All posts by placheli

America Needs Democracy Learning Communities

This co-authored op-ed was published in The Fulcrum (August 24, 2021), and picked up by other online venues including Gulf Today (August 25), The Marietta Daily Journal (August 25), Salem News (August 25), and The Post Bulletin (August 27).

Cancel culture, immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, congressional gridlock, the Jan. 6 riot: What do these seemingly disparate national phenomena have in common? Democratic dysfunction. Yet when many Americans think of democracy, they think less of themselves than of politicians, less of community and lifestyle than of government and elections. Our narrow concept needs widening, our democracy needs learning and community. There is no better place to start than at the grassroots level by forming democracy learning communities all across America, in urban and rural areas, suburbs and exurbs.

We come to this conclusion from long careers, domestic and foreign. Paul is a political sociologist who has studied and engaged in grassroots citizen activism in the United States for over 30 years. Mike is a former State Department diplomat who worked for 35 years to support democracy abroad in countries ranging from Russia to Iraq to South Sudan. From these different vantage points, we have learned that democracy is fragile and demands wide, constructive citizen engagement. This engagement can produce valuable public goods such as mutual trust, better health and lasting peace. In South Sudan’s long civil war, Mike witnessed first-hand how stalled peace talks between the government and rebels advanced only after youth, women, and community and religious leaders were given a seat at the negotiating table. In Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., Paul experienced how active citizens tend to be more informed and confident about their civic power. Research shows such citizen qualities can nurture more responsive government.

Citizens are not born, they are made. The best making is sustained, not episodic. Yet for most Americans, the practice of democracy is at best episodic and narrow: voting every few years, then watching in consternation from afar as paid activists, lobbyists, and elected officials run the show. All Americans are affected by democratic dysfunction, so we need sustained, inclusive ways for citizens to connect, learn and collaborate about democracy.

We can start by learning about human behavior and its interaction with larger forces shaping American life. First, abundant research shows humans tend to favor and gravitate toward people like themselves. Second, this tendency fuels a variety of cognitive biases that make it harder for humans to understand and get along with people unlike them. These include going along with our group to get along, seeking and trusting information that confirms our group’s views, and seeing members of outside groups as more alike and those of our in-group as more diverse. Third, when these human biases face new conditions — daily absorption in electronic media, media algorithms that feed us what we like and believe, and communities more segregated by class and political affiliation — our biases are magnified in ways that aggravate democratic dysfunction.

How can Americans meet these social and structural challenges and strengthen our democracy? One way is to create democracy learning communities. DLCs enable us to tap into two powerful human traits that have helped us survive and thrive as a species: our capacity to learn, and our inclination toward sociability.

The concept of a learning community is most discussed and practiced in higher education, where structured, residential learning communities have been shown to improve student grades and graduation rates. Yet in our complex, interdependent and rapidly changing world, learning communities can and should be cultivated throughout society. This would help people intelligently, collaboratively tackle problems, and fulfill their needs for belonging and purpose.

Democracy learning communities can bring people together across political, class, race and religious divides to learn about their commonalities and differences as well as the complexities, challenges and possibilities of democracy. Further, when organized municipally or regionally, DLCs can bring people together in-person as well as online, on an on-going rather than episodic basis, to nurture greater trust and collaboration. Clearly, bringing people together across lines of difference is not easy, and can spur conflict rather than collaboration. But effective learning communities uphold rules of engagement and foster long-term relationships through regular, curated activities — like networking socials, issue deliberations, and collaboration workshops — that engender learning and cooperation.

Democracy demands informed, skilled and caring citizens. Good citizens are neither born nor made through the status quo of episodic democracy. Democracy can and should be a lifestyle as much as a governance system. Municipal and regional DLCs can cultivate more good citizens and help Americans overcome political dysfunction. There is no better place to start than in your own town, city or region.

Paul Lachelier is the founder of Learning Life, a nonprofit lab devoted to innovating education and citizen engagement. Mike Morrow is a former U.S. diplomat and current senior democracy strategist with Learning Life.

Open Letter to Learning Life Families

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

This letter is meant for the lower-income parents and guardians Learning Life work with in Washington, DC, but is posted publicly to help make clear why Learning Life engages lower-income families. 

