“An ideal environment for contemplation”
I just returned from one of the most exciting experiences of my life - the opportunity to live and learn in Germany for almost two weeks as part of a seminar called 'Foundations of open societies: individual self-determination and tolerance'. The major part of this time was spent at the International Academy for Leadership (IAF) in Gummersbach. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) hosted over 20 participants from diverse fields such as politics, activism, academia, journalism, human rights advocacy, business and research. I enjoyed the program to my heart's content, and I am sure that my writing and my work as a peace and human rights educator will benefit tremendously.
Our daily schedule was quite intense: the program left me intellectually stimulated beyond my expectations. It was slightly overwhelming in the first couple of days but I got used to the tempo soon. It is a pity that the work of liberal thinkers is rarely taught at the school, college and university levels in India. Their scholarship is so relevant especially when it comes to thinking about democracy, rule of law, decentralization, free markets, integration of refugees, minority rights, hate speech and social justice.
It was helpful to have Dr. Stefan Melnik and Sven Gerst as our facilitators who were thoroughly prepared to answer all our questions, provide additional reading material on request, and field dissenting opinions from the participants. I like robust learning environments such as this one because there is an exchange of knowledge, not a unidirectional flow of information. There were several opportunities for discussions in smaller groups, and the use of digital tools to review individual and collective learning. I would have liked some more case studies but this was the first time this seminar was offered, so changes will be made next time based on the feedback we gave on the final day.
Our learning environment was rich with insights from all over the world. Participants shared their on the ground experiences. We got to know each other better during meals and at the academy's bar after dinner. Theory and practice inform each other. Left to their own devices, they have little meaning to offer.
The seminar also included excursions to Bonn, Cologne and Berlin where we met experts who spoke about various aspects of open society in connection with their own work. My favourite speaker was Dr. Hidir Celik, Head of the Protestant Migration and Refugee Work of Ev. Kirchenkreis (Emfa)/ Integration Agency Bonn, and also the Chairman of the Bonn Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Learning. It was heartwarming to learn about the initiatives to support migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
We also learnt about the challenges that come up in the process of integration, with respect to language and religious identity as well as cultural attitudes towards gender equality and queer rights. Additionally, there is resistance from right-wing groups, both Christian and Muslim. I am always happy to learn about socially engaged work spearheaded by faith-based institutions, particularly those who welcome people of all faiths as well as individuals who identity as atheist and agnostic. Good neighborliness is an important value for Protestants, and that is what motivates this organization to keep working towards building bridges between people of diverse cultural heritage living in Germany.
The other speaker I loved listening to was Helmut Metzner, Member of the Board of the Federal LGBTQI Association of Germany, a politician affiliated to the Free Democratic Party, and Founder of Polifaktur Consultancy. He was terrific in terms of wide coverage of topics as well as attention to detail. He spoke with passion, humor and clarity. He was also willing to respond to a variety of queries ranging from sexuality education in schools to medical insurance for gender reassignment surgery, from the criminalization of homosexuality in colonized societies to Germany's own horrific past with the Nazi regime systematically exterminating gay and lesbian citizens.
What added considerably to my experience was the setting in which it was located. The academy is a quiet place surrounded by greenery, and it offers an ideal environment for contemplation and long walks.
Chintan Girish Modi
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, researcher and an alumnus of the Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Civil Society (CCS). He recently attended FNF-IAF's leadership program in Gummersbach, Germany on Foundation of Open Societies: Individual Self-determination and Tolerance. In this report, he is sharing his personal thoughts.