State Department’s “Grassroots Democracy In the U.S.” Brings African Leaders to Penn

By Katie McCabe, Fels Graduate

Fifteen leaders from over ten different African countries gathered at the Penn Graduate School of Education on Tuesday, May 29th for a conversation on public deliberation in the US and its applications to their communities and countries. They met with the two founders of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, GSE’s Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo, who is also Vice President for News and Public Engagement at WHYY. The group was visiting Philadelphia as part of the Department of State’s “Grassroots Democracy in the U.S.” project. The leaders all shared a common goal: to learn more about US organizaitons that are increasing citizen participation in democratic governance.

The morning began with an introduction to Sokoloff and Satullo’s work. The pair have been working together on public engagement since 1995 and founded the Penn Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE) seven years ago to reduce divisive and exclusionary political dialogue through a focus on community involvement in governance. At its core, PPCE engages citizens in “deliberative dialogue,” through which individuals can understand the pros and cons of both their own and others’ positions. This process enables individuals who disagree to reach mutual understandings that can lead to joint decision-making, a process that is paramount for leaders in any democracy.

Since its founding, PPCE has designed and implemented over 30 deliberative public engagement projects. These projects have enabled citizens to find common ground among their hopes and concerns for their communities, and then to use this common ground to drive the agendas behind public policies and projects. Projects have ranged from developing resident priorities for the Philadelphia city budget during the fiscal crisis of 2009, to developing design criteria for new schools in Philadelphia to informing the School District of Philadelphia’s search for a new superintendent in February of 2012.

As Sokoloff and Satullo introduced the theory, concepts, founding principles and examples of the PPCE’s work, the visiting African leaders shared their own successes and challenges with participatory democracy in their home countries.

Around the room, there was the agreement that a focus on local participatory democracy through deliberative dialogue has already and could continue to lead to national-level changes in their countries’ governance. A Deputy Prefect from Senegal shared how participatory budgeting processes and public healthcare forums are currently occurring at the local level in her country. Similarly, the Coordinator of the National Electoral Commission in the Central African Republic discussed how community involvement in local governance has recently increased in importance as his country’s government works to decentralize power

But other leaders noted they, their communities and countries are struggling with how to increase this kind of engagement.

Ms. Beatrice Emilie Epaye, former Minister of Commerce of the Central African Republic and newly elected Deputy of the National Assembly, agreed that it is important to create this kind of dialogue for organizations working to solve the AIDS crisis in her country. But, she noted, organizations that distribute condoms and teach safe sex practices often come into challenging conflicts with Catholic organizations, which forbid condoms and instead preach abstinence. She explained how finding common ground among these conflicting organizations is a necessary step in solving the AIDS crisis.

Other leaders, such as a political commentator from Mozambique, shared their concerns that some African democracies may be too young to engage in the same kind of deliberative dialogues as the United States. As a school principal from Swaziland noted, her country still lives under the rule of a monarch, making national deliberative dialogue a major challenge.

By the morning’s end, the room was buzzing with the same kind of energy so often found at the community public forums hosted by PPCE. It was both informative and rejuvenating to learn how participatory democracy is taking shape in countries across the African continent, and to hear about its similarities and differences to the work led here at Penn.

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