Category Archives: Citizen Diplomacy

A Neighborhood Approach to International Diplomacy

In recent years, interest in international “virtual exchange” (IVE) or internet communication has grown as more people across the world are getting smart phones and laptops that give them access to the internet.  More schools and universities are getting in on the act, as are international organizations devoted to education and cultural exchange.  However, a lot of the IVE now going on has a participation problem.

Throughout human history, international affairs have largely been the province of a privileged few.  Travel is prohibitively expensive for most people.  Those able to travel abroad tend to have the discretionary income to do so, or they are employed or supported by organizations that allow them to travel.  This, of course, does not include refugees compelled to leave their homes due to violence, disaster or the threat thereof.  Nor does it include poor migrants compelled to leave their countries for lack of economic opportunity to support themselves and their families.

IVE opens up exciting opportunities to engage far more people in international affairs.  Yet most current virtual exchange happens between relatively privileged people.  In the realm of cultural and educational exchange, IVE tends to occur between students, classrooms, or social groups who have more resources (e.g., computers, high speed internet, projectors, skilled staff), and more interest in IVE precisely because they have more formal education and/or family experience with foreign affairs.

Further, because international virtual exchange is still uncommon, even within the more privileged half of societies, IVE organizations keen on reporting large numbers of exchanges, participants, and positive results from their exchanges to sustain and grow their funding, often have little financial interest to engage people lower down the socio-economic scale.

Engaging people with less formal education and little if any experience of foreign affairs does tend to be more difficult.  In Learning Life’s experience thus far with our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI), many of our lower-income families travel little within their city, let alone out of state or out of the country.  They also know little to nothing about foreign countries or peoples.  Indeed, many of the children with whom we work cannot geographically distinguish what is American and what is foreign.  That combination of inexperience and ignorance does not naturally spur any human being to want to learn more.  In brief, we tend to like what we know, not what we don’t know.

Compounding the challenge are the countless eye-catching commercial distractions — music videos, movies, TV shows, video games, etc. that trade in speed, violence, sex, and/or high drama to draw people into their profitable fictions.  That relentless commercial tidal wave makes it hard for any teacher to compete with the traditional, slow or static instruments for learning reality, local to global: sustained, deliberate conversation and the printed word.

CDI neighborhood approachBut our commitment to tackling inequality and innovating education does not incline us to take the easier road, working with more privileged people interested in IVE.  To reach the harder to reach though, we will be experimenting with a neighborhood approach.  Rather than recruit lower-income families from across a city, or wherever we can find them, we will focus recruitment on particular lower-income neighborhoods.  In doing so, we will cultivate connections with larger organizations with ties to those neighborhoods to bring more resources (funds, volunteers, information, meeting spaces, food, internet access, etc.) to bear on our work of nurturing global citizenship among lower-income families.

The potential benefits of a neighborhood approach are manifold.  The close, repeated social interaction that comes with focusing on specific neighborhoods can make it easier to connect with new families, gain their trust, share resources with them, and mobilize them for CDI dialogues and activities.  Working with neighboring rather than dispersed families can also occasion more beneficial “spillover” of newfound knowledge, skills and resources when families share what they gain through CDI with their neighbors.

A recent development in the relationship of two neighboring families participating in CDI illustrate this last point in what might be called a “virtuous neighborhood effect.”  These two families live about three blocks apart, yet might have never met if not for CDI.  At this point though, they have participated in about ten local learning activities (e.g., museum and restaurant visits) and international dialogues together.  That repeated interaction recently led John, the father of one family — unprompted by any of us at Learning Life — to invite Alex, the only son in the other family, to an all-day excursion at a local amusement park with John and his daughter, Joanne.  Alex, who often feels left out at home, loved it.  The parents in these two families have since exchanged telephone numbers, and are on a first-name basis.  John also plans to take Alex on more excursions in the future, and to teach him how to drive.  (Note: I use pseudonyms here to protect the privacy of the participants.)

This example has nothing yet to do with global citizenship, but more sharing and caring like this — a direct spillover effect of CDI — can help strengthen a neighborhood, and facilitate all kinds of collective goals, including global citizenship.  Social scientists call the sharing, caring and trust embodied in such connections “social capital.”  Research shows that individuals and communities rich in social capital tend to be healthier, safer, and more prosperous.

