Diane Kalen-Sukra is the founder of Kalen Academy, an interactive online school for civic leaders and engaged citizens, which she launched after retiring as a city manager. She is also an acclaimed author, speaker and coach. Diane’s most popular book “Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It” takes readers on a successful journey from Bullyville to Sustainaville, which includes a visit to classical antiquity, calling for a renaissance of civic values and civic education as vital to fostering the type of culture that can sustain us, our democracy and our planet.
How did you first become interested in philosophy?
In university, I switched out of commerce to pursue studies in political philosophy. While there is renewed interest today in business ethics and the social and environmental responsibilities of business leaders and corporations, it was not in vogue then. Political philosophy asked the right questions. Questions which great minds have turned their attention to for thousands of years, like: What is the best way to organize society so that it brings about human flourishing? How can we decide what is right, just and good? What frameworks exist to discern whether an action or decision is ethical? Why is there so
much inequality and injustice in the world?
This interest in and conviction regarding the importance of philosophy only deepened as I entered the world of work and politics. It was striking to me that in a modern democracy, it wasn’t just citizens that seemed to be suffering from collective amnesia about basic duties, rights and responsibilities of citizens. Political leaders and high-ranking public servants, too often, have inherited political institutions and processes for which there is, at best, a lack of appreciation for the fragility and preciousness of our democracy and gravity of our responsibilities.
In these times of polarization and anemic levels of empathy, the civic values-based philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, which also champions shared dialogue are an excellent prescription for arriving at shared understanding and social unity, cornerstones of healthy community building.
The good news is that a renaissance of philosophy in civic leadership and in the public square is already underway in our cities and in City Halls. You can get an encouraging glimpse of it in my piece, The Rise of the Philosopher-CAO, published by Public Sector Digest.
What’s the most important concept that you teach people?
Love is the greatest civic virtue.
Kalen Academy courses are centered on this idea. Registration is open for the next upcoming course starting in April 2022: “Fostering Compassionate City Culture: A Guide to Human Flourishing”. This course is being hosted by the global Charter for Compassion and is open to civic leaders and engaged citizens.
My book Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It charts a way forward to the love-based cultures of compassion that lead to human flourishing. The citizen’s edition has a green cover.
Are you a city leader? There is an exclusive edition of this book, Save Your City, published by Municipal World that includes a workbook for Councils, Boards and city staff to work through, available here. This edition has the blue cover.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
Champion civic education that cultivates the heart and mind.
So much of the toxicity we experience in the public square and our lives today, begins in the heart.
What we call toxicity can be defined as unjust behaviours towards our neighbours and citizens. The great Athenian lawmaker Solon reminds us that an injustice to one, is an injustice to all. Injustice tears at the social fabric.
The ideal society is a just society.
Like every system before it and every system after it, without justice, democracy will fail. Without active, engaged and informed citizens, it will fail. Without a good spirit, as Aristotle calls it, that seeks the well-being of all, democracy will fail.
As much as we like to say, every vote counts, a much richer understanding of what creates and maintains thriving democracies is every heart counts.
Plato would have agreed with this. He believed “the city is what it is, because the people are what they are”. It was the citizens of Athens, after all, that executed his mentor Socrates. Civic academies should help make us better people.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
I love this cautionary quote from the introduction to Aristotle’s Politics:
The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life had been, and could be, different from what it is. Such men bear tyranny easily; for they have nothing with which to compare it.Aristotle
Considering these consequences, the study of philosophy and history are imperatives, not luxuries.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
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Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I would be deeply honoured to host a discussion of modern philosophers and governance experts at Plato’s Academy on the new forms of city governance that are emerging around the world, from administrative centres in master-planned communities by developers like Disney, to control and command centres in some Smart Cities. Isn’t that what Plato would do if he saw all these new forms of city government emerging? Which modern city governance structure can best lead to human flourishing and why?