The Democracy Project
Americans are discovering that discourse can be a persuasive tool and source of strategic power. There clearly is a national movement toward greater citizen engagement in the resolution of critical social problems, including those related to race, educational reform, environmental protection, community growth, and, more recently, homeland security in the post 9/11 era. A deliberative democracy engages citizens, encourages participation and collective action, and leads to meaningful, sustainable change. The application of deliberative democracy in higher education has occurred simultaneously with the national movement to support democratic education, a movement that connects a number of educational goals: democracy building, globalization, civic education and engagement, diversity and intercultural learning, ethics, interdisciplinary studies, leadership programs, student activism, and others. As these conversations have begun to intersect, colleges and universities are turning to structured dialogue tools such as intergroup dialogue, study circles, national issues forums, and public conversations models. These tools have been incorporated in new classroom pedagogies (e.g., case method teaching, service learning, and other forms of interactive learning) as well as in decision making processes, thus creating a greater alignment between the values of liberal education and the experiences of students and faculty on campuses.
The Democracy Project began in 1999 as an exploratory initiative that examined models of deliberative democracy and higher education's capacity to engage those models. Working with pilot campuses and partner organizations that champion tested models— Study Circles Resource Center, National Issues Forums, Public Conversations Project, the Interaction Institute for Social Change, as well as SVHE's own "values audit" approach— we found that higher education can learn a lot from exemplars in public discourse and community action.
Statement of Purpose
We believe that campuses should be models of deliberative democracy, places of community where the espoused values are reflected in institution's educational programs and decision-making processes.
We challenge colleges and universities to create intentionally designed and ongoing opportunities for identifying, studying, deliberating, and acting on problems with social and ethical implications and to draw from the work of experienced community builders and practitioners in deliberative democracy.
We serve as a resource to colleges and universities interested in starting new or expanding existing programs to explore models of democratic dialogue and collective action in the classroom, in internal decision making processes, and in partnership with communities.
Nancy L. Thomas, JD, EdD
Director, The Democracy Imperative
Senior Associate, Everyday Democracy (formerly Study Circles Resource Center)