Five Reasons to Support Democracy Festivals

This post was published on January 11 here in Democracy Chronicles.  It is part of a Learning Life series helping to envision what a metro regional democracy learning community could look like.  For the full list of articles, visit Learning Life’s DMV Democracy Learning Community page

In this perilous period for many democracies worldwide, different organizations are taking different approaches to strengthening democracy.  Some organizations are rightfully focused on changing government, from campaign finance reform, to state transparency and access, to election protection.  Others focus on citizens, including how to reduce polarization and get Americans to talk with each other across lines of difference in productive, civil ways.  Learning Life focuses on citizens not just to facilitate civil dialogue, but wider cultural and lifestyle changes.  In particular, we are developing ways to make democracy more fun and social, rather than boring and fractious, which is how too many Americans currently see democracy.  Accordingly, here are five reasons why American governments (from local school boards to federal agencies), interested businesses and civil society organizations need to work together to support and organize more democracy festivals.

1. Festivals Can Make Democracy More Fun

In the mid to late 1800s, American democracy was often highly participatory and fun, involving parades, rallies, music, public speeches and debates, culminating in elections with some of the highest voter turnout in U.S. history.  Democracy then was also conflictual, corrupt and exclusionary (e.g., women and people of color were often or always barred from participating), so progressive reformers gradually remade American politics into what it is now: relatively orderly, peaceful, inclusive, yet also less fun.  Can Americans make democracy fun again, without spurring conflict, corruption and exclusion?  We at Learning Life think so, and democracy festivals can become a commonplace vehicle for making democracy fun again.  We’re not alone in thinking so either; democracy festivals are spreading in Europe.

2. Festivals Can Widen Citizen Participation

Polarization may be a current focus of concern about democracy in the United States, but it has ebbed and flowed in intensity in American history.  In contrast, another serious problem, unequal participation in politics — from reading, watching and discussing news, to voting and campaigning, to serving on school boards and city commissions up to federal office — is so perennial it is too often taken for granted, overlooked rather than tackled, despite its adverse impact on democracy.  Namely, low participation among young people and those with less education and income means politics tends to skew in favor of others who participate more, namely older, more educated and wealthy citizens.  That is not inevitable, but it is longstanding. 

When done right, festivals can consciously engage precisely those less likely t0 participate.  To do so entails leaning into the festival concept: there can certainly be talk-centric, conference-like speeches, panel discussions and debates for adults who want that, but there should also be democracy-related arts performances, games, interactive displays, and fun, hands-on workshops that appeal to diverse youth and families. 

3. Festivals Can Bring Diverse People Together     

Like all human beings, Americans tend to socially self-segregate into like-minded groups. This reduces our exposure to difference, despite the need in modern nations for citizens to be able to understand, interact and/or collaborate with diverse people at work, on the street, online, in community groups, and in government. 

Precisely because festivals are fun, they can bring together people from diverse walks of life.  However, whether those diverse people interact or stay in their small circles of friends and family depends on whether the festival activities call on participants to interact meaningfully with each other.  Civic games, speed networking, citizen assemblies, small group dialogues, markets, and other activities, when carefully curated, can foster that needed interaction in civil, impactful ways, and even build enduring relationships across lines of difference. 

4. Festivals Can Foster Cooperation     

Cooperation is critically important for democracy.  All levels of government tend to work better when they cooperate with businesses and/or civil society organizations to meet public needs, and address public problems, from truancy and poverty, to disease and climate change.  Likewise, civil society groups that collaborate rather than work alone can learn more and do more to address any number of needs or problems.  Further, within what can be called the democracy sector, greater interaction and cooperation between local, state and federal, or domestic and international democracy organizations can advance their respective aims. 

Festivals can foster that cooperation especially when organizers invite different stakeholders to take part, or collaborate in putting on festival activities.  Schools, nonprofits and city, county and/or state governments can cooperate to engage high school students in festival citizen assemblies through which youth learn about and help inform local policy-making on issues from school dropout or bullying to housing, employment, community service, or environmental protection.  Artists, teachers and students can work together to put on democracy theater and dance performances, or painting and photography exhibits.  Domestic and international democracy organizations can co-organize discussions or workshops on local-to-global democracy problems and solutions.  Whether held every six months, year or two years, festivals can thus develop democracy by starting, strengthening, or sustaining varied collaborations.      