Neighborhood organizing for IVE and global citizenship is all the more important in lower-income neighborhoods, where there tends to be less social capital, that is, where neighbors tend to trust, care and share less.  And so, while other organizations pursue IVE with more privileged populations, Learning Life is purposefully taking the harder road, and moving toward a neighborhood approach as we begin with a few lower-income blocks in Ward 8, the poorest ward of Washington D.C., as well as with lower-income neighborhoods in other nations where we work.  We don’t expect quick results.  That’s why we’re in this for the long-term.  We will keep you posted as our neighborhood organizing progresses!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

P.S. For more on our developing, locally-oriented approach, click here.

Watch: First Citizen Diplomacy Initiative Video!

Learning Life’s first short video about our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative is now out!  The short video (less than three minutes) features scenes from our live, international, family-to-family dialogues, and our developing photovoice project.

This video was put together by Andrew Jorgensen, a talented senior in film and video studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  Andrew is interning with Learning Life this spring semester, and will be producing more videos to showcase Learning Life’s CDI.  Stay tuned!

Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative engages lower-income American families in live internet dialogues and project collaborations with families in other nations to nurture informed, skilled, connected and caring global citizens.  Learn more here.

Inspirations for Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative

Citizen diplomacy is far from new, but Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) takes a fresh approach to this old form that draws on particular works for inspiration.

Diplomacy is the management of international relations.  Professional diplomats handle official diplomacy between nations, but citizens can also get involved in conspicuous or inconspicuous ways in what is known as “citizen diplomacy.”  Conspicuously, famous athletes, musicians and actors, like the basketball player Dennis Rodman, U2’s Bono and actress Angelina Jolie sometimes intercede in international issues, like nuclear proliferation, poverty, or violence against women, via widely reported statements, visits, productions, or events.  Often much less conspicuously, “ordinary” citizens get involved in international sport, travel, business, cultural or educational exchanges.  However, much of this citizen diplomacy is and has long been undertaken by relatively privileged middle and upper class people who have the social and material means to learn about and travel the world.

Fortunately, the spread of the internet, personal computers and smart phones has the potential to democratize diplomacy, that is, to concretely engage more people in international relations, for better or worse.  For worse, terrorists and computer hackers, for instance, can use these technologies to wreak international havoc for political purpose.  For better, “virtual exchange” or live dialogue via the internet has the great, and at this early stage largely untapped potential to nurture mutual understanding, trust and cooperation between people who have little to no connections outside their country, or even their local community.

Virtual exchange does not guarantee positive results though.  Much depends on its design.  To inspire and plan Learning Life’s CDI since late January this year, I have drawn on a number of readings, the most foundational of which are briefly discussed below with reference to CDI.

The Future of Power, by Joseph S. Nye

The Future of PowerHarvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye’s 2011 book, The Future of Power, lends Learning Life’s CDI an international context and significance.  In the book, Nye seeks to help prepare political leaders for exercising power in the 21st century, particularly the soft power of persuasion — based on a foreign policy widely respected, a culture people aspire to, and political values we live up to — in contrast with the “hard” powers of military and economic coercion.  Nye sees two power transitions occurring in international relations: a power shift among states increasing the power of countries like the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India and China),  and a power diffusion from national governments to non-state actors, whether this be Al-Qaeda, Avaaz, or Twitter.  The power shift among states is not new in human history, but power diffusion is.  The diffusion is to a great extent due to improvements in communication and transportation that increase the power of social networks.  

Accordingly, “[t]o be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to nonstate actors, government[s]…will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age and that social networks have become more important. To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command. Leaders need to think of themselves as being in a circle rather than atop a mountain. That means that two-way communications are more effective than commands” (Nye 2011: 161) and “empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals” (Nye 2011: 21). 

Nye’s book thus recognizes that growing numbers of non-state actors large and small, like Learning Life, are stepping into international relations, often as, or through social networks.  While despotic governments seek to control cross-border networks, Nye argues that open, democratic governments should “promote and participate in” these networks, so long as the latter seek to do good in the world (Nye 2010).

Connected Learning, by Mizuko Ito et al.

