In every life – no matter whether man or woman – you have to develop self-empowerment. And you must know your limits. For instance, at the shelter, someone might complain: “That's unfair! Why does this man receive a shelter and not me?". It is not necessary to explain everything. But it is important to talk with respect and the other person must feel to be taken for serious."
"It is not necessary to explain everything. But it is important to talk with respect and the other person must feel to be taken for serious."
Is there any difficulty for you as a woman in dealing with homeless men?
"I personally do not have any difficulty. But many of my female colleagues do think that especially Muslims and people from African countries usually address their request for a bed first to the male colleagues. They are used to men having the saying. They also have to learn their lesson in integrating into our culture."
Do you ever perceive prejudice on your own side?
"Of course, I am not free of prejudice. For instance, I was never confronted with an alcoholic in my near surrounding. Alcoholism is a real disease and the person concerned needs above all empathy. I suppose we all are not free of prejudice in many ways. It makes a total difference in the relationship when we get conscious about it."
"Freedom does not mean to do what you love, but to love what you do."
You once said, "People have come to terms with the state of our world. Especially women". Do you think that women just do not dare to change?
"I personally never had emancipation worries or struggles. It was a given fact in my youth that men earn the living and women look after the children, the house, and the kitchen. I was not unhappy about it. But I also realized that what really matters is to find your way, to follow your intuition and your deeper longings. And this does not mean to act against your partner or your children or other members of your near family. It is a very important process of maturing. And women are becoming very strong, it takes some time. We need patience. Women will thus have two essential strengths that the world needs: empathy and a functioning clear mind."
You are often at home and say you like to be alone. You must get along well with yourself. Not everyone is able to be alone.
"I'm surrounded by life: I have my children and grandchildren in the same house and I have the VinziRast responsibility with all the necessary activities. This is why I often decide to spend an evening alone and not give in to a temptation of a social invitation. Many times I feel afterwards it was a waste of time."
"I often decide to spend an evening alone and not give in to a temptation of a social invitation. Many times I feel afterwards it was a waste of time."
What has turned you into such a strong personality?
"Over the years of my life, I've gone through some serious life crises. Probably, the way I mastered them, gave me self-confidence and strength. One example: I was traveling in Guatemala alone by myself. After some time I got troubled by a tremendous, acute stomach ache. I was confronted to deal with doctors in a foreign country with a language that I did not know and with the diagnosis of cancer and the following operation. This was quite an experience!
Also for me, meditation in the tradition of Zen, has become an essential practice in my everyday life."
Has your mother been an influence on you?
"I am very lucky to have been born into my family. I had a deep and very tender relationship with my mother. Nevertheless, rather late in my life, I was already in my forties, I realized how much influence she had on my life. I had to discover my own self and this is always a big challenge and struggle to get through. But struggles are inevitable. You should never try to avoid them - the outcome, in the end, is nearly always an enormous gain of freedom."
"Struggles are inevitable. You should never try to avoid them - the outcome, in the end, is nearly always an enormous gain of freedom."
What does Zen teach about that?
"It is impossible to answer this question in a few sentences. Zen does not explain things, Zen believes in experience. Find out yourself the answers that matter for your life.
Just one sentence that I love a lot and opens up a new world, I think: 'Freedom does not mean to do what you love, but to love what you do.'"
How do I find the passion that drives my life?
"You have to develop your intuition to know what nurtures you. Just be aware of every moment, live in the moment. After some time you will notice what really gives you a feeling of being nourished. This might be a book, or a moment with a friend, or an experience that you do not want to miss. Get a feeling when you really feel alive. You will not want to miss that."
"You have to develop your intuition to know what nurtures you. Just be aware of every moment, live in the moment.(...) Get a feeling when you really feel alive. You will not want to miss that."
What kind of people are you seeking out to spend time with?
"One of the reasons why I started to work with homeless people is that I felt connected with real life. They do not hide behind a mask. But of course, I was lucky enough to have met some very extraordinary personalities in my life. They left a lasting impression on me. I am very grateful for this!"
Thank you for the interview.
Cecily Corti grew up in Slovenia and had to flee to Austria in 1945 with her mother and siblings. At the end of the war, her father was deported and murdered by passing partisans; his fate could never be clarified in detail.
During the Alpbacher Hochschulwochen, she met Axel Corti (1933-1993), who worked in radio, television, and film, whom she married in 1964 and with whom she has three sons. In the later years of her marriage, she trained as a therapist and learned ZEN meditation, then worked for years therapeutically with groups and individuals.
Cecily Corti is the head of the "Vinzenzgemeinschaft St. Stephan" association, founded in 2003, and head of the VinziRast-Corti Haus, a low-threshold emergency shelter for the homeless, which also offers 29 places to live for the formerly homeless. Corti is also the director of other VinziRast facilities for the homeless (VinziRast Wohngemeinschaft, VinziRast-mittendrin, VinziChance, and VinziRast-Home). In May 2013, the operation began in "VinziRast-mittendrin" (VinziRast in the middle), a house very close to the center, in which former homeless people live together with students.
Amongst other honorary awards, she has received the Golden Award for Merits serving the Republic of Austria and the Bruno Kreisky Award for Merits in working for Human Rights.