Preparing Youth for Democracy (edited)
By Gary Storm
My wife, Jamie, and I were recently invited to participate in an international conference sponsored by “Initiatives of Change” (IOC) in Panchgani, India. The conference was called “Making Democracy Real–A Dialogue”, and it included many young adults from Egypt, Syria, South Sudan and other countries struggling to establish new democratic regimes. It also included many of us who are struggling to make old democratic regimes more real—or effective!
IOC is “an international network open to people of all cultures, nationalities, religions and beliefs who work towards change, locally and globally, by starting with change in their own lives” (see www.iofc.org). As a formal corporate entity, IOC has consultative status in the Social and Economic Council of the European Union and in the United Nations. This means that the deliberations and policy recommendations that come out of conferences and other programs it supports impact international decision making and action.
As an aside, I might mention that UIUC’s Rajmohan Gandhi, a Research Professor of History in the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES), and his wife, Usha, have played instrumental roles in IOC for many years and in establishing the Asian Plateau facility in Panchgani where the conference took place. They were also instrumental in organizing this year’s conference.
While Jamie served on a panel in which she described the goals and activities of the “Urbana-Champaign Peace Initiative” (UCPI) and discussed how civil society organizations must relate to governmental entities to be effective (sometimes as partners and other times as constructive critics), I was free to participate in a variety forums where I could contribute insights and recommendations derived from my education and experience as a “civic educator”.
One of these forums was an open microphone session called “Freedom Square” held on two consecutive afternoons over tea/coffee and pastries. Participants could either speak spontaneously or from a prepared text. Impressed with first session, I prepared comments for the next day which ended up being submitted to an on-line site available to conference participants.
Because I think these comments are as applicable today in this county as they are for countries struggling to establish new democracies, I have decided to submit them here for “Public i” readers. I hope they stimulate parents, teachers and other adults active with community organizations to involve youth in civic research, organization and action.
(Preparing Youth for Democracy—Comments for “Freedom Square”)
“For me, it is useful to think of democracy, very simply, as a process for making decisions in which all of those affected by a decision have an opportunity to participate in making it. When so defined, democracy is a process than can and should be applied in many spheres of social life: in the family, the school, the workplace, voluntary organizations and, yes, government at all levels, local through global.
As a civic educator, I have long felt the need for adults to consciously work to create opportunities for youth to participate, democratically, in decisions that affect their lives. I think that parents and teachers, for example, should be constantly looking for ways to include youth in such decisions at home and in school. In school, students should be given an opportunity to form clubs and organizations which they run themselves (by establishing mission and goal statements, leadership roles and positions, committee structures, and decision making rules and procedures). Students should also be encouraged to form their own newspapers or other communication outlets (e.g., blogs) and to use them to communicate carefully formulated positions on issues at school and beyond. They should also be encouraged to form Student Councils and to request (if not demand) a voice in school affairs, perhaps even formal representation on local school boards.
Looking beyond the family and school to the community, I think that adults participating on boards of voluntary organizations (e.g., non-profit organizations) should seriously consider creating positions for youth on their boards and/or working committees. Similarly, city government leaders should consider creating slots for adolescent youth on municipal committees or other bodies designed to provide input into city decision making. City leaders might even consider working with teachers to involve students in community research projects and invite students to develop proposed solutions to community problems as a part of their social studies classes. Students could then propose their solutions at City Council meetings and perhaps see some of their recommendations be put into action.
If adults worked to create (and to some degree supervise and advise) youth experiences in all of the above areas, young people would gain not just useful civic knowledge and skills, but an appreciation for the importance of democracy in their lives. With this foundation of experience, youth may begin demanding a democratic voice in other spheres of their lives as adults, in the workplace, for example, or in the market as consumers. Most importantly, they would begin demanding a more active democratic voice in government at all levels.
Here at the Asian Plateau we have been talking a lot about democracy in the context of governments. I think we could benefit by thinking about how democracy can and perhaps should play a larger role in these other spheres of social life, and how we can prepare youth to demand greater democracy in them.”
(Gary is a retired Professor/Dean of Education and Human Services at the University of Illinois at Springfield who now lives in Urbana. He is active with the Urbana-Champaign Peace Initiative and was recently elected President of the Independent Media Center Board of Directors)