Sparking Democratic Ideals In Citizens Worldwide

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gulchera Nosirova calls it a ''teahouse,'' a social club where older men in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, gather in private to sip and ponder many of the pressing issues of local community and family life. But this centuries-old custom, exclusive and paternalistic, could be challenged in the years ahead as the result of the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of democracies. For starters, women like Mrs. Nosirova are excluded from the teahouse. Further, recently she was 6,000 miles away from Tajikistan in Ohio learning a very revolutionary new/old idea: how to initiate full citizen participation in her country. Nosirova, and some 40 participants from around the world, gathered at the Kettering Foundation's week-long International Civil Society Workshop (ICSW) to learn the art of nonconfrontational citizen deliberation in addressing public issues in their homelands. For many countries, because of prolonged wars or repressive ideologies, political cultures have been marked by decades of distrust, corruption, and confrontation. Despite the breakdown of old structures and new governments' stated commitment to creating democracies, how citizens ought to function in a democracy may be virtually unknown. ''In Russia if you feel opposite to another point of view, you fight,'' says Igor Nagdasev, executive director of the Russian Center for Citizenship Education in Moscow. ''People are not accustomed to being tolerant of each other. They only respect authority.'' In Lebanon, a country nearly destroyed by civil war, a volatile culture influences communication. ''When people in Lebanon get excited they talk with lots of body language,'' says Roula Noureddine, a trainer at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. ''You couldn't say something really big and not get interrupted.'' Kettering immerses workshop participants in the art of public ''deliberation,'' a quieter but no less intense method of addressing community issues such as crime, corruption, and education. Small groups - user friendly forums - are the heart of the method, gathered to deliberate issues under the guidance of a moderator. The point is to find common ground out of differing views, not to debate or attack opposing views. Once the group defines the causes of an issue and choices for resolution are established, many organizations then publish an ''issue'' booklet framing the issue for the wider community. ''Deliberation is simply the process of making decisions together so people can act together,'' says David Matthews, president of the Kettering Foundation. ''This is not the usual political talk that is full of contest, conflict, and accusation,'' he says. ''The forums start with what is known through people's experiences, and the effect of the deliberation is to change the group into a community.'' The Kettering Foundation, founded in 1927, is a research organization developing ideas and methodological ''tools'' to improve the practice of politics, mainly through creating ways for people to act together. ''Kettering doesn't mow lawns,'' Mr. Matthews says, ''it just provides the mower.'' Most workshop participants are connected with nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations or are faculty members of universities in their countries. Many have attended previous workshops and have experience in using deliberative methods at the community level - with varying degrees of success. ''We've done four issue books,'' says Eric Weaver, program officer for the Joint Eastern Europe Center for Democratic Education and Governance in Budapest. ''Just before a mayor's election in a small town,'' he says, ''we wrote an issue book on unemployment, and did a survey of the unemployed.'' After citizens deliberated in a public forum, they questioned all the candidates in a town forum, the first time this had occurred in the town. ''The incumbent mayor was the most responsive in the forum,'' Mr. Weaver continues. ''I can't say he was elected because of us, but it was probably true.'' In El Salvador, after years of civil war, politicians tend to view citizen participation with suspicion. ''Office holders are reluctant to go to forums,'' says Julio Rubio Menjibar, director of the Good Citizen Foundation in San Salvador, ''They don't want to be exposed. They want a list of questions before the forum is held.'' In Bogota, Colombia, politicians agreed to come to one forum but refused to sit in the circle of chairs and stood at the back of the room. ''Politicians here fear not having the answers,'' says Roberto Saba of Citizen Power Foundation in Buenos Aires. ''They distrust each other, and none of them wants to be first to give a little.'' For Constanza Gorleri, a volunteer with Conciencia in Buenos Aires, using deliberative methods helped a small farming community of 60 families. After trying to address the problems of alcoholism and domestic violence there with little success, Ms. Gorleri and her colleagues decided to listen to the people rather than telling them what their problems were. ''Attendance in the workshops was dropping,'' she says, ''so we decided to have a public forum and let the community tell us how they saw their problems.'' At the first publicized meeting only seven people attended. The second drew 20 community members eager to talk. ''They wanted to talk about the problem behind the problems,'' Gorleri says. ''One of their major concerns was the poor quality of the elementary education in the community.'' Their children were poorly prepared to go on to high school, so few graduated. What the community wanted was a training center where children could be tutored and farmers could learn more about farming. ''They felt that if children were better prepared they would have more opportunities and hope after high school,'' Gorleri says, ''and that could lead to less alcoholism and domestic violence.'' To build a training center, the community negotiated with the parish priest to let them build a scheduled new chapel with a dual purpose - part chapel, part training center. ''The entire community is involved in the building,'' Gorleri says. ''The women prepare the food while the men work, and they've met every Monday night for five months to discuss the project and other community issues.'' Kettering's hope is to discontinue workshops in the United States; as the number of workshop ''graduates'' increases regional workshops in as many countries as possible will be established.

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