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Closing plenary remarks on a paradox

Many of the most innovative projects we encountered at this year's World Forum for Democracy on education, inequality and democracy involve a transfer of power.

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Screenshot. Rosemary Bechler, one of three WFD2016 closing plenary rapporteurs. It is a great honour as an editor of openDemocracy, media partner for the second year running with the World Forum for Democracy, to be invited to act as rapporteur for this closing session. We have been given the task of summing up in ten minutes our experience of this extraordinary two days of plenums and Labs! But if I was to sum up my experience in one word, it would be in the form of a paradox.

What we have learned conforms closely enough to the warning of my revered compatriot, Colin Crouch, who when asked what message he wanted to convey to the forthcoming Forum, began with the following:

The problems of democracy are mainly structural – particularly growing inequality and the difficulty of bringing a globalized economy within the scope of democratic institutions. Education can do little if there are no structural responses to these issues.” 

Nothing we heard in Monday morning’s Time for Facts session on global trends in education and democracy enables us to rely on such structural responses. Indeed – from Joan Hoey of The Economist Intelligence Unit, we learn that the gap between elites and the people is still growing, that there is a decline of belief in democracy accompanied by a curbing of civil liberties, and from Pew Researcher Richard Wike that 37% of Americans think Hillary Clinton doesn’t respect democracy, while a majority of Americans believe the same is true for Donald Trump. 37% of Americans think Hillary Clinton doesn’t respect democracy, while a majority of Americans believe the same is true for Donald Trump.

And yet, being here for two days, it is very difficult to conclude that in this world, education can do little – when you are surrounded by the rich presentations and boundless enthusiasm of the people invited here by the Council of Europe, or if you have been working alongside the young citizens from across the world who have been helping us run the openDemocracy Newsroom in the hemicycle this week.

So how can it be that against these grim statistics there is nevertheless so much creativity and ingenuity to be found across these 19 LABS? I think, for me, there is another term that makes sense of this – the lynch-pin of the paradox so to speak – and that is the word and the principle of self-organisation, or as Yaacov Hecht put it in his plenary contribution, the turning away from “authority to knowledge”.

So where do we find this self-organisation? Well, very much in the many initiatives of democratic schooling. We heard about this in a whole series of amazing schools, whether it was Ramin Farhangi’s École Dynamique in France; Simone Haenen’s personal account of what made her a city councillor and education activist in the Netherlands; and of course from opening keynote speaker,Yaacov Hecht, whose inspiring words, encouraged by his fellow-speaker’s lament for a human-kind epistemologically “mired in inertia”, reminded us that it is time to stop creating factory slaves for the last, industrial revolution, and instead to give power to the world’s cities and communities; high time to build content “around human rights rather than nationality”; time, in short, to shift the paradigm. Where else in any of our societies do we see the tyranny of the majority – a tyranny that is fast becoming such a problem for our societies, and not only in the USA – actually being thought about and tackled by young people in such a tangible way as in these schools? The lynch-pin of the paradox is self-organisation, or as Yaacov Hecht put it in his plenary contribution, the turning away from “authority to knowledge”.

We have been told to think about impact. Ask a media person to become your rapporteur, and you are bound to encounter a slightly different notion of impact, arising from our strong propensity to prostitute ourselves to the nearest audience!… but if impact is the spark that lights the blue touch paper of public enthusiasm, then there is little doubt in my mind that Yaacov Hecht’s vision, and visions like his, will have an increasingly resounding impact in years to come.

We have been asked to consider if these initiatives have: “an added value in terms of improving educational systems and democratic systems in the light of persisting social divides.”

