An Outside/In Look at Redesigning Democracy through Participation: An Interview with SOLE Colombia

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Click here to listen to the interview



Ambika: Welcome everyone. I’m here today with Sanjay Fernandes, the founder and Director of SOLE Colombia foundation, who’s purpose is to transform the future of learning in Colombia. SOLE is a disruptive educational methodology that empowers communities to develop autonomy, collaboration, deep learning and most important of all, to solve real life problems. 

Sanjay is speaking to me today as part of Outside/In: international perspectives on governance challenges in the U.S. Our aim in this series is to provide a space for international colleagues to share their thoughts about governance challenges in the United States to promote cross-country learning and solidarity, as all countries grapple in their own ways with the challenges of improving governance and social wellbeing.

Sanjay, thank you for joining me today. What has been your and your community’s reactions to the recent elections, debates, Supreme Court justice process in the U.S. What has surprised or scared you the most? 

Sanjay: Hi Ambika, thank you for this invitation. I’m very honored to be invited to talk about something that is strange to talk about being in another country, in Colombia. What is our reaction? It’s interesting because the feeling is a little bit…disempowered. I guess it’s one of those feelings that comes when your parents are taking some decisions, and you’re a kid and your parents aren’t really asking you what your decision is, or how you would like to participate in that decision. You’re just stuck with those parents and whatever you want to do there. And I think in that sense, when you see what’s happening in the US currently in this moment, with the Supreme Court justice process, with the elections and the debates, I think for me personally, there is a big level of disbelief. There’s a big level of, wow okay, this is the moment in which we really have to become autonomous and think about ourselves.

There is obviously in the atmosphere a big feeling of fear and concern. Of where is this taking us?  What’s going to happen to the rest of the world if the US takes these decisions? And where there is a big issue is, realizing I think we are in a moment of history where we have a real problem with leadership. Our leadership is kind of, in the wrong place right now. The problem when our reaction to what we see going on, is that basically there is no public debate right now really happening. It’s more of a monologues and polarization but not people coming together to have an open debate. Maybe the word is not debate, but an open conversation about what is this new way which we have to redesign our democracies. I think that’s our view.

Ambika: In terms of what Colombia has done with your democracy and in terms of public debates and how you’ve been able to really pursue some democratic ideals- what have you done right that you think the US can also follow? Going back to the parent lessons, what lessons from growing up in Colombia do you feel could be really helpful to us now?

Sanjay: It’s interesting. We really always have been kind of in this concept of having a wider range of participation in public decisions and common-good decisions, in many parties. And in that sense, what I think is interesting of what Colombia has always had is that, here people speak up with their voice. Independent of the levels of inequality and levels of access to power, it’s like our leaders are not the ones accountable for making this durable peace, this better sort of social agreement, this better way of living together happen.  We’re all in charge of it. I think there is a big level of empowerment in Colombia, in people thinking, “hey, we have to fix this”. This is not up to our governments, up to our leaders.

Ambika: Going back to what you were saying about the protests, there’s been tons of protests, specifically around Black Lives Matter, a lot around what’s happening around the police as well as what’s happening around the elections after RBGs death, lots of voices. We have a lot of voices speaking out right now but we remain extremely polarized as a society. So how do you actually make that into practical results?

 Sanjay: One way to start up is having structured conversations. What does that mean? That means allowing people to come together and having tools or skills to be able to have a conversation. I think polarization happens because people are not really having conversations. They are talking to the same ones and listening to the same ones and there is not an invitation to diversity. And to have a structured conversation with diverse people means being prepared to listen, on one hand, and be able to defer in a nonviolent way. Also, understanding what role mass communication has in this communication. And what is interesting is that I see the power of technology playing a beautiful role in redesigning democracy, and I think that is an opportunity which would be interesting to work on together, in these moments of tension how you’re living them.

Ambika: Yeah, I think that’s excellent and I really appreciate those practical suggestions. Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to me today. Do you have any last words to leave us with a little bit of courage, perspective, optimism as we near the next few months?

Sanjay: I would definitely say one thing. This is not up to one person; this is up to all of us.  And these things go by, but it’s us acting now and being constant and being persistent in our beliefs for better living together that we will overcome. But we do need to do it together.

Ambika: Those are very wise words and words of courage. Thank you Sanjay Fernandes in Colombia for speaking to me today.


Click here to learn more about our Outside/In series and check out our content to date.

Sanjay Fernandes

Sanjay is the Director of SOLE Colombia. He is an economist, interaction designer, and educator.

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