Other ways to learn: reflections on the 2014 Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy and transnational solidarities

Other ways to learn: reflections on the 2014 Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy and transnational solidarities

By: Gcobani Qambela*

Together, we might be able to plan a less painful future. Separate, we can only anticipate further raptures and deeper loneliness – Dr. Maya Angelou.

I spent the first week of November with an amazing group of young people from over 100 countries at the third Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy. Reflecting on this incredible experience, I find myself thinking about Eden Almasude’s article “Education and Schooling: A Reflection from my Grandmother”. In the article Almasude reflects on the difference between schooling and education and critically asks: “How is it that my grandmother [who could not write or read] knew nothing of ‘schooling’ but knew more about ‘education’ than either of us [referring to their father]?” Almasude continues that “All societies have a system of education, of course, which are often sophisticated means of passing on culture and tradition. For my grandmother, this means a system of values which holds up human interactions and ethics as key to survival and well-being. Her ‘education’ implies something about her characteristics, thought, and everyday philosophy rather than information.”

I was reminded of Almasude’s article, because many of the people I encountered at the World Forum for Democracy, although many are formally educated through the western higher education system, they seemed to know a lot about ‘education’ as opposed to ‘schooling’. There wasn’t any of the ‘knowledge performance’  and ‘status anxiety’ that is often common at these types of gatherings – everyone seemed genuinely interested not only in sharing one’s own experiences and knowledge, but also in learning how other people from different organisations, cultures and societies negotiate problems and make a change in society.

The panel (‘lab’) I was a part of was on ‘Hacking democracy’(video of debates here) and looked at the role and potential of the internet to influence institutions. This ‘lab’ discussion arose out of the recognition of the internet as a space for political debate for many young people. We were tasked to look at the transformative potential of the internet particularly in influencing institutions and democratic processes. The key question being: canyoung people can use the “online public sphere”, in order to transform the “traditional offline democracy”? We had to look at the ways in which young people could find ways to form a bridge between the “online” democracy and “offline” democracy.

In this process, I learned about The Net Party in Buenos Aires which is made up of a group of activists, entrepreneurs and students in the same country. Tired of the government using the same old 200 years printing press technology, these young people took action and decided to innovate where many dare wouldn’t: in politics and democracy. These young people are ‘hacking’ democracy by forming a political party (The Net Party / Partido de la Red) “where the representatives commit themselves to always vote according to an open-source online platform where every citizen can participate”. This platform is called “DemocracyOS”. DemocracyOS is described as:

… an open source online platform designed for parliaments and other collective decision-making institutions, that allows citizens to get informed, join the conversation and vote. It empowers citizens, allowing them to bring about a more inclusive, collaborative, open and intelligent social system and seeks to recover a robust public debate as a collective cause [and] is live and is currently used by activists in Latin America and [the] Middle East.

In my ‘lab’ was also Andrea Chalupa, a journalist, author and digital activist who founded DigitalMaidan, an online movement which made the Ukrainian protests trend number #1 worldwide. There was also Halldór Auõar Svansson, a city councillor in Reykjavik (Iceland) for the Pirate Party and Nicole Gauthier, the Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Strasbourg. In the course of the whole experience, I kept telling a friend in South Africa (on WhatsApp) how I wished I could have been sharing the experience with other young people in South Africa. I was one of only two South Africans attending the forum.

The whole forum felt like one big ‘life-class’ without the administration of an ‘exam’ or ‘graduation’. Speaking to my fellow South African, NtshadiMofokeng (who heads up the Youth Department at Equal Education) I felt deeply inspired learning about the work she is doing with young people in helping to democratise education for particularly marginalised communities. I met Ugandan journalist Songa Samuel-Stone who saw a gap, and formed ‘A thing understood’ which democratises knowledge by bringing accessible journalism promoting by making complex discourses and complex terms accessible.

Dr. Maya Angelou in her lecture on “Learning” reminds us about the potential of learning. She says she believes that learning is exciting, and that each person is an institution and organisation with the potential of learning. This comes with not only the privilege to learn, but of course comes with responsibility to learn. At the World Forum the ‘exam’ was not a three hour exam with lots ‘cramming ‘ of information, but the ‘exam’ came in the form of a challenge and call to show up not only for democratic processes in our countries, but also to stand together with the struggles of those in other nations.

The accompanying image for this article was taken outside the Council of Europe with a group of young people from many countries. We were supporting the call to repeal AFSPA – led by a fellow youth from India, Monica Khangembam. Indeed, as Monica says: “Solidarity has a universal language: That of understanding and empathy”. This is what I feel I took away the most from the forum, that not only are our struggles all over the world interconnected, but that there is much more power when we come together to share, respectfully dialogue and collaborate.

Dr Angelou reminds us that when we narrow ourselves down, we close down the possibilities for learning and the possibility of being of use to the universe. She says that the true ‘bottom line’ is that none of us are going to be here for that long – so it is important we attempt to use our existence for the benefit of the universe. We must try to keep our learning facilities absolutely open – so we can live with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style. Life is our most precious gift – and given to us to live but once, let us so live that – in dying: “each of us can say, all my conscious life and energies have been dedicated to the most noble cause in the world – the liberation of the human mind and spirit. Through learning, let it begin with me”. That is what I take away the most from the incredible experience that was WFD – A commitment to using my life not only to build transnational solidarities, but to learn and stretch my mind.

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