A month after I came back from my GMF USA experience, I attended my first alumni Marshall Seminar on the frontier of democracy in Kiev this past weekend.

After an intensive month of traveling, I vowed not to fly for at least three months; I guess I am not good at listening to myself! And I am glad I did not as I met the broader Marshall Memorial Fellow family, and again, being around brilliant and humble transatlantic change agents was so refreshing and energizing! Highlights included

  1. Misinformation in a digital era and its impact on democracy;
  2. Is democracy a floating definition and what does it mean for who?
  3. How can the corporate world step up and fill in a vacuum at a time where democratic and liberal values are eroding?
  4. How can citizens of the world come forward, start leading from the heart and represent those that feel left behind?

I learned so much this weekend, both from the interventions and from the side discussions. Two parts of the programme stuck with me though and changed my perspective on important issues we take for granted.

Leading from the heart

Listening to contributions from fascinating GMF members and further afield on how they are leading from the heart was a great start to the day.

The first speaker spoke about how he felt compelled to be part of Ukranian politics, run for office and fight corruption. His drive comes from his core belief of remembering his roots to be a successful politician in this era and preserve democracy. Representing those citizens that feel left behind or those that do not have a voice was why he is still in the game and determined to drive change.

Another highlight was from a senior resident fellow of the GMF United States who spoke about how women are stepping up and want to make a difference; they want to see the change they envision for their generations and those to come, turn into reality. A record number of women are running for office now in the United States as only 21% are represented in the Senate, 19% are in the House while women are 51% of the population. Exciting to see that these women are no longer leading from behind, but from the front!

The world needs more change agents and citizens of the world to start caring about their democracy and defend it by being part of the change they want to see become a reality.

What about values?

This panel took place at Musafir restaurant downtown Kiev. The owner shared his story on how they left Crimea after Russia’s annexation and is now the owner of several restaurants in Ukraine. An example of how adversity in life can take you places you never expected to be.

The evening was an unforgettable one, and I wonder how any human being can digest so many different courses. They just kept coming and were all delicious. I am glad I exercised self-discipline!

The panel spoke about the role of liberal values in an age where democracy seems to be fading away. It made me think about the meaning of values…If people’s basic needs are not met, and they struggle to survive, how can we expect them to have any values? On the other hand, if they lose these values, they become prey to the propaganda of authoritarian regimes.

Another critical point made was why the West always feels the need to impose their model of democracy on other regions? Why can’t we co-exist and work together in ensuring people’s basic needs are met, that people live free from fear and conflict and accept each other’s differences? I guess that’s a million dollar question with no likely answer.

The highlight for me was the intervention from brilliant panel members. They framed such a complex and challenging debate in succinct and unambiguous language. There are different kinds of values that serve a different purpose for different strata in society.

But it all comes back to people’s emotions and fear and how we connect to those. The need to include those that feel excluded, those that feel left out is paramount as they will continue to vote for those leaders who offer an illusive alternative to their present and sobering reality.

Concluding thought

I guess what I took away from this seminar is the need for more leaders that lead from the heart. Democratic leaders that connect with people’s fear and insecurities and counter the rising nationalism.

We know this is a very daunting endeavor, but we are losing the battle between the hearts and brains which the extreme right is winning. Do I believe if our democracy is at stake?

Had you asked me this a few years ago, I would have rolled my eyes. Now I can’t help but wonder how long I will enjoy my freedom of speech, freedom of fear and freedom of conflict.


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