Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Obama Foundation and a Constitutional Exchange Program

My wife recently pointed me to the Obama Foundation, an exciting new group which will function around the upcoming Obama Presidential Library.  The latter will not open until 2020 or so, but in the meantime it appears that the Foundation is chomping at the bit to get started with civic initiatives.  I think a lot of people are like me in that they've been inspired by the recent protoFascist turn in US politics to become more actively involved in creating a more just, merciful, and prosperous society, but they don't know where to start or what to do.  It looks like the Obama Foundation is trying to harness this momentum to create innovative programs.  I am eager to see what they come up with, and perhaps to participate in it.

For now they have a portal where people can share their ideas.  Below is what I wrote.  It's been forming in my mind gradually over the past few months, and more actively so in the past few days.  I know these online portals receive a lot of traffic, and my idea may never even be read by anyone there, but I think that it's innovative and promising enough that I want to share it with the general public.  So here it is:
I think what's most needed in today's US citizens is a sense of sympathy, of collective identity and identification with one's neighbors, of grace and a desire to help others in their difficult times, rather than disqualifying people from our circle of caring based on their race or language or religion, or more perniciously based on their perceived character flaws or the other shortcomings that we all possess (though often only see in others, not ourselves).  Membership in the human race and in the fold of the American family should be enough for someone to merit our goodwill.

An important corollary to this sympathy in the US context is a better awareness of some of the fundamental precepts, not just of our Constitution and our particular system of government, but of some universal Enlightenment-era concepts like human rights.
My proposal to begin to address both of these points is to create a Constitutional Exchange Program.  The "Constitutional" part refers to study groups that would meet regularly, initially a group of young people in a given locality, to review and discuss different aspects of the US Constitution, the state Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human rights, always referring these principles to current events and the group's local context.

The "Exchange Program" would come later, as different members of one group would stay for a week or more at a time with members of a faraway group, and thus get to share both the day-to-day experiences of another social group, as well as share and challenge the reflections of that group around the aforementioned documents.  This would function much like a typical study abroad exchange program, except that instead of going to Germany to live and learn with a German family for a year, we would be connecting families from across the social spectrum within the US, probably for shorter stints but with more regularity of contact. 

We could start within a state, such that a black middle class kid from Chatham in Chicago could get to know a poor white family in Danville, or the child of Mexican immigrants in Cicero or Aurora could stay with a Pakistan-born college professor's family in Bloomington, or a young person from the ghetto of East St. Louis could host a dairy farmer from northwestern Illinois.  Eventually this could expand across state lines, such that a Central Wisconsin working-class kid could visit and later host a teen from the posh section of Glenview, IL, or recent black transplants to Iowa could meet Syrian refugees in Detroit.  Militiamen and Muslims, native-born and immigrants, people of all colors would share and confront their viewpoints, and hopefully be transformed to better understand and even be convinced by the ideas of their compatriots.

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