Citizen Diplomacy East of the River

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Paul Lachelier and volunteer interpreters Karen and John at the home of a mother (Terri) and daughter (Sandra) in live dialogue via Skype with four families in Porto de la Libertad, El Salvador.

Adrian Winslow, a single father rearing two daughters, ages eight and 14, was hoping to find an education program that could excite his children while helping to enhance their academic achievements. Marsha Mayo, caring for her two granddaughters and grandson, had the same thing in mind. Both Ward 8 families found what they sought through Learning Life, founded and directed by anthropologist Paul Lachelier.

“He came to KIPP Charter School, where my grandchildren attend, and asked if anyone wanted to interact with people from other countries,” Mayo remembered during a recent interview with East of the River. “I thought at the time he was talking about travel.”

He wasn’t. Learning Life, founded in 2012, is what Lachelier has called a “lab for education and innovation projects,” deploying during its initial stages everyday surfaces like placemats and coasters to instigate conversations and learning. Some of his work began while a professor at Stetson University in Florida. In 2009, for example, Lachelier curated dialogues on healthcare and the role of government. In 2011, the organization focused on social media and social change. “That was around the time of the Arab Spring,” said Lachelier. 

In November 2015, under Learning Life, Lachelier and members of his organization looked at terrorists’ assaults in his home country of France. Attacks had happened at locations like the one outside Stade de France, at the Eagles of Death concert, and the media organization Charlie Hebdo. Lachelier said he wanted to challenge what he described as xenophobia.

The Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) was born from that mission. “We wanted to extend to a much broader audience and to provide an opportunity to explore the world and learn about the world through the internet,” said Lachelier. He decided to launch the project from his home in historic Anacostia in Ward 8, where he and his wife, an American Airlines pilot, had moved; they previously lived in a Capitol Hill basement apartment.

“The idea [of CDI] was to nurture more caring and capable global citizens,” said Lachelier, adding that he and his team of international and local volunteers also wanted “to democratize diplomacy.”

Building a Diplomatic Corps
The goals of the Citizen Diplomacy Initiative have involved working with people of the same socioeconomic class, here in the United States, specifically Washington, DC, and abroad, explained Lachelier. All the participating families have household incomes that are less than the median income of their countries. The parents do not hold four-year college degrees.

Last year, there were five families in the District and three in foreign countries – two in Dakar, Senegal, and one in Jerash, Jordan. They didn’t meet in homes; libraries were used because the computer equipment was more sophisticated. “This year we are going to do them at the [families’] homes,” added Lachelier.

Mayo said she embraced the project last year because she “became comfortable with Paul.” Also, the concept “seemed interesting and intriguing We go on the internet through Skype and other programs. We ask each other questions about food, transportation and school,” continued Mayo, noting that the youngest grandchild mostly participates in play dates and games. “The other two get into the dialogue; they are really curious. With the grandson, his grades are higher when it comes to geography.”

Each project has a different focus to inspire learning. Last year, participants used photography to focus on civic skill development. Setting a theme can help guide the conversations, taking the edge off the awkwardness that could be present when people who do not speak the same language or embrace similar cultures come together.

Additionally, there is an effort to help develop or improve certain skills. In 2016, for example, the families used photography to explore the similarities and differences of their communities and cultures. “They went out and took photographs, more than 500 to be precise,” continued Lachelier, adding that the families were trained. In the second round of photo-taking, the result was 70 good photos using five community themes. In 2018, families will focus on food culture while developing interviewing skills.

“It’s a great program,” said Winslow, who was referred to Learning Life by a social worker, “because I was looking to broaden [my daughters’] horizons. They are learning a lot about different cultures and different outlooks on life.”

“It’s helping my daughter with her French,” continued Winslow. “In ninth grade she was having a little trouble with her French. Now, all of a sudden, she’s doing honors work.”

Another feature of the program he especially likes is the potlucks. Lachelier said his team of international volunteers prepares foods from their native countries. The DC families bring their favorite dishes. “I love their fish and peanut butter sauce,” said Winslow. “I bring my mom’s good old greens and our macaroni tuna casserole. It’s really a lot of fun.”

Some Turbulence
The virtual international travels haven’t been without their turbulence, however. Sometimes families drop out. Last year, the program began with seven DC families. The number dwindled to five. “Two of the families have become homeless while in the program,” explained Lachelier.

Still, he is encouraged by the potential residual effect of the Citizen Diplomacy Initiative. “We hope to have long-term relationship with these families and expect to see improvements in the long term. In some sense, engaging with the wider world can be a ticket out of poverty, if they stick with us.”

It’s not just the families who face challenges, however. Lachelier is running his project and his organization on a shoestring budget. “The organization is all-volunteer until we are able to receive a grant,” he continued.

The financial squeeze hasn’t curtailed the ambitions of the organization, which is expanding the number of countries involved. In 2018, the project has families from Senegal and Jordan while adding El Salvador and possibly China. It is recruiting more families from Ward 8

“I am hoping in the long term we can offer travel for the families. We would never be able to offer it to all of our families [however],” said Lachelier. “I am doing this out of passion. I want this to develop into something.”

It already has for the Winslows and Mayos.

 

Jonetta rose barras is a freelance writer based in DC and host of “The Barras Report-TV,” produced in association with the University of the District of Columbia’s cable television station.