Democratic struggles are quite the hot topic in the world recently, but it is not often that we stop to consider the local communities where democracies all start.
When it comes to the problems of local decision-making, it suddenly becomes very important to think about what we ourselves could do to make our immediate environment’s life better. Our week in July in Cluny was a great occasion to hear, think, and talk about these issues of local democracy.
“What’s going on with democracy in your corner of the world?”, asked the title of the European College of Cluny’s summer workshop. Debating this question were a team of students from all corners of the world indeed: from Brazil, Romania, France, Hungary, China, Croatia, Turkey, Greece, Belgium, Italy, and Afghanistan. With the lovely backdrop of the Cluny abbey and its 1000-year history, the participants engaged in group discussions, meetings with local stakeholders, lectures from European decision-makers, skill-building workshops, and interactive presentations, as they explored and analyzed the topic.
The Foundation was represented by Rita, our director, and Balázs, our summer intern. Rita led an interactive session focusing on participatory democracy, building on the personal stories and experiences of the conference participants, and looking at questions such as, “Do people get the democracies that they deserve?”. Her presentation of the Foundation’s work in a nutshell drew questions from the students about the current state of youth skepticism, local engagement, and civil society in Hungary – the answers to many of which we ourselves would also love to know. Our discussions with the students and representatives of the Assembly of European Regions, Go Free from Romania, and Eyes on Europe from Belgium made it clear, however, that many of these issues are shared by people far beyond our borders.
Sharing something in common was an overarching theme for the whole week. Listening to locals form the Cluny Community of Communes, exchanging experiences from each other’s hometowns and countries, and personally working through all the difficulties of direct democracy in the negotiation simulations, the participants found the questions and topics they could all use help with. With the help of community project development, people worked on each other’s ideas, and refined the details of initiatives ranging from a platform to host online clashes of ideas to a model to bring fresh university graduates into public school classrooms.
As a conclusion to the week, the group spent a whole day identifying pressing issues of local democracy – media literacy, engaging citizens, and connecting with local decision-makers –, coming up with suggestions that included a Wall of Trust for local suggestions and complaints, free MOOCs in libraries to combat the lack of Internet literacy, or picnics and public events with local stakeholders. The results of brainstorming together were presented with music, interactive posters, games, and personal discussions to the large group of French public servants from across the country.
Meeting local residents and hearing about their lives, coming up with solution recommendations and having to work together to refine them, sharing what works well and what poses concerns, and constantly having to reevaluate one’s own biases and ideas – all in all, that is what local democracy itself is about, and what the Cluny Summer University offered over the span of a week. Being inspired by active local citizens from across the world: that was a refreshing experience to all of us. Taking this motivation and recruiting even more active locals across Hungary: that is our challenge for the weeks, months, and years ahead.