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Democracy Can Make You Cry

By Jocelyn Payne, Northeastern State University

The voices of democracy can seem shrill and strident. From pundits to political candidates, experts to officeholders, regardless of our blueness or redness, too often we hear unflattering views of our political worldview. Nonetheless, Northeastern State University offered our students an opportunity to express ideas about democracy during Constitution Week on the Broken Arrow campus.

Democracy Walls were butcher-paper covered tables placed in each building around campus that allowed people to express their ideas about democracy. Multi-colored crayons were scattered on each table, next to signs which included a brief explanation of the project, and the question to be answered: What is Democracy? Our sole restriction also was displayed: Free speech is respectful speech – No profanity please. We also placed voter registration forms on each table, along with flyers about a university-wide creative expression contest also focused on the democracy question  Members of our team checked the tables periodically each day, and replaced the butcher-paper if we discovered profanity or if one of the walls was covered with comments.

Late in the evening of the first full day the walls were in place, I was pleased to find intellectual and heartfelt comments sans profanity. My heart was nearly full when I entered the last building and saw the most expressive table of all. Some comments I saw were:

  • “I can write anything on this table and it matters what I say.”
  • “The freedom to be a Republican social worker.”
  • “Democracy is my voice being heard. My thoughts validated. An opportunity to change the status quo.”

As I read the comments – rich and textured, rigid and flexible, earnest and silly, focused and diffuse, defining and questioning, serious and funny – all the blue and red together, the memory of shrill and strident voices faded. There I was, crying at the Democracy Wall with the varied wisdom and diverse thinking of our students echoing softly in my mind. I felt truly privileged to know those are the voices of scholars who surround me every day.

Our Constitution Week included dozens of comments, multiple paper changes, limited violations of the guideline and positive assessment by all involved. Our team is ready to embark on our next adventure: A campus-wide POV documentary screening through which we hope to bring all the voices into dialogue.

To read more about this project, please visit this website.


Have you created a Democracy Plaza or Democracy Wall on your campus? If so, how did the students respond? What was the discussion like?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a vivid reminder that emotions can just as easily be provoked by authentic expressions of true American democracy reflecting a multiplicity of hopes as anger is so often triggered by brutal divisiveness. Your Northeastern scholars echo thoughts in my essay “Who Can Take Back Our Country: Us.”

    With it, I look at the intent the preamble to the Constitution call us to. Here is a snippet:

    Mission “We,” not Me

    In other words, our Constitution didn’t intend its interpretations to be expressed by or for any one “Me.” It intended for “We the People” to access and interpret our individual freedoms together and co-constructively. Or, as Atwoods’ essay explains, a shared sense of decidedly American”destiny and mission.”

    Thus, only by participating in solving our problems with each other and our government can we take back our country. This requires that we respect how our own and diverse others’ contributions are critical. If we can, we’ll realize our power to attain our inalienable rights rely on focusing on a lot more “We” and much less “Me.”

    Freedom, we as American should know better than most has never been achieved when individuals are isolated by institutional or interpersonal means or who isolate themselves from collective process.

    US is us

    Our country tis of thee–translation: that would be us–can only be taken back when we all, from the marginalized to the powerful, see it as just what it is: Us, We, United.

    To read the rest of the essay,see:

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom

    Founder, Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue


    October 25, 2010
  2. Andrea,

    I appreciate your comment and your call for community-based problem solving. It reminds me of two recent blog posts by Harry Boyte.

    This one: and this one:

    Returning to the text of the Preamble is a wonderful way to remember just how citizen-centered our government was at its foundation, and how we need to return to citizen-centered politics.

    Thank you.


    October 26, 2010
    • Celilia —

      Harry Boyte’s work and writing provides inspiration and important re-focus on the civic intent our country was founded on.

      A wonderful coincidence is that I was at Augsburg College today, where Harry’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship is located. Somehow I got chatting with a janitor who immigrated here from Somalia years ago. This man spoke with deep passion about the importance of “We the People” (he specifically cited the Preamble) engaging in our responsibility as citizens to co-produce the solutions we expect our government to support.

      I’m was quite struck our encounter–it started quite serendipitously when I made a casual comment to him about needing to clean my home. Perhaps he had heard Harry speak at the college. But my impression was this wasn’t fresh thinking on the janitors part. In fact, it seemed to me that it has long been a belief that he has held.

      Which leads me to wonder what if we heard our own voices and emotions as loudly as we hear those of political pundits and media? More to the point — how can we all express them — including with and to others we’d never imagine be in conversation with — in ways constructive to our culture, and thus, ourselves?



      October 29, 2010

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