Connected LearningInequality has always existed, yet hundreds of millions of people across the world have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades due substantially to economic growth and trade.  Nonetheless, poverty is still widespread, and inequality is increasing as the fortunate few have grown much richer since at least the 1980s.  In this context, a group of scholars recently teamed up to answer the question: how can education be made to work for more people in a very unequal world?

The result is a 2013 paper on “connected learning” that both validates and inspires our approach with CDI.  “Connected learning addresses the gap between in-school and out-of-school learning, intergenerational disconnects, and new equity gaps arising from the privatization of learning. In doing so, connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities” (Mizuko et al. 2013: 4-5).  

Six principles define connected learning: it (1) is driven by students’ interests; (2) focuses on experimentation and producing things that nurture (3) lifelong academically-oriented skills and dispositions vital to success; taps into (4) peers as well as (5) parents, teachers and other caring adults (e.g., mentors and advisors) for feedback, contributions and/or guidance in learning; and (6) forges an “openly networked” learning environment by linking school, home and community, and taking advantage of the internet to access information, fellow learners, and other resources.  Learning Life’s CDI follows this connected learning approach by:

(1) involving lower-income parents in their children’s learning through international family-to-family dialogues
(2) tapping into the internet (email, Skype, browsers) to work with interested youth, families and organizations worldwide
(3) focusing our international dialogues on accomplishing projects that yield skill-enhancing and resume-building products  
(4) mobilizing caring adults as volunteer mentors, project consultants and language interpreters

The result is a novel approach to learning that empowers lower-income families through dialogues and projects linking the local to the global.

The Importance of Non-Cognitive Factors

Giving Kids a Fair ChanceA now large number of studies (e.g., Farrington et al. 2012, Pellegrino & Hilton 2012) point to the importance of non-cognitive factors, whether these be skills, strategies, attitudes or behavioral dispositions — like conscientiousness, motivation, deferred gratification, perseverance, time management, sociability, teamwork, curiosity, help-seeking — to success in school, work and life.  The non-cognitive factors contrast with cognitive content knowledge in particular fields, like math, engineering, computer science, political science, or literature.  Cognitive knowledge is less associated with success, though as I have previously noted, it is associated with better memory, comprehension and problem-solving.  

Among the scholars who have conducted research on non-cognitive factors, Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman looms large.  Heckman, who specializes in the economics of human development, offers compelling evidence that non-cognitive factors like those mentioned above, or what he calls “character,” matter more than performance on academic tests (Heckman, Humphries & Kautz 2014).  Further, he provides evidence that early investment in character-building as well as cognition not only in youth but parents and communities can improve graduation rates, health, employment, and reduce crime and incarceration in the long term (Heckman 2013).       

Heckman’s work, and the larger literature on the importance of non-cognitive factors informs our focus on developing character — particularly kindness, openness, tolerance, perseverance, curiosity, personal growth, and helping others — through international dialogue, collaborative projects and explicit discussion of these character traits.  Our ultimate goal is to nurture more informed, skilled, connected and caring global citizens, yet we do not expect such citizens to develop in weeks or months, but years.  Learning Life thus envisions working long-term with particular families in a gradually growing number of communities worldwide.

These are the works that inform and inspire CDI’s approach.  I encourage readers working to make our world a better place to look deeper into these works.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Farrington, Camille A., Melissa Roderick, Elaine Allensworth, Jenny Nagaoka, Tasha Seneca Keyes, David W. Johnson, and Nicole O. Beechum.  2012.  “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners. The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review.”  Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Heckman, James.  2013.  Giving Kids a Fair Chance.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Heckman, James, John E. Humphries and Tim Kautz.  2014.  The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, S. Craig Watkins.  2013.  “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.”  Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Nye, Joseph S.  2010.  “The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy.”  The New York Times, October 4.

Nye, Joseph.  2011.  The Future of Soft Power.  New York: Public Affairs.    

Pellegrino, James W. and Margaret L Hilton.  2012.  Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.  Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.

What’s Your Position in the World?

Given the United States’ outsized role in the world, and Clinton and Trump’s quite different positions on foreign relations, the time seems ripe for Americans to ponder their positions in the world.  

