Building a Democratic Citizenry Requires a Global Effort
HERE'S a quiz: What does the peace of the planet have to do with a meeting of teachers in a provincial Russian town? Or with a group of Colombian peasants talking together in 110-degree heat? Or with a Polish man listening to a description of public views of politics in Chile and saying, ``I thought you were talking about my country!''
World leaders may have been cloistered in their G-7/8 summit. In North Korea, one Kim replaces another. The United States military may or may not be preparing to invade Haiti. In different parts of the world, men and women are being butchered, uprooted, abused.
But here in Dayton, Ohio, a remarkable group of people from 10 other countries (and Puerto Rico) have gathered with hosts from the Kettering Foundation to discuss their common venture: efforts in all their countries to build an effective, engaged citizenry.
These women and men come from places where democracy is new, fragile, or otherwise under threat. From Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the vast expanse of Russia - all so recently freed from Soviet suffocation. From vast new Western Hemisphere democracies in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. From Lebanon, Colombia, and Guatemala, where democracy has faced severe challenges from prolonged internal strife.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, the energies these people are pouring into their work will have more impact on humanity's well-being and survival than all the G-7 summits ever held.
In the present era, the factors that threaten the security of whole regions and even, possibly, the world, are more likely to stem from problems of intergroup relations within states, and straddling state borders, than from the more traditional types of conflicts between states. Hence, the vital need for democracies that work.
Here is Igor Nagdasev, executive director of the Russian Center for Citizenship Education, talking about the state of democracy in Russia: ``People's views of their ideal relationship with politicians are still highly colored by the Soviet past, and by Russian tradition.... Two views predominate: that people should just leave the professional politicians to their task, and that we should all be good people and get on with our jobs. There is a minority who believe that citizens should engage actively with politics, but their views of how to do this are all very negative -
they think of strikes, or demonstrations!''
Mr. Nagdasev's center is fostering a different kind of engagement: public politics in which citizens come together to pursue common projects and to deliberate public issues in a nonconfrontational, constructive manner. His compatriot, Jakov Sokolov, is trying to build the habit of constructive dialogue at a younger age. Nagdasev's citizenship center produces curricula and textbooks on citizenship for teenagers in Russian government schools. Great leverage here: His basic set of teaching materials had a print run of 4 million!
Meanwhile, in training institutes throughout the country, Mr. Sokolov and his colleagues coach Russia's educators on how to teach citizenship differently. ``The teachers were used, under the old system, to lecture to the pupils, in order to give them the `facts' about citizenship,'' he says. ``Now we show them how to ask questions, provoke discussion, and to teach the students to think about the issues.''
Habits of respectful, democratic deliberation are not easy to build. In Colombia, veteran professor Dora Rothlisberger has organized forums in remote towns along the Atlantic coast, where local people painstakingly talk through issues connected with education and citizenship.
In Argentina, Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power) has convened public forums on corruption. In Lebanon, a group spearheaded by the YMCA has brought people of all faiths together in dialogues on the environment. Everywhere, the ``enemy'' is public apathy toward, or alienation from, the political process.
Sound familiar? For Americans, it certainly does. That's why Kettering will take these international citizen-activists from Dayton to a larger exchange with American counterparts. They - and we - can all learn from one another. And in the end, if the peace of our planet is to be robustly built, this will be a big part of how it is done - one citizen at a time.