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An Inspirational Report on National Issues Forums Held in Russia

I receive “Friday Letters” each week from the Kettering Foundation. The April 16th Friday Letter started off with an inspirational report from KF Associate Phil Stewart about his recent trip to Russia. Phil and his colleagues observed several deliberative forums, and noticed a clear commitment to learning and practicing the norms of democratic deliberation. One elderly teacher is quoted as saying “Only if my grandchildren learn to think critically, think for themselves and to deliberate in public, only then will they have the opportunity to grow up in a democratic Russia.” Click below for the full report.

Following a quick trip to Russia last week, KF Associate Phil Stewart filed this report.

For three long, intense, but deeply rewarding days last week, Brian Cobb, Joanie Swedlund, Mpho Putu and I had the pleasure of visiting Moscow, Bryansk and Egoryevsk, Russia in the company of and at the invitation of Denis Makarov and Svetlana Gorokhova. The primary purpose of our trip was to observe three forums – two in Bryansk and one in Egoryevsk – in the continuing series on What Kind of a Relationship Should America and Russia Build? The trip was remarkable at several levels. First, in a Russia not known for efficiency, we experienced the most organized and on-time trip of my lifetime. Second, the warmth of the hospitality provided by Denis and Sveta, and by each Russian who either met with us or whom we simply encountered reflected the open arms of the new Russia.

But, most important of all for us was what we heard and experienced at the forums. The participants ranged from 9th graders to pensioners, from teachers to laborers. To a person, they were engaged and articulate about their hopes and concerns. The most frequently expressed hope was that American and Russia could live as friends, not enemies or competitors. However, they recognized that every nation does and will continue to act upon its own sense of its national interests. Unfortunately, many Russians noted, too often in America this means ignoring at best and injuring at worst the interests of their partners, such as Russia. Fundamentally, Russians are deeply conflicted between their aspirations and their sober assessments of what is possible today.

But, this rather pessimistic note was not our most important observation. Far more important to us were the clear evidences of a commitment to learning and practicing the norms of democratic deliberation. This was most evident in the post-forum period where each participant was asked to note what was most important in the forum experience for them. Again and again we heard comments like, “I learned to listen to views with which I do not agree,” or “I changed my own views as a result of the deliberation,” to “This is one of the few times in my life I have taken part in a serious political discussion where there were no arguments, where people listened to each other and sought understanding, irrespective of holding deeply divergent views, and this is an experience to treasure.”

By far the most promising development we observed, however, was the effort to create a secondary school curriculum for Bryansk region, using the methods of public deliberation to teach students the habits of democracy. What made this personally meaningful for me was hearing an elderly teacher, with more than 40 years of teaching experience in the Soviet period, say that she is putting all of her energy into this program because she is persuaded that “only if my grandchildren learn to think critically, think for themselves and to deliberate in public, only then will they have the opportunity to grow up in a democratic Russia.” Interestingly, our Bryansk colleagues report that the Russian Ministry of Secondary Education is closely following this experiment in Bryansk with the intent of making it a nationwide required course, should the experiment prove successful.

Sandy Heierbacher is the director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). She co-founded NCDD in 2002 with her husband Andy Fluke. Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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