A few years ago, as an assistant professor of sociology at Stetson University in Florida, I taught an introductory sociology class every semester.  Early on each semester, when my students learned about the sociology of culture, I would ask them in class “are you a cultural relativist, or a cultural universalist?”  I explained that a relativist chooses to respect people’s different cultural practices while a universalist (or absolutist) insists that there are certain universal values and practices that all nations should respect regardless of their particular cultures.  

Our WorldIt may come as no surprise that when simply presented with that question and those definitions, my students tended to identify as relativists.  Countries like the United States that lean individualistic on the continuum from individualism to collectivism are more likely to produce relativists since individualism inclines people to respect individual and group differences, at least in principle, if not in fact.  However, I then posed the following issue-based questions, one after the other:             

Question 1: Is it bad for people living in high-income nations to condemn the practice of child labor in poorer countries because we think youth belong in school?

Question 2: In 1997, two Iraqi brothers, aged 34 and 28, living in Nebraska were charged with statutory rape of their wives, aged 13 and 14, whom they married following Muslim law and the customs of their community in southern Iraq.  Was it right for Nebraska to prosecute the two men, or should their culture have been respected?

Question 3: What about female “circumcision,” also known as “female genital mutilation”?  Should nations intercede to stop this painful and sometimes deadly practice, or should nations respect cultural differences?  

As you might expect, a lot of my students qualified their relativism as we moved from Question 1 to Question 3.  Many defended child labor in poorer nations, but maintained that people should follow the laws of the country in which they reside, and grimaced to learn about female genital mutilation, but weren’t sure how to respond to its practice abroad.    

This question of relativism vs. universalism seems all the more relevant now as the U.S. presidential contest spurs debate about how and how much the United States should engage with the world.  Relativism, in principle, inclines people not to meddle in the affairs of other nations out of respect for their own sovereign ways of doing things, however much we may find these ways — like child labor, child marriages, and female genital mutilation — reprehensible.  Universalism, in principle, inclines people to promote their values abroad, and for westerners that can mean banning child labor, early marriages and female genital mutilation, among other practices driven by religious tradition or economic hardship.     

In the United States, how the majority of Americans feel about foreign relations depends substantially on domestic economic conditions.  In economic downturns, Americans tend to lean isolationist or protectionist.  Isolationists (as critics sometimes deprecatingly call them) generally believe the United States should focus its resources more on its own people’s needs, and not get involved in other nations’ often thorny issues.  In contrast, internationalists believe the United States stands to gain in the short and long-term by engaging more with the world, culturally, economically and/or politically.  

There are, of course, right and left-wing versions of these positions.  Leftist isolationists call for worker-protecting trade barriers and greater domestic investment while right-wing isolationists are more likely to call for withdrawal from the United Nations and crackdowns on illegal immigration.  In turn, left-wing internationalists call for advancing human rights and elevating living, work and environmental standards worldwide while right-wing internationalists are more likely to call for strengthening security, democracy and/or capitalism by economic sanction, or force if necessary.  

If you lean toward relativism, how to engage abroad seems simple on its face: don’t interfere.  If you lean toward universalism, however, should the United States only act when it can get other nations on board (multilateralism), or should the U.S. go it alone when it can’t find partners (unilateralism) so long as it’s doing the right thing?  And, what courses of action are appropriate and effective?  Should the U.S. government simply issue a public condemnation, try diplomatic dialogue, offer economic incentives, fund nonprofits fighting child labor, child marriages, female genital mutilation, and other practices we oppose, or threaten military action?  

Underlying your answers to these questions are fundamental assumptions, conscious or not, about what motivates people and nations.  So-called “realists” believe people and nations are motivated foremost by self-interest, and this accordingly drives nations to seek security, economic advantage, political prestige, and/or military glory, depending on their governments.  Idealists, on the other hand, assert people and nations are or should be motivated by ideals, whether religious (e.g., Christianity or Islam), political (e.g., democracy or nationalism), economic (e.g., capitalism or socialism), or otherwise.    

These varied and overlapping positions can help any citizens of the world think more deeply about how they and their government should engage with the world.  But it’s especially important for people in the most internationally powerful nations — like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — to think about their positions and answers to these questions.  

So, are you a universalist or relativist?  An isolationist or internationalist?  A multilateralist or unilateralist? A realist or idealist?     

