Presidential Precinct a beacon for democracy - The Daily Progress: Opinion

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Presidential Precinct a beacon for democracy

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Posted: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 9:08 pm | Updated: 9:46 pm, Wed Dec 12, 2012.

Friendly young leaders from 25 nations have inaugurated one of the best new ideas to be adopted by the University of Virginia since women were admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences in 1970.

A dozen woman and 13 men met to discuss democracy building with folks from UVA and experts from the university's new partners in international diplomacy from the College of William & Mary and the presidential homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

Morven, the site of the three-day gathering of leaders last week, is the gem and the germ of the idea to bring leaders, scholars and activists from many nations to Charlottesville to discuss 21st Century democracy.

Morven is a 3,000-acre university-owned estate nestled next to Ash Lawn-Highland and a few miles south of Monticello,

Left to UVA by the late billionaire John W. Kluge, it offers gorgeous views and secluded splendor as well as the academic firepower of two premier universities and three presidential centers.

This new democracy-building enterprise is called the Presidential Precinct. It offers both physical space and online expertise to advocates of civil society and emerging democracies everywhere. Last week's global visitors obviously enjoyed the visit and three days of dialogue.

Jim Murray, a former William & Mary rector, calls the Presidential Precinct "the first major initiative" of UVA President Teresa Sullivan.

"The whole core of this thing is digital education," Murray said and gives Sullivan the credit. Representatives of the 25 countries said they appreciate the long-term resources available through the precinct's electronic platforms that were turned on last week. UVA is supplying much of the content and the connections.

"Our aspiration is both residential and virtual," said Stewart Gamage, director of Morven programs and leader of UVA's participation in the Presidential Precinct.

Participants from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Russia, Mongolia and Zambia agreed that civil-society building can be a difficult process. Each works in their nation's non-profit or Non-Governmental Organization sector.

"I think all of us are different in our needs," said Moana Clarke, a representative from Somoa.

Many share the strong desire of "becoming a true democratic nation (and) bringing civil society together," but face challenges of implementation, corruption and finances, said Mary Mutupa of Zambia.

The energy of their nations' youth, their optimism and volunteerism to build civil societies provide hope, they agreed.

The State Department, which brought the 25 to Charlottesville for three days during a two-week tour of America, is fully supportive of the Presidential Precinct.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently unveiled several new positions devoted to her long-standing causes for promoting civil society, emerging democracies and for women's issues, all of which fit well in the precinct.

After finishing their visit, the young leaders have agreed to serve as representatives of civil-society working groups established as part of Clinton's "Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society."

Finding Presidential Precinct a difficult mouthful to pronounce, some participants, whose first language is not English, accepted UVA environmental mediation expert Frank Dukes' suggestion to refer to it simply as "P Squared."

Networking with each other, the young leaders from differnet nations found UVA and Morven to be an ideal setting to learn from each other.

William & Mary President Taylor Reveley gave his endorsement. "William and Mary is up to its ears in the Presidential Precinct and pleased to be in the dialogue," he said. "To succeed, [it] must be a genuinely international effort."

The hope of its founders is that international democracy builders and civil society activists will visit the Charlottesville area together by the diozens for many years and stay in touch with each other through the precinct's digital arms, Murray said.

"The future is to drive everything through the Internet," he said. "The long-term vision is Montpelier ought to be the residential home for these visitors" with UVA, Monticello and William & Mary providing programmatic resources and meeting space at Morven.

"All of these institutions will be responsible for pieces of it," Murray said. The precinct itself may hire one person to oversee its web presence.

"The State Department is a really striong sponsor," he said. They have attached a group called the Community of Democracies to the precinct and now a group of former British Commonwealth nations is interested, he said.

Hundreds of international visitors with interests in promoting democracies may be calling on Charlottesville.

The State Department alone has sponsored more than 5,000 foreign visitors to come to the United States each of the past two years, and now Charlottesville is on the map for a new reason.

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