There is a scourge of disdain, distrust and disinterest people have for democracy right now. Motivated by a lot of different forces, this scourge is driven by politicians, media, and other engines of public pedagogy that teach, inform, lead, and compel people to hate the things we should care for the most for our collective good. Adam F.C. Fletcher of the Freechild Institute and J. Cynthia McDermott call this the Democracy Deficit Disorder. we’ve written a new book about it called Democracy Deficit Disorder: Learning Democracy with Young People, focused on how children and youth are fighting this disorder. The book comes out on May 31, 2023, from Peter Lang.
The Democratic Action Spiral is a tool explained in the book to envision ways to to challenge the Democracy Deficit Disorder, and we’re sharing a graphic of it here with details.
Schools, governments and organizations should acknowledge the array of democratic actions taken by anyone. We can validate the unexpected and vibrant ways young people are essential to democracy.
Based on early findings by Arnstein (1969) and a later elaboration by Hart (1994), the graphic above shows an array that can allow us to explore what democratic action looks like from the viewpoint of children and youth today.
First obvious through democratic participation, the process includes democratic voice, democratic engagement, democratic involvement, and finally, democratic infusion.
While these categories may appear to be similar to the point of overlapping, each actually has distinguishing features that demonstrates their value to any project seeking to cure the democracy deficit disorder. Different forms of these are summarized below.
Democratic participation is the smallest form of democracy action. Happening when young people show up in active ways throughout their own lives and in the larger communities around them, it offers the first reflections of empowerment, partnerships and equity in democratic action. While they are not necessarily substantiated with roles or encumbered with responsibilities, the mere attendance of young people is tantamount to acknowledging democracy exists and that they want to be part of it. This is true whether it happens in family settings, community organizations, K-12 schools, government activities, and beyond. While democratic participation is often the high bar for some adults’ visions for young people in democracy, it is actually just the starting point on empowering children and youth in democracy.
Democratic voice may be best understood as any conscious or unconscious expression of any young person anywhere at any time for any reason (Fletcher, 2007, 2014c). While it is constantly present, in the context of curing the democracy deficit disorder, voice is second on the spectrum of youth in democracy because it inherently means more than just showing up. Instead, it means sharing the wisdom, opinions, ideas, actions, and creations of children and youth. Not necessarily verbal, voice is not contingent on adult invitation, acceptance, rejection, or denial. Instead, it is constantly happening in countless ways throughout life. For young people who are highly impacted by developmental disabilities, democratic voice is present solely in their behavior; for other children and youth who get into fights or scream at adults in the community, their actions also constitute democratic voice. The young person who puts on a formal dress or suit and presents against curfews at city council, or the child who organizes a neighborhood protest closing a park are also sharing their voice. There is no qualification for what constitutes democratic voice because it is simply any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, at any time for any reason. Acknowledging the power, depth, and potential of voice is what places it on the spectrum of youth in democracy, because seeing the personal, social, and political potential of these expressions is inherently liberatory (Hipolito-Delgado et al., 2022).
Democratic involvement is any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance in personal, social, institutional, cultural, and other forms of structural action throughout society. Involvement is generally formal, often including specific positions, education, and outcomes. For more than fifty years this concept has been promoted as an avenue for organizational reform that makes space for young people, particularly in nonprofits, government agencies, and community groups that seek to serve children and youth effectively (Wikipedia, 2022h). Through democratic involvement, adults generally create specific opportunities for young people to impact the places serving them. This involvement might be situational or isolated from an entity’s entire operation, or may be seasonal or temporary because of the ages of the young people involved, or the altering roles of the adults who champion the activities to begin with (Fletcher & Vavrus, 2006).
When young people sustain their connection towards a particular thing, whether an idea, person, activity, place or outcome, it is called democratic engagement (Fletcher, 2014a). Simply said, children and youth are choosing the same thing over and over again. That sustained connection can be social, emotional, educational, spiritual, sentimental, or otherwise, so long as it is sustained. This notion can provide a powerful mechanism for democracy because it moves the presence of young people beyond force, manipulation, compliance and placation and towards personal choice. Acknowledging the roles of democratic engagement at home and throughout communities can be empowering because it positions young people as responsible for their choices, and allows them to make them deliberately rather than coincidentally.
The final category on the spectrum of youth in democracy is democratic infusion. This term, coined by Wendy Lesko in the 1990s (Lesko, 2001; Lesko, Dec 2001), refers to “the fundamental goal to integrate youth and young adults into all spheres of community life and to ensure that their voice and action are valued and utilized in efforts aimed at social or community change.” (Zeldin et al., 2000, p. 3). Of the countless decisions made about young people throughout society, few of them are made with them. The concept of democratic infusion seeks nothing less than the entire, holistic and complete acknowledgment, empowerment and belonging of young people throughout all of those decisions. This approach to participatory democracy may seem radical at the outset, however when examined beyond adultist lenses it might provide the most complete way to cure the democracy deficit disorder. Working together with adults as equitable partners, democratic infusion “achieves this vision by partnering with youth-serving organizations to create a participatory culture that fosters sustained youth-adult engagement and intergenerational change.” (Perkins et al., 2003).
These are just some of the ways people can challenge the Democracy Deficit Disorder right now. Do you have others to add? Please share them in the comments section below!
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