Dear parents and guardians,

I am writing to you to explain why Learning Life wants to engage your family in world learning.  In explaining, I’m going to  focus on four terms: globalization, segregation, global citizenship, and family diplomacy.

Family Diplomacy

Some of you may wonder why we don’t instead focus on basics, like math, science or reading.  We focus on world learning because schools focus more on math, science and reading, and because our world is globalizing.  Globalization means that our world is getting smaller, that improvements in transportation and communication technologies are making it faster and easier for people, information, goods and services to move from one country to another.  This is why the juice we drink may be made of fruit coming from Florida as well as Mexico, Brazil and India; why we eat Mexican burritos and Chinese fried rice, not just burgers and fries; why our cell phones are made from minerals mined in Canada, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and why cars made in the USA have parts coming from all over the world.  Our lives are richer, and we have many more things to buy pretty cheaply because of globalization.  At the same time, globalization means that issues like joblessness, climate change (extreme weather, including more frequent and powerful hurricanes, warmer winters, hotter summers, etc.), terrorism and disease increasingly affect more than one country.

While our world is globalizing, it is also deeply segregated by wealth and race.  Segregation means that all around the Earth, rich and poor, and whiter and darker-skinned people often live in separate neighborhoods, even when they live in the same towns and cities.  This is very much the case in Washington, DC.  (For a stark look at the differences between the richest and poorest neighborhoods or wards of Washington, DC, click here.)  Segregation is bad because it shuts poorer people out of many opportunities they would have if their neighborhoods had more of a mix of people of different races and wealth levels, and more of a common spirit of sharing rather than hoarding resources (money, jobs, good schools, decent homes, etc.). So, we live in a strange world because globalization is connecting people, but segregation keeps us apart, not just locally but also globally.  We affect each other, but we usually don’t see how we affect each other, for better or worse.

That’s why learning about and connecting with the world is so important.  The more we learn about the world, the better we understand how we are all connected, how we affect each other, and what we can do to improve our world, especially for those people that have less.  The more we connect with people around the world, the more familiar and less strange they become, and the more we may come to trust and help each other. That’s where global citizenship comes in.  We’re used to thinking of citizenship as “I am a citizen of the USA,” with all the rights (to vote, run for public office, religion, public schooling, etc.), and responsibilities (paying taxes, jury duty, military service in times of war, etc.) that comes with.  But because of globalization we are also more and more citizens of the world.  Being a global citizen means caring about people outside the USA not only because what people do outside the USA affects us as Americans, but because we are all human beings who think, feel, laugh, love and cry.  Being a global citizen means not only enjoying the fruits of globalization — the cheaper and more varied food, cell phones, cars, and other goods we get from the world — but helping to make our world a better place for everyone by together tackling problems like climate change, poverty, disease, terrorism and war. Our world is a complicated place, so it can easily seem too difficult to understand, let alone address its problems.  However, the problems aren’t going to go away if we just ignore them.

Moreover, there is such an exciting, beautiful world out there to explore, and so many different, interesting people to meet!  That’s why Learning Life is developing family diplomacy.  Diplomacy — the management of relationships between countries — has for most of human history been controlled by rich and powerful people, but globalization, especially the internet and cell phones, is allowing ordinary people like you and me to connect and cooperate with ordinary people in other countries.  Family diplomacy in part means connecting families in different countries so that they can learn from each other about the world: about our families, cultures, communities and countries, about our joys, sorrows, fears and triumphs.  Family diplomacy can help make the world seem less strange and complicated because most people have a family and value it.  Family diplomacy may also help make the world a more caring place because families, at their best, are about loving and caring for each other.

So, if globalization connects us all in ways we often don’t see, and segregation pulls us apart by wealth and race, global citizenship can open our eyes, and family diplomacy can connect our hearts.  Perhaps best of all, you don’t have to be rich to engage in global citizenship and family diplomacy.  All you need is an internet-connected cell phone or laptop, and some caring volunteers to guide you.  That’s where Learning Life comes in. We look forward to helping your family connect with the world!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life

Five Reasons Why Diplomacy Should Involve Families

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

Our world is becoming more complex and interdependent as more people, goods, services and interactions flow across national borders.  This changing global reality has triggered xenophobic, sometimes violent reactions that have been validated and amplified by political activists and opportunistic leaders.  Diplomacy is rightly upheld as an important response to the mounting tensions within and between some countries, but diplomacy should not be left strictly to professionals.  The internet and smart phones open exciting possibilities for citizens to be involved in diplomacy to help promote peace, prosperity and justice, but success and our global future depend in part on fresh approaches.   This is the second in a series of posts intended to develop family diplomacy as a new form of citizen diplomacy.  Read the first post here.  