It is surely the case that self-organisation as an aim, a principle and a method is working precisely that same sort of magic in the 100 Schools for Democracy planned next year as part of a National Programme in Education for Democratic Citizenship in the Ukraine by the Ministry of Education and Science and the European Wergeland Centre in Norway. Irynor Sabor told us how the Ukraine Schools for Democracy programme is tackling the impact of deep regional divisions in that society, economic turmoil, security threats and war. How? – By giving people an experience of democracy in action, by seeking greater school and teacher autonomy, and by recognizing “people’s own mindsets” as real drivers for change. Iryna, too, was talking about a partnership between students, teachers and parents; about how important it is that teachers at a school planning workshop in the Ukraine could, “for the first time all sit together and discuss our problems and our interests openly.” “It is they who will build the new Ukraine, school by school”, she said, “themselves: not from above but from within.”

Ukrainian Schools for Democracy Programme. European Wergeland Centre photograph. All rights reserved.Here is my second principle to hang onto: democracy, we know for sure, cannot be imposed from above. And while we are in Ukraine, let us mention another impressive Ukrainian self-organisation project – the student anti-corruption initiative which mobilises students who risk university expulsion to shine a spotlight on corruption in higher education. It is no accident, I think, that Anton Marchuk’s message to his peers, “Be brave – but don’t be alone and don’t be afraid!” echoes Hecht’s advice to a young man in the opening plenary who wanted to advance democratic schooling in his neighbourhood. Where to start?, he wondered. And was told by Yaacov, “ Look for people like you. Build a network. Don't be on your own.”

Another initiative that impressed me, where the same principles are at work was the ‘self-organising learning environments in humble neighbourhoods’ (SOLE) in Argentina which Alejandro IntiBonomo introduced us to. SOLE uses computers to encourage the sharing of knowledge, ideas and debates, but not for an élite. He was asked rather nervously how they trained their teachers to be so digitally innovative? The response was: “It’s OK – if the teachers don’t understand – the students can explain to them! And this is happening anyway.” Here was another trope we heard more about as a self-organising characteristic – students becoming teachers if we are to rise to the huge challenges facing our future societies.

So in all the initiatives which have most impacted on me, there was this element not just of empowerment but of a transfer of power – giving people voices who before had not been asked to make such a contribution to their societies and their cultures:

i) the empowered voices of the children of the Amazon in the Vagalume Association in Brazil, youngsters belonging to a people of 24 million, 42% of them living on half the minimum wage – entering into a new, better relationship with their São Paolo compatriots,

ii) the mutual empowerment of young kids and elderly pensioners in Carole Gadet’s amazing intergenerational programme of education, restoring the links between generations,

iii) the New Media school in Kosovo that deploys media campaigns to show young people that they can make an impact on their societies and their own futures,

iv) the community radio which empowers people in rural Senegal by introducing women and men to their rights,

v) or Kiron, German start-up that gives refugees worldwide access to higher education by bluntly ignoring all the divisions of status and barriers that the world is so busy erecting…

“ Look for people like you. Build a network. Don't be on your own.”

Members of the School Parliament organize a puppet show to promote inclusion and tolerance, Jordan. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA, Alaa Ghosheh) All rights reserved.But I want to finish by mentioning UNWRA’s Human Rights programme for over half a million Palestine refugee children in nearly 700 schools. In this wartorn, traumatised landscape, it is “youth engagement and participation and active global citizenship promoted through School Parliaments and innovative projects that connect Palestine refugee youth with each other and with youth from all over the world,” including, I’m glad to say, the UK, that again makes the crucial difference – as you will see so movingly if you have had a chance to watch ‘My Voice, My School’.

But of course, the main challenge, as Ozlem Eskiocak unceremoniously explains, is the daily dichotomy with which they have to deal: “the human rights values we promote versus the realities on the ground.”

And here we must turn back to the paradox with which I opened and say to the leaders of the world: Are you willing to make the transfer of power and resources which can properly unleash the extraordinary creative and transformative energies described above, the energies of self-organisation? Will you back the call for 20% of time, one day a week, in all schools to experiment with self-governance? Thanks to the Council of Europe for the chance to pose these questions!

openDemocracy is at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a youth newsroom. More here.

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