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

A F.A.C.T. Approach to Citizen Diplomacy

Note: Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) works to nurture peace and educational development through international, family-to-family dialogue and collaboration.  This post explains the directions in which we are considering going with the family-to-family collaborations.  This is a working document subject to revision.  

The Problems:

Worldwide, families are looking for ways to make a living.  But often, this means working for employers, foreign or domestic, who dictate harsh terms of employment (i.e., where, when and how you will work and for how much pay) and care more about profits than their employees and the families and communities their workers support.    

Further, globalization is enriching a relative few who make and shape international relations through businesses, governments or nonprofit organizations they own or direct.  In the globalization process, people and their communities are, for better or worse, becoming more like each other as millions of individuals across the world become the employees and consumers of major transnational companies like Walmart, Apple, Toyota, ExxonMobil and McDonalds.  Transnational companies are not going away, but people and their communities do not have to, nor should they, lose what makes them unique.    

What if there were ways for people to provide for themselves, nurture local ownership, and build the unique assets of their families and communities?    

The F.A.C.T. Nexus:

People can and do often pursue food, art, community and tourism (FACT) separately.  However,  they can form a complementary nexus for people to provide for themselves, nurture local ownership, and build family and community assets.  


Everyone needs to eat every day, and many if not most people enjoy eating.  Moreover, growing, processing and serving food constitute major sources of jobs in communities worldwide.  In many places, food sector workers work for chain restaurants controlled by large domestic or transnational companies.  But they could, alternatively or in tandem, work for themselves, offering residents and visitors a unique taste of their family, region and country’s culinary traditions at home, in restaurants, or community spaces and events.      


Art in all its forms — paintings, photography, video, dance, music, jewelry, makeup, clothes, etc. — is a way to nurture creativity and expression, and to make homes and communities more meaningful and attractive.  Art can also be presented or sold to residents and visitors to help families and communities earn a living.  


Every community has stories about its past, present and future.  These local stories often connect with national and international stories that can make local stories interesting to residents and visitors alike.  Examples include a local person who became famous, a product made locally yet widely known, the local imprints of a national or international war, remarkable local events that connect with universal human experiences.  Families and communities can record and tell these stories in unique, engaging ways, using manifold media — photos, audio, video, painting, music, dance, etc. — to create temporary and permanent community exhibits and events that can attract local to global viewers.


Tourism can be top-down or bottom-up.  In many places tourism is top-down: controlled to varying extents by large foreign or domestic hotel and entertainment chains that create profitable, packaged experiences.  Perhaps the most problematic are deluxe resorts that fly vacationers in and out of their all-inclusive enclaves, with no need for their clients to experience let alone connect with the (often poor) communities that surround and serve the resort.  

However, tourism can be and sometimes is bottom-up or grassroots: owned by local businesses, employing local people, and devoted to building the assets of their people (e.g., experiences, knowledge, skills, products) and communities (e.g., art exhibits, museums, memorials, murals, monuments, gardens, parks, farms, restaurants, cafes, markets).              

Our F.A.C.T. Approach:

Learning Life envisions people in international dialogue to nurture their children, families and communities through shared food, arts, community and tourism projects.  

Accordingly, where CDI families are in international dialogue, Learning Life mentors will work with their families to engage parents and children in short to long-term projects that build the FACTs of their own community.  Our mentors will work with local nonprofits and advisors to provide their families’ children with training and hands-on experiences in food, arts, community and/or tourism.  The paired families and their mentors will then come together via video chat for the children to report and discuss what they have learned through their project work since they last talked.  

These opportunities to share project learning and work with other families in other nations working on similar projects will help circulate ideas, methods and lessons learned in order to deepen learning and enrich local projects.  In addition, through shared FACT projects, families will have the opportunity to collaborate to create joint products, like comparative photo or video displays that can add an eye-catching international component to local art or community exhibits and installations.  

As the children learn and do more, they can move from simpler to more complex and ambitious projects.  In so doing, they can learn how to provide for themselves and their families, nurture local ownership, and build the unique assets of their families and communities.  And, when the families and/or communities are able and willing, simpler projects can lead to more ambitious for-profit and non-profit international collaborations for mutual benefit.     

Call to Action:

Individuals interested in getting involved in Learning Life’s CDI as families, dialogue organizers, youth mentors, language interpreters, or project advisors should contact Learning Life at   

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life