yPIE Interviews Founder Paul Lachelier

Stephanie Blochinger with the Young Professionals in International Education (yPIE) in Washington DC recently interviewed Learning Life Founder and Director Paul Lachelier about the Citizen Diplomacy Initiative.  The full interview is copied below, and can be found at yPIE of DC here.    
1. Why did you start this initiative?
Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative is an outgrowth of three events, one tragic, two promising.
Citizen Diplomacy InitiativeThe two promising events were live, internet video dialogues or “virtual exchanges” that I organized between students at Stetson University in Florida and university students in Paris and Cairo in 2009 and 2011, respectively, when I was then a professor of sociology at Stetson.  (You can view short videos about those dialogues here and here.)  Those single dialogues — respectively about the role of government in society in light of Obamacare legislation then being debated, and about social media and social change in light of the Arab Spring in Egypt — were well-received on all sides, and left me thinking that more such substantive, respectful, learning-focused, transnational dialogues are needed.
The tragic event was the series of coordinated terrorist attacks that happened in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015 that killed 130 people.  That event spurred me to conclude that it was time for Learning Life to turn our focus to combating the ignorance and disconnection that fuel extremism and xenophobia through virtual exchange and collaboration.
2. Why is this initiative different from other community-based initiatives?
Most international virtual exchange is currently student-to-student or classroom-to-classroom.  As much as such exchange is praiseworthy and deserving of expansion to more schools (so long as it produces positive and sustainable outcomes), it is more likely to occur between relatively privileged students because schools in wealthier communities are more likely to be equipped and motivated to engage in such dialogues.
As far as we know, we are the only nonprofit in the international virtual exchange field that’s devoted to dialogue and collaboration between lower-income people, and specifically families, in different nations.  Families are sometimes viewed as refuges from a dangerous world, but families are always vulnerable to all sorts of public dangers, some of them international, like terrorism, disease, cyber-piracy and evolutions in transnational trade.  We envision and work to nurture families not as refuges but as vehicles for peace through a new kind of family-to-family citizen diplomacy.
Plus, for less educated families, talking about family and lifestyle can be a more comprehensible and appealing entry-point into citizen diplomacy than talking about trade agreements, terrorism or climate change.
It’s also an opportunity for families to bond and create memories together through international dialogue.  As one of our family members in Dakar, Senegal, recently told us, his large family is usually busy, each at their own cell phones, hobbies or tasks, but when our dialogues happen, they come together as a family.
3. What challenges did you face and were there any lessons learned from the first year of implementation?
In our first year of the Citizen Diplomacy Initiative, we faced a number of challenges, including recruiting families here in DC and abroad, making sure everyone showed up to the dialogues as planned, arranging transportation for our DC families without cars, hoping the internet connection is strong enough, keeping the families engaged as we continue to develop and refine our curriculum, coordinating a volunteer-intensive operation, fundraising to pay for food, transport and communications for our dialogues and supportive learning activities (field trips, international potlucks, global learning “fundays,” etc.).
We’re still working on some of these challenges, but are happy to report that we successfully completed over twenty live, family-to-family dialogues, and an international photo project comparing various aspects of our families’ communities in DC, Dakar, Senegal, and Jerash, Jordan.
4. What can international education professionals learn from this program?
If there is anything our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative is intended to convey in the short and long-term it’s that:
a) Overcoming many of the world’s challenges will take widespread, participatory, public commitment,
b) Our current largely elite-controlled system of diplomacy doesn’t help spread that commitment,
c) we thus need to democratize diplomacy, that is, to widen the spectrum of people participating in tackling those challenges,
d) that technologies like the internet, cell phones and tablets — when properly used in carefully designed, research-based, international programs — can help democratize diplomacy.
5. Anything else you would like to share? This could also be a good opportunity to share information about the networking group you formed?
Sure!  To learn more about our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative visit learninglife.info/cdi, or check out our videos at our Youtube channel.  Contact us at email@learninglife.info if you’d like to volunteer, or get e-news of our progress.
Also, if you’re interested in helping to advance the field of international virtual exchange, let us know and we’ll notify you of the bi-monthly face-to-face meetings in DC and online Slack of our Virtual Exchange Coalition, which brings together government, business and nonprofit professionals in the field.