What we learned at the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference 2018

Of the three “communities of practice” that we’ve been trying to connect with this year, I’ve been least confident about how our ideas and work would fit in with the world of “democratic innovation.” It’s also the one that may be closest to my heart. There’s a reason that our first blog post bears the date stamp that it does, and that, though we’ve been talking and working and planning and iterating for YEARS, this year was the one where we put it all into high gear and really committed to making student-designed school a reality: a growing sense that our democracy might be not just in trouble but truly in crisis, and the gnawing reminder that the whole public purpose of education is supposed to be the safeguarding and enrichment of our democracy. We, as teachers, have always taken this as more than a rhetorical concept. Education for democracy is the primary job we undertake whenever we enter the classroom. This means respecting the individual and the community, ensuring voices are heard and power is distributed, protecting minority positions and celebrating difference as an essential asset of our lives. But, judging by the ends, by the feelings about and engagement with our democratic practices from the bad joke that was the most recent presidential election to the even-worse joke that is our local decision-making abilities, the means we’ve been undertaking are failing pretty miserably. If our democracy is approaching crisis, and we ask “why” enough times and with enough sincerity, we must eventually come to the realization: we are failing to educate for democracy. Community | Learning | Design is founded on the idea that there’s a possibility out there which would help turn this around: that democratic education is, above all, education for democracy, and that the surest route to a truly democratic learning is to design learning democratically. That commitment is what brought us to the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference. We proposed a workshop to share this vision, not at all sure how the folks at the Participatory Budgeting Project (who host this conference) would take to the concept. It was pretty joyous to receive positive feedback and an invitation to present. So we went to Phoenix, and we co-presented a panel, and attended a whole mess of amazing presentations and workshops. Here’s what we learned there:

  1. From Bitsy Bentley we learned that a compelling story can/should/must be visualized compellingly. Bitsy showed everyone gathered for her workshop on “Community Data Storytelling for Action” an incredible and short history of poster design to communicate critical data (this one was particularly compelling), then dove straight into the “what you need to know about creating data visualizations” gist. It was awesome. Think about a “data visualization landscape” on two axes (“numbers” ←→ “stories” and “beauty” ← → “info”) and consider rooting your design in quadrants that might include art, marketing, analysis, education. Consider story structure: why (problem) // what (solution) // how (path). Be thoughtful about data graphic construction; use color to focus the story point on mellow/mono background context data. It was fun and exciting to hear someone share the nuts and bolts of a specific technical and expressive field, but the question then became: ok but how is this participatory democratic work? Bitsy launched us into a hands-on activity of data analysis that made the answer crystal-clear: give folks some basic skills, and then stand back and allow them to use these new tools to work on issues impacting their lives. Brilliant. We will use these skills in two places: while engaging/organizint/recruiting in our communities, trying to build the best youth design cohort possible; and during Phase 3 of our design process as our team collects and analyzes stories in our communities (what a powerful tool for building deeper understandings of data, and also for presenting the stories we want to focus on to our authorizers). Powerful.
  2. From Rachel Mims (of the National Democratic Institute) we learned that a “theory of change” can be a crucial organizational grounding-tool, alongside a mission or vision. Theirs is especially intriguing to us: when youth agency is developed within an enabling environment, then youth-inclusive politics are practiced and sustained (my shorthand version — the real deal here). In the session Rachel co-facilitated, “From Evidence to Action: Using Research to Promote Youth Participation,” we also got to learn from Khaldun Obeid and Dejan Radjen who taught us that, when young people are provided with this agency and environment, amazing and inspiring work can evolve, which connects deeply to specific cultural and lived experiences. If participatory practices in the hands of youth can make positive impacts in Jordan and Bosnia, then they can do the same in Madison, Wisconsin. No doubts.
  3. From the Intergenerational Change Initiative and the Real Rite Researchers (a Participatory Action Research team from Red Hook Initiative) we learned that data collection and analysis can be taken out of the technocratic and often insular world of academia and be put into the hands of the folks most impacted by the subject of the research. In a session called “Emerging Practices & Experiences in Youth Participatory Action Research,” these two amazing groups of young people showed what happens when regular folks are equipped with the skills and knowledge to conduct research on their own issues, compile, code, and analyze that data, and propose solutions to problems rooted in this data. They had us participants do some data coding to see the skill first-hand, and shared their stories. Amazing stuff. We will use these concepts, again, in Phase 3 of our school design — as our design team goes out into our communities to collect stories to inform our design criteria checklist, they will actually be doing Participatory Action Research — we’ve just never called it that before! Time to remedy that situation. We also learned how powerful partnerships with researchers in academia can be — so long as any partners we choose to work with demonstrate the same commitment and care that the folks who supported the young researchers in this session did. Seriously needs to be considered.
  4. From our incredible co-presenters in “Reinventing Civics: Innovative approaches to student deliberation and civic education” we learned… well, so, so much, really. Being a part of this panel for sure marks a turning point in our work and our thinking. Nicole Zillmer started us off by presenting some of her incredible research, which points to a crucial understanding: dialogue, debate, and argument, when supported by meta-cognitive debriefing and reflection with teachers, increase student learning in all fields. This is instantaneously going into all of our pitch material — no longer do we have to say that we believe that deliberation in the classroom yields cognitive development, we can say research shows… Thanks, Nicole! Frank Pisi, a county-level director of social studies, came on next to help us understand that there is a stomach for this “big” civics work at the higher-up levels of the education world. Frank and his department are unbelievably committed to the engaged, active learning of citizenship skills and attributes that also motivate our own work — absolutely great to hear his perspective and see the methods he and his teachers are using. Last, we learned from Adam Cronkwright of Democracy in Practice all about the use of sortition-style random lotteries within the promising but typically vexing world of student government. Admittedly, I have a grudge against student councils and the like, because they tend to be such milquetoast versions of democracy despite their tremendous potential for engagement. Fortunately, Adam kicked it right off by showing us his organization’s strategy for getting rid of the “popularity contests” that tend to send the same groups of kids to student government time after time: the random lottery. Plus, as a bonus, it’s actually FUN — video proof demonstrated that clearly. A few major takeaways for us: it’s possible to do random lotteries for roles, positions, and responsibilities, while still maintaining a representative sample for important communities of difference (simply set up sub-lotteries for critical groups). Most interesting was Adam’s insistence that, no, we don’t need to model our democratic work in schools around the “way it is in the real world” — there’ll be plenty of time to learn about the disappointments of representative republican governance, and there’s no reason NOT to do the most authentic, participatory version of democratic governance within schools. Who knows, it may even turn out that doing things this way will prove that schools do dare build a new social order… The full slide deck of our session, and an audio recording for those interested, is below:

Click here for audio

The absolutely most essential thing we learned at the Innovations in Participatory Democracy conference is that this work has legs. Serious legs. There was such an amazing diversity of experiences, geographies, approaches, understandings, theories, practices, and ideas at this conference, but all were rooted in the same commitment that brought us there: all people are capable of participating meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives, and all moments of decision-making must be interrogated for their democratic possibilities, realities, and limits. For us, that’s “school design.” We were so roundly welcomed, supported, challenged, and encouraged at this gathering. We’ll have to do it again next year!

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