Thanks to Learning Life intern Marley Henschen for her assistance in the research for this post.  

Diplomacy can be simply defined as the management of international relations.  Yet the adjective “diplomatic” — that is, dealing with people tactfully — suggests diplomacy is a broader social art or ethic especially needed in our divided world.  Given international divides sometimes erupt into violence, why would one want to get families involved?  Here are five reasons.

1. Value:

The search for common ground is one of the staple practices of diplomacy, and if there is one institution which people across the world commonly cherish it is probably the family.  While precise international evidence for this common value is harder to find, according to the World Values Survey, strong majorities of people in 29 countries worldwide — from 75% in India to 99% in Colombia — believe that “more emphasis on family would be a good thing” (Social Trends Institute).       

2. Impact:

Families are impacted by most international forces and trends, from war and terrorism, to trade and immigration, to climate change and disease transmission.  Because families are widely valued and vulnerable to so many international forces and trends, advocates and policymakers frequently call for the protection and support of families, but rarely for their political empowerment.  Individual citizens in liberal democratic societies are free to, and in some cases expected to participate in the decisions that affect their lives (at least by voting for their government representatives).  In corporatist countries like Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Norway, groups like business associations and labor unions — not just individuals — have a say in government decisions that affect them.  Families, like businesses and labor unions, are impacted by government decisions, and have distinct interests and associations representing them on various issues.  So, why shouldn’t families also have a seat at the decision-making table, at local to global levels, including international diplomacy?

3. Empowerment:
Family Diplomacy

Involving families in diplomacy can also empower kids, parents and grandparents as global citizens by nurturing valuable experiences, contacts and skills as well as a larger sense of purpose and significance.  For these and other reasons, there is considerable interest in the United Nations to include youth in decision-making (see, for example, the 2009 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, General Comment #12).  Yet far less thought is given to involving kids as members of families, including parents, grandparents and guardians. Of course, not all families speak with the same voice, nor do their members speak with equal status, and some voices — especially those of women and children — are often routinely stifled or subordinated within families.  But not all families need be engaged in diplomacy.  Families that demonstrate interest in diplomacy can be selected from all classes and countries, and should model not only interest, but tolerance and equality so that all people can see men, women and children unafraid to participate.  Further, parents, grandparents and children can form distinct groups that meet separately then together to develop then share their respective concerns about, aspirations for, and interests in world affairs.

4. Responsibility:

For most of human history, most kids in hunter-gatherer then settled agricultural societies spent most of their time at work, rest or play with their families and larger kinship groups.  With the proliferation of factories and schools in the 1800s, more kids spent more time segregated from their parents.  In the most modern societies marked by rapid change, commercialism and individualism, families now spend a minority of their waking time interacting, and seem increasingly strange to each other because rapid change sharpens generational differences, individualism nurtures a desire to lead separate lives based on interests rather than kinship, and commercialism turns families’ attention toward products (screens, games, shows, clothes, music bands, etc.) rather than each other.

There is ample evidence that youth who spend more time alone or in groups of youth unsupervised by parents or other responsible adults are more likely to get injured, do worse in school, and develop behavioral problems, including risky behaviors like consuming alcohol, cigarettes and drugs (Warr 1993, Pettit et al. 1997, Kerrebrock & Lewit 1999, Mott et al. 1999, Colwell et al. 2001, Updegraff et al. 2006, Keijsers et al. 2012).  There is no turning back to hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies to bring families back together, nor should we want to return to those harsh, precarious eras.  But if modern people still value families, and family supervision encourages kids to act more responsibly, then involving families — not just youth — in government and diplomacy can be a modern vehicle for bringing families together, and for socializing kids as responsible global citizens.        

