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Putting 'everyday democracy' into practice: Making visions a reality

Author: 
Adam Conkright and Rebecca Reyes
October 6, 2015

When people think of “democracy,” what comes to mind most often is voting. This is certainly an important part of it, but democracy is something we as citizens should be connected to every day.

As an organization, we work to make sure people have opportunities to participate in decision-making at all levels. We believe people should have a voice in what happens in their schools, in their communities, and in their government on a regular basis – not just on Election Day.

This summer to celebrate our Independence Day, we launched a campaign to get people talking about what democracy means to them. People from all over the country contributed their ideas, which ranged from “transparency” to “participation” to “sharing responsibility for the outcomes of government,” and more.

Not only did this campaign draw responses from people all over the U.S., it also caught the attention of Adam Conkright, co-founder of Democracy In Practice, a nonprofit organization based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, dedicated to democratic innovation, experimentation, and capacity building.

“What stood out to us,” Adam explains, “is that several people in the campaign expressed the idea that democracy can be done better, and that improving democracy is like a journey that continues with no real endpoint.” He says this theme really connected with them because that is what Democracy In Practice is all about. “We are trying to help strengthen this growing global movement to improve democracy, and we think the most important thing is for people to start experimenting with different approaches, not only in governments but also in schools, community associations, unions, nonprofits, worker cooperatives, and the like. We’re trying to get people to think outside the box and get creative.”

They’re hoping to inspire others in this way by setting an innovative example themselves. For the past couple years, Democracy In Practice has been working in schools in Bolivia helping students reinvent student government. Adam sees schools as a really great place for this type of experimentation because “the stakes are so low that students can completely redesign their government – each semester if they want to – in ways that would be too risky elsewhere.” He also points out that this kind of experimentation has the added benefit of encouraging students to be engaged and to think critically and creatively about improving their school community.

It’s in this innovative atmosphere that students have replaced elections with random lotteries, rotated meeting roles, and tested out both mandatory and voluntary participation. These and other changes have had an effect: the student government at one school has started the school’s first library, issued its first ID cards to halve student transportation costs, and exposed one teacher’s abuse of power. All the while, the Democracy In Practice team provides suggestions, support, and capacity building to go along with support from school staff. It’s a continual process of trying to make student government more inclusive, representative, and effective in a variety of contexts. A journey with no endpoint.

Bolivians celebrate their independence on August 6th, and inspired by our campaign Democracy In Practice asked these student governments what democracy meant to them. As Adam explained, the students added their own twist. “Just like in the US, people here in Bolivia come from a variety of different backgrounds and have very different views, but each student government decided to deliberate and agree upon a collective answer to the question.” Not surprisingly, the responses of both groups stressed unity.

Group of young students holding a sign that says "Democracy is participation, working together, and the community united."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group of high school students holding a sign that says, "Democracy means working as a team to defend the rights of everyone - unity is strength.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adam feels that the next step for Democracy In Practice in this journey is to look beyond schools to find a union or community organization that is open to experimenting in this manner. “People in your campaign said that democracy means ‘participation’,  ‘equality’, ‘transparency’, etc.,” he noted. “If we want government to actually embody those beautiful ideals then we’ve all got to roll up our sleeves and develop better ways to govern ourselves. We liked that your campaign encouraged people to think critically, and we appreciate that Everyday Democracy’s work takes an innovative approach to bringing communities together. Hopefully together we can get more people thinking creatively about what democracy means and what it’s going to take to make those visions a reality.”

We have a lot we can learn from each other, whether it’s from our neighbor next door or our friends in a different hemisphere. In fact, the only way we can continue to build a democracy that works for everyone is to continuously examine and improve our current systems, learn from the experiences of others as well as our own, and make sure everyone has a chance to participate.

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Check out the “What does democracy mean to you?” campaign.

Find out more about Democracy In Practice and their projects in Bolivia.

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