Penn Welcomes African Visitors Through a State Department Program, Grassroots Democracy in the U.S.

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820June 11, 2012

The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education hosted 15 leaders from more than nine African countries for a conversation on public deliberation in the United States and how it can apply to communities in Africa.

The leaders came to learn more about U.S. organizations that increase civic engagement and citizen participation in democratic governance.

As a part of the Department of State’s Grassroots Democracy in the U.S. program, the visiting dignitaries met with the two founders of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, Harris Sokoloff, a professor in Penn GSE, and Chris Satullo, vice president for news and public engagement at Philadelphia’s WHYY.

Sokoloff and Satullo, who have worked together on public engagement for nearly two decades, founded the Penn Project for Civic Engagement seven years ago to reduce divisive and exclusionary political dialogue through a focus on community involvement in governance.

PPCE involves people in “deliberative dialogue,” allowing them to understand the pros and cons of their own and others’ positions and to participate in joint decision making.

Sokoloff and Satullo discussed the PPCE’s work and its many public-engagement projects, including developing priorities for the Philadelphia city budget during the fiscal crisis of 2009, establishing design criteria for new schools in Philadelphia and informing the School District of Philadelphia’s search for a new superintendent earlier this year. 

The visiting Africans shared their own successes and challenges with participatory democracy in their home countries.

While some African leaders applauded the process of civic engagement and suggested it has already helped with budgeting, public health-care forums and the decentralization of power in some nations, others noted how their communities and countries are struggling with approaches to increase this kind of engagement.

For instance, the former commerce minister from the Central African Republic who is a newly elected deputy of the National Assembly discussed the importance of deliberative dialogue for organizations working to solve the AIDS crisis.  She explained that some organizations distribute condoms and teach safe-sex practices, which can conflict with the efforts of religion-based organizations.  She outlined the importance of finding common ground as a necessary step in ending the AIDS epidemic.

Other leaders expressed concerns that some African democracies may be too young to engage in the same kind of deliberative dialogues as the U.S. and how this kind of national discussion may serve as a major challenge especially for countries that still operate under the rule of a monarch.

“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,” Sokoloff says.




Katie McCabe contributed to this story.