African leaders learn about civic engagement during visit to Bloomington City Hall

Mandela Washington Fellows at City Hall

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton, center, helped to welcome 25 young leaders from 18 Sub-Saharan countries who are visiting Indiana University through the U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program.

As a Bloomington City Council member, Isabel Piedmont-Smith is accustomed to meeting with constituents. While the farmer’s market was abuzz with activity Saturday, she spent time discussing concerns and issues facing those who reside in her district.

At times, Piedmont-Smith’s presentation in City Hall chambers on Monday — to 25 participants in the U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program — had the same vibe as the meeting she had just two days earlier.

They peppered her with questions about taxes and zoning and asked what the city was doing about the homeless and the environment.

Jose-Landry Guehi, a social activist who leads the Network of Associations for Voluntary Service in Cote d’Ivoire, wanted to know whether people are allowed to operate businesses out of their homes and learned about Bloomington zoning laws.

Zemdena Abebe, a writer and activist from Ethiopia, inquired whether real estate gentrification is much of an issue in Bloomington. In her response, Piedmont-Smith shared concerns about the impact that a new park being developed could have on affordable housing in that area.

Bloomington City Council member Isabel Piedmont-Smith, center, discussed how the community is managed.

Bloomington City Council member Isabel Piedmont-Smith, center, discussed how the community is managed.

The 14 women and 11 men from Sub-Saharan Africa are spending six weeks at IU Bloomington and IUPUI to study America’s model of civic leadership.

Half a world away, but similar issues

An ocean may divide the United States from the African continent and the 18 nations where the Mandela Washington Fellows are from, but people face common issues no matter where they live.

And Bloomington city officials readily acknowledged that they also encounter major challenges in finding solutions.

“I loved the questions,” said Bloomington City Clerk Nicole Bolden, who joined Piedmont-Smith at the presentation and gave the fellows a tour of city hall. “It’s hard, because we’re all trying to figure out the answers.”

Piedmont-Smith and Bolden gave an hour-and-a-half presentation about what it takes to manage and govern a city with a $72.3 million budget and 690 employees in 13 departments. She explained the role that the city’s 11 elected representatives play.

During their visit, the Mandela Washington Fellows toured the rest of City Hall, a renovated historic building that previously housed the world’s largest furniture factory. They met Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton, who was first elected to the post in the fall after a career working for Hoosiers in both the state and nation’s capitals.

They also are gaining perspectives from faculty in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, including former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, who serves as a professor of practice at IU. On Thursday, they will discuss American legal thought with faculty in the Maurer School of Law’s Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Last week, they visited the Bloomington campus of Ivy Tech Community College to learn about workforce development.

A different perspective

The Mandela Washington Fellows are seeing what works and also some of our society’s greatest challenges to finding solutions. The students are here to study the U.S. model, but they also are seeing that it is imperfect, including when it comes to social issues.

For example, several Mandela Washington Fellows inquired how city government tackles social service issues, including hunger and suitable housing. One student asked whether the city provided meals to those less fortunate.

Sandrine Mengue M’Efoue, a Mandela Washington Fellow from Gabon, listened intently to the response to her question.

Sandrine Mengue M’Efoue, a Mandela Washington Fellow from Gabon, listened intently to the response to her question.

As part of her response, Bolden acknowledged the limitations that Bloomington has in addressing social issues. “I’m afraid it is bigger than the city,” she said.

In many of the African countries, nongovernment organizations play a large role in addressing social issues, and most of the fellows are involved with them.

“We come from 18 countries, and we all have different ways that we deal with issues,” said Juliana Owolabi, a public school teacher from Nigeria. “We listen to them and we try to compare what we have with our countries with what they have here … They learn from us and we learn from them.

“Bloomington is a beautiful city with beautiful people, who are always eager to help. They’re just wonderful,” she added.

For her sake, Bolden said the questions she received from the Mandela Washington Fellows made her think about the city in a new way.

“The questions are informative,” she said. “One woman said, ‘We approach issues from a holistic approach. We don’t just look at a child falling asleep at school, we look and see if there’s a problem with somebody not working or if there’s a problem at home. We look at the whole child and the whole family.’

“We don’t do that here, but to think about it in those terms is wonderful. How can we do that here?”

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