The seven-page article, “The Library as a Community Center” by Svetlana Gorokhova was published in Kettering Foundation‘s 2016 edition of their annual newsletter, Connections – Kettering’s Multinational Research. In this fifth article of the newsletter, Gorokhova discusses the shift that has been happening in Russia for the last twenty years of utilizing the library system as hubs for deliberative engagement and the way this has affected the Russian people. Below is an excerpt from the article and Connections 2016 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.
From the article…
My first experience with deliberating was in 1996 at the Kettering Foundation, and it felt like magic. I, like many Russian people, was skeptical about all forms of civic engagement because in the Soviet state you knew that public forums or meetings were always “pro forma” events. I was disillusioned and doubtful about whether people’s opinions would be taken seriously and be heard. When I got to the forum, I thought it would only be talk, talk, talk and not about doing. I did not think about talking as if it was something that is valuable.
I came to this forum about the environment, and thought, “How does this relate to my life? I’m living through a very difficult time in my country and am worried about what to eat and how to earn some money to maintain my family. Why should I think about environmental problems?” Then I realized that the issue is not something abstract. People were listening to me and trying to understand my point of view, and I was trying to understand their points of view. After that forum, my perspective changed. It wasn’t a drastic change, but I had a new perspective about the problem and saw the value of talking together. I had a feeling of elation and hope for the future. The magic came with the realization that you can do something and that you are being heard.
Deliberating takes effort. You are working on yourself with other people, and they’re working on themselves. There is a problem that gives us something in common. So my definition of deliberation is hard work that results in a joyful union of different points of view—a shared commitment to solving the problem for everybody. It sounds altruistic because in life, typically, you rarely find emotional support from others, but to be in a forum and to work out a decision—to go through a deliberative process—there is something very valuable for everyone. It was a great surprise for me. Wow! It’s difficult to explain the effect because a deliberative forum is something that must be experienced—and more than once. I invite people in Russia to come to forums so they can feel this magic of change in themselves and in their perception of the problem.
My work in deliberative democracy has taught me that when a seed is planted, you begin to think differently. I began to think that people need deliberative practices as much as food, entertainment, love, education. It’s a basic right. We had been deprived of this kind of activity in the past, and now we need to build it up. When I explain the purpose of the Library as a Community Center project in my country, I say, “People need to exercise their right to be heard, to deliver their opinion, and to participate in decision making concerning their life. People need to come together, they need to see that they are being heard, and they need to have numerous experiences like this. It needs to be a normal way of living, just as when you are hungry, you eat. If you’re a person, you need to be responsible for collective life. You need to be involved.” I wasn’t aware of how important this is before I experienced it. Now I know it is important for your inner freedom as well as your outer freedom.
The library is a perfect site for this kind of work. By definition, libraries are a public place. Historically libraries have been the place to go for information, for addressing difficult situations, for finding a job. Libraries are neutral public places with no affiliation with one religion or with one ethnic group—they are for everybody. In the 21st century, libraries are looking for new ways of playing a more active role in communities. Libraries are looking for ways to respond to people’s needs. People need to be heard. People need to be reassured that they can have their own say in what is happening in the country. Not only through voting, but also through talking about the problems they have and trying to understand what lies behind these problems. I can’t even name another place, another site in the local community, that would be more appropriate for this kind of activity than the library. Where else would you go? There is nowhere else in Russia that offers this kind of public space suitable for the intellectually hard work of deliberation.
This is just an excerpt, you can read the rest of the article by clicking here.
About Kettering Foundation and Connections
The Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.
Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2016 issue of Connections, edited by KF program officer and senior writer/editor Melinda Gilmore; KF senior associate Philip Stewart; and KF vice president, secretary, and general counsel Maxine Thomas, focuses on our year-long review of our multinational research.
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