Like the ancient Athenians during the golden age of early democracy, Harris Sokoloff, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, places great faith in the power of dialogue and collective decision-making.
"When people get together and you provide them with the opportunity to talk through something in a structured way, the result that emerges is often wiser and richer than the voice of any one of those people separately," said Sokoloff, a 58-year-old resident of Narberth, whose work involves applying the principles of both philosophy and education to the realm of civic discourse.
Sokoloff is one of the driving forces behind "Great Expectations: Citizen Voices on Philadelphia's Future," a joint project of The Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial board and Penn's Project on Civic Engagement, which he directs. The initiative calls for a 12-step process, which will include a series of forums for citizens, civic leaders and policy experts, to imagine what they hope Philadelphia will look like in the year 2015. The end result will be the publication of a "Citizens Agenda," to be handed to the new mayor and City Council members as they get ready to take up their positions.
Sokoloff — who helped design the process and train the moderators — added that it's no accident the overall project is based on the notion of 12 steps.
"A 12-step program could actually help Philadelphia with its addiction to negativity, with pay-to-play politics" and with a perceived inferiority complex in relation to other major cities, he said.
He argued that in a healthy democracy, public debate is supposed to take the shape of a triangular model, with policy experts, politicians and citizens all having an equal say.
"What's happened is that the citizen-voice component has gotten very small, almost non-existent, so that politicians rarely listen to citizens. They listen to experts, to special interests, but not necessarily to citizens," said Sokoloff, a native of Oxford Circle who has spent most of his life in the region.
(He earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree from Temple University, but did leave for a doctorate at Syracuse University).
"One of my goals is to change the nature of the political discourse in this city," he declared. "We can help it become more issue-focused, less personality-focused."
Through the university's Project on Civic Engagement, as well as its design school, Sokoloff has also organized a series of public forums regarding development along the Delaware River waterfront, an issue that made news headlines in December when the state Gaming and Control Board approved two casino projects on the river.
Sokoloff lamented that residents did not have more clout in the outcome: "I have not yet seen a real thoughtful response to the concerns citizens have raised" — concerns that include casino proximity to surrounding neighborhoods and their potential effect on traffic — "and that bothers me."
The married father of two grown sons is a longtime member of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, and a regular at services.
Does Sokoloff find any inspiration in Judaism for his faith in civic discourse? Let's remember, when leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses didn't exactly stop and ask for other people's opinions.
"Judaism has always struck me as a religion where differences of ideas and differences of opinion are valued and used constructively," he responded. "Shammai and Hillel — two different views. And you don't say which one was right and which one was wrong; you value them both."