5. Care:

The preceding three reasons deal more with how families would benefit from their involvement in diplomacy.  This fifth and last reason points to a benefit for families and diplomacy alike.  That is, involving families in diplomacy can promote a culture of care in and beyond the family.  Families play a distinct if not unique role as a care-giving institution.  Families can look very different — large, small, multigenerational, bi- or multi-national, inter-racial, straight, gay, with one, two or more parents, with adopted kids, etc. — but they all tend to have the same fundamental purpose or aspiration: to care for each other.  Publicly elevating (e.g., highlighting, rewarding, publicizing) family care-giving, by making families part of government and diplomacy, has the potential to inspire more caring not only among families, but also in government policy and practice.  

In these fractious times, caring families could be a potent force for a more peaceful world.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life


Colwell, Malinda J., Gregory S. Pettit, Darrell Meece, John E. Bates, and Kenneth A. Dodge. 2001. “Cumulative Risk and Continuity in Nonparental Care from Infancy to Early Adolescence.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 47(2): 207–34.

Keijsers, Loes, Susan Branje, Skyler T. Hawk, Seth J. Schwartz, Wim Meeus, Tom Frijns, Hans M. Koot, and Pol van Lier.  2012. “Forbidden Friends as Forbidden Fruit: Parental Supervision of Friendships, Contact With Deviant Peers, and Adolescent Delinquency.” Child Development 83(2): 651–666.

Kerrebrock, Nancy, and Eugene M. Lewit. 1999. “Children in Self-Care.” Future of Children 9(2): 151–60.

Mott, Joshua A., Paul A. Crowe, Jean Richardson, and Brian Flay. 1999. “After-School Supervision and Adolescent Cigarette Smoking: Contributions of the Setting and Intensity of After-School SelfCare.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 22(1): 35–58.

Pettit, Gregory S., Robert D. Laird, John E. Bates, and Kenneth A. Dodge. 1997. “Patterns of AfterSchool Care in Middle Childhood: Risk Factors and Developmental Outcomes.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 43(3): 515–38.

Social Trends Institute.  “Global Family Culture.”  Retrieved on 8/10/19.

Updegraff, Kimberly A., Susan M. McHale, Shawna M. Thayer, and Shawn D. Whiteman. 2006.  “The Nature and Correlates of Mexican-American Adolescents’ Time with Parents and Peers.” Child Development 77(5): 1470–1486.

Warr, Mark. 1993.  “Parents, Peers, and Delinquency.” Social Forces 72(1): 247–264.

Three Equalizers in an Unequal World

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

Published at Democracy Chronicles online here.

The world is growing more unequal, but not quite because “the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.” The good news is that the percentage of extremely poor people has actually shrunk greatly worldwide over the last several decades. The bad news is that the already-rich are getting richer. There are a number of reasons for these trends, but my purpose here is to remind us all that despite growing inequality worldwide, ordinary people have three specific, significant and actionable forms of equalizing power.

First, rich or poor, weak or powerful, everyone has 24 hours in their day. That may sound obvious, but what you make of your non-working waking hours is up to you, and activists beg for your volunteer time for good reason: time is not just money, time is power. Given this equalizing fact that we all have 24 hours per day, and that there are millions of good people who don’t volunteer their time for the greater good, the potential for social change is great if more people invested more hours per day, week or month to making the world a better place for all.

Second, each person has one vote, no matter who they are. We often hear that the rich rule, or that “money talks.” That’s often true, but in functioning democracies, all the money spent on elections is devoted to getting people to vote because money doesn’t vote, people do. That’s why you sometimes hear of candidates that come out of nowhere, and win with little money, but a lot of time (Point #1 above) invested in organizing and connecting with voters (Point #3 below).

Third, in all places, there is power in numbers. I am not talking about numbers of dollars, but numbers of people. I sometimes hear children or foreigners say “I can’t vote, so I don’t have a voice.” Nonsense. Anyone who can mobilize voters has power, and the more voters you mobilize, the more power you have. A fourteen-year old can’t vote, but if she mobilizes five people to vote the way she wants them to, she has exercised five times the power of the adult who voted alone. A foreigner can’t vote, but can assemble at their home a group of neighbors who vote then invite a local politician. Aspiring and elected officials flock not just to money, but to groups of voters, like issue groups, churches, senior citizen communities, etc.

If you hope for and/or fight for equality and justice, never forget these three equalizers.