By: Russell Smith

This was my second International Camp for Democratic Leadership. ICDL was, most certainly, all about Democratic Leadership. The sessions provided a full range of opportunities to learn about and practice the skills necessary for both leadership and for participation in a truly democratic community. In each year’s sessions we studied, discussed and debated what ancient scholars and texts had to say about participatory social and political interaction. This included both the good and the bad: consensus building with gentle leadership to serve the greater good, and the chaos and violence of the mob, especially when led by a tyrant. 

Those lessons were expanded and enhanced by exercises in communications and the testing of our own skills in situational exercises that called on us to listen more than we talked and to respect what our colleagues had to say. It was here that the wide range of personal backgrounds and experiences came to play most vividly. I learned an enormous amount from watching my fellow campers, hearing their stories, and seeing their “whole selves” reflected in how they responded to a direction, question, or breakout group discussion. Great stuff–and a superb takeaway for all sorts of everyday life experiences. 

The two camps were both different and alike. I recognized some of the material in 2022 from 2021 but none of it had become less relevant or stale. I found the technology improved so it was easier to interact and more was accomplished in most sessions in 2022 than in 2021. One noteworthy difference: in 2021 political sensitivities (call it “wokeness”) threatened to get in the way of open discussion. There were misunderstandings, even though ultimately they were resolved. (Perhaps this was in truth a lesson in democratic leadership!) If that happened in 2022 I was not aware of it. The group was very diverse, but the wide range of points of view, shaped by age (I’m pretty sure I was the oldest camper), race, career, level of education, and general life experience only served to enrich the discussion. 

I was impressed by the instructors/moderators. While most of them had probably presented their materials in other settings, they never seemed either jaded or bored, and they were certainly informed and almost always entertaining. They chose to take the discussions in unexpected directions (prohibition/women’s suffrage/lynching/feminism reflected in two heroic but conflicted women; song lyrics as a springboard to thinking about the most profound life questions) that usually meant the session ended all too soon. 

Of course, I want to return in 2023. I am confident that there will be new topics, new and old teachers, and a combination of new campers and returnees with another year of living to reflect upon. 

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