By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project
It started with a simple idea.
What if there was an open space on campus for anyone could “talk democracy?” What if this space was available for student groups, professors, staff and others to reserve and use as fodder for deep and sometimes difficult discussions about our society? And, what if faculty members could use this space to inspire students to get engaged and be informed? The faculty, staff, and students at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis sought to make this idea a reality with Democracy Plaza.
Created by a group of students, faculty members and staff in the summer of 2004, the Democracy Plaza at IUPUI provides the campus community with an “an opportunity to express, speak, and hear diverging thoughts surrounding social, political, economic, and religious issues relevant to the campus, city, state, country, and world.” For the last six years, the Democracy Plaza has been available for the students, faculty members, and staff of IUPUI to voice their opinions about contentious issues such as gun rights, gay marriage, and abortion. The Democracy Plaza is a collection of chalk boards located centrally on campus. People are encouraged to contribute questions, answers, opinions and thoughts on these walls. As stated on its website, “the mission of DP is to support the development of well-informed and engaged students through critical thinking and civil discourse on political ideas and issues.”
We believe that the Democracy Plaza is a signature practice of civic engagement for the following reasons. It is non-hierarchical – anyone can engage in a conversation on these boards. It encourages the campus to engage in democratic discussions. And finally, it strives to raise student awareness of and engagement with important issues facing our society. Since its creation, the Democracy Plaza has received media attention for its success in bringing people to have an ongoing discussion, and has inspired other campuses to adopt the Democracy Plaza model.
At the American Democracy Project (ADP) National Meeting in Providence, RI, we invited the facilitators of the Democracy Plaza at IUPUI to collaborate with us on creating a Democracy Plaza for the meeting. We provided large boards and markers for people to use to discuss the Obama administration, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the contentious labor dispute at the hotel, among other issues.
The results were stunning.
Conference attendees contributed their thoughts and reactions to a series of questions we posed on the walls. The questions were created by the student leaders of the Democracy Plaza at IUPUI, and were thought provoking and at times controversial. During each break between workshop sessions, people milled around and engaged in spontaneous conversations with one another while contributing to the wall. In addition to the wonderful depth the Democracy Plaza brought to the normally unscheduled time at the conference, many of the conference attendees were inspired to create their own Democracy Plazas.
Fort Hays State University is experimenting with its own version of Democracy Plaza, named “Tiger Talkback.” Each Monday, a new question is posted on the board and the campus community has until Thursday to contribute their reactions to the question. Tiger Talkback also has an online dimension called “Wiffiti,” which allows commuter students to take part in the discussion.
The Democracy Plaza is Contagious
Other ADP schools are adopting the Democracy Plaza model as well. Northeastern State University, Middle Tennessee State University, and Indiana University South Bend included Democracy Plazas in their Constitution Day programming.
A Virtual Space for Democracy
As part of our eCitizenship initiative, IUPUI is now developing an eDemocracy Plaza that will be online. It will be a virtual companion to the physical Democracy Plaza. The University of Wisconsin-Stout also plans to experiment with a virtual Democracy Plaza.
To read more about the Democracy Plaza model, please visit this website and watch the brief video below.
Are you considering creating your own Democracy Plaza? Please contact Anne H. Weiss, President of IUPUI’s Democracy Plaza, for more information.