Democracy is best understood when you see it in action. Last fall, the Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD) Mongolia Program brought a group of up-and-coming democracy advocates to the United States for a three-week exchange program in which they explored the country’s democratic values and discovered how they can work together to address critical issues such as poverty and unemployment, the environment and urbanization, and transparency and anti-corruption.
LEAD Mongolia, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by World Learning, aims to support Mongolia’s young democracy by providing its next generation of champions with opportunities to make a difference. LEAD fellows design civic action projects in their communities, encourage civic engagement among high school students, and share their insight into the workings of democracy with other leaders in Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar.
The U.S. exchange is one important component of the LEAD Mongolia program, offering fellows firsthand experience with U.S. democracy. During their three weeks in the country, fellows take part in lectures and workshops, explore U.S. culture, and begin work on their civic action projects. A portion of the program is hosted by the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville, Virginia.
World Learning accompanied this year’s group in Charlottesville to find out what a day in the life of a LEAD Mongolia exchange is like. Two of the fellows — Enkhbayar Batsukh, a local government employee who specializes in private sector development, and Nyamdemberel Dorj, a civil society activist — checked in with us throughout the day to share their thoughts on everything from teambuilding to making education and employment accessible to people with disabilities.
8 a.m. Teambuilding and Leadership Training
Poplar Ridge Challenge Course at the University of Virginia
LEAD Mongolia participants started the day with teamwork. At the Poplar Ridge Challenge Course, they helped one another cross a shaky high wire by using ropes to hold it taut and shouting encouragement. In another exercise, they worked together to balance nearly a dozen people on a small wooden plank without tipping over. Ultimately, the fellows learned how to solve problems through trust, communication, and leadership. These skills will be essential for when they return to Mongolia to work on projects together addressing some of the country’s most pressing issues.
Batsukh said she’s participated in teambuilding activities before, but none quite like this one: “I was very nervous, to be honest. When I was climbing the stairs, I wanted to give up. It was totally out of my comfort zone. But I pushed myself and started walking to the rope, and then I felt a little relieved and confident like I conquered my internal fear. I noticed that my friends who were pulling the rope [taut] to help me were really doing an active job. I felt a lot safer with them. I’m not doing it alone.”
1 p.m. Employing People with Disabilities
Vector Industries in Waynesboro, Virginia
After lunch, the LEAD fellows drove about 30 miles west to Waynesboro, Virginia, where they learned how Vector Industries has created employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Vector Industries is a nonprofit that works with manufacturers across the region to provide assembly, packaging, fulfillment, and other logistical support. It employs people with disabilities, even providing them with transportation to get to and from work.
In Mongolia, unemployment is a serious challenge, particularly among people with disabilities. One LEAD Mongolia team will be tasked with finding a solution to alleviate this unemployment crisis as part of their civic action projects, but all of the fellows were excited to learn about the Vector Industries model. “I was amazed by how [Vector Industries] started by just going out door to door and trying to find a job for people,” Dorj said. “That was an amazing story to hear.”
Batsukh agreed, adding that there’s no such nonprofit in her community even though it includes more than 5,000 citizens with disabilities. “I feel that the factory is working in very smart ways,” she said. “We don’t have any working conditions for the disabled community at all. I looked at them and I had the great idea: In the coming years, if our overall development is going well, why couldn’t we organize a factory in our community like this one?”
2:30 p.m. Public Education Option for the Deaf and Blind
Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, Virginia
Next, the LEAD fellows headed further west to the city of Staunton, where they discovered how the state provides public education to students with disabilities at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. During a tour of the campus, LEAD fellows learned about how the school is technically also a state agency. It provides comprehensive services and support to students with disabilities, offering transportation to young people across the state, employing staff and faculty members with disabilities, creating equal bilingual classrooms using both American Sign Language and English, and offering worksite experience programs.
LEAD fellows were particularly amazed by the school’s independent living program, in which students live in on-campus apartments for nine-week periods to help them learn how to pay their bills, shop for groceries, prepare meals, and more. “When we think of training disabled people, we always think of how to help them read and write but never how they will live independently,” Batsukh said.
Dorj was inspired by his visit to the school, which gave him a new vision for the future of education in Mongolia. “The independent living dorm was very inspiring,” he said. “I think we can apply it not only for visually impaired people but in other places and for people with other disabilities.”
7:30 p.m. Civic Engagement: Staunton City Council Meeting
LEAD fellows ended the day by attending a Staunton City Council meeting to witness U.S. local government and citizen engagement in action. Mayor Carolyn W. Dull led the meeting, which included discussion of public ordinances and the council’s vision for 2035 as well as opportunities for citizens to weigh in on various issues such as the petition to change the name of a local high school. Two of the LEAD participants spoke as well, thanking the council members and American citizens alike for allowing them to attend the meeting.
Batsukh was grateful for the opportunity to witness local democracy at work and was impressed with what she saw: “The lady beside me, she was a regular citizen from Staunton. I asked her if she always comes to these meetings and she said, ‘Yes, I do come because I want to know what’s going on in the city from different points of view. Not only from the city council members but from the other citizens that are concerned.’ It’s making all people informed and that’s very, very important.”
9 p.m. Head back to Charlottesville!
LEAD Mongolia fellows returned to the University of Virginia campus to rest up for the remainder of their three-week exchange, which included lectures on civil liberties and contemporary American politics, workshops on civic action planning, and much more. While Dorj was looking forward to all the activities to follow in the coming weeks, he said he already had gained so much from the international exchange — and his team had already begun sharing ideas for their civic action project tackling poverty and unemployment. “We’re inspired by what we are learning here.”