5. Festivals Can Help Democracy-Related Businesses Make Money

Business can be, and frequently is a corrupting or skewing influence on democracy, especially in the United States, where monied interests are generally allowed freer rein to tilt elections and shape policymaking in their favor.  However, as this Learning Life article indicates, business can also be a force for democracy in various ways.  Festivals can also help public-facing, democracy-related companies — sellers of civic games, election apps, political and history books and memorabilia, etc., as well as cooperatively-run businesses — gain public attention and support by providing a marketplace where festival goers can, in one place, learn about, form relationships with, and purchase the goods and services of varied democracy sector businesses.  In so doing, festivals can support local economies and businesses that fuel democracy.   

For all these reasons, we at Learning Life believe festivals should play an important role in building engaging regional Democracy Learning Communities (DLCs).

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life

You’re Invited: Family Diplomacy Sweets & Stories

On Sunday, January 14, 2024, 2-5pm EST, Learning Life is holding a special in-person event in Arlington, VA, to celebrate this year’s cohort of international family diplomat trainees, and our most improved family storytellers.  Join us to mingle, enjoy an assortment of international desserts, meet and talk with some of our family diplomats from different countries live via Zoom, and to learn more about and support Learning Life’s Family Diplomacy InitiativeRSVP here.  


Spotlight: Fall 2023 Learning Life Interns

Learning Life’s interns do vital work responsible for the energy and growth of our organization.  This fall, their work included outreach to thousands of people on Facebook and Linkedin to help grow the Family Diplomacy Initiative (FDI) worldwide, and our Democracy Learning Community (DLC) in the Washington DC capital region; assisting with in-person Democracy Dinners; supporting family diplomat trainees worldwide with the development of their family stories; research and writing to develop our DLC vision and action plan; research and outreach to develop Citizen Diplomacy International; and more.  Learning Life is very grateful for their dedicated work.  You can learn a little about each of them below.

Racquel Garcia

Year, major, and school: I am in my Senior year at the University of California, Merced graduating in May 2024 with my bachelor’s degree in political science. 

Hobbies: I love to sit down and ease my mind with some crochet projects while listening to podcasts or books, especially about current events in the news, history, politics, and fiction as well. 

Career aspirations: I am currently interested in studying to become a lawyer. I am interested in going to law school for either immigration law or labor law. 

Why Learning Life? Learning Life allows me to work on the Family Diplomacy Initiative where we work with people on an international level to help them develop, and grow their relationships with family and community via storytelling. 

Kayla Hoang
Year, major, and school: I am a third-year student double-majoring in English and History at the University of California, Irvine!
Hobbies: In my free time, I try to learn as many creative skills as possible, so I enjoy drawing and painting, crocheting, and I’ve started trying to teach myself some new instruments. Recently, I developed a newfound love for traveling and exploring new places and am working on incorporating those passions on a budget!
Career aspirations: I am really interested in advocating for educational access and equity, so I’m drawn to work in correctional education for a while and eventually to educational leadership or administration to push forward these goals in the long-term. More recently, I’ve been considering  international and/or government work to advance educational equity through policy.
Why Learning Life?  What drew me to Learning Life was the idea of spreading learning outside of the traditional academic setting, and being able to connect with people and professionals around the world. I wanted more experience in nonprofit work and to know more about how nonprofit organizations work behind-the-scenes. Working with Learning Life allowed me to develop my perspective about what it means to lead a nonprofit, but also the steps needed to make connections and interact with a wide range of people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures!

Alaina Leasure

Year, major, and school: I’m a sophomore majoring in law and policy with a minor in political science. I go to Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

Hobbies: Almost every day, I make sure to go on a walk, then recharge with a cup of coffee and a good book. I like going to arts and crafts workshops, and recently started taking piano lessons.

Career aspirations: After I graduate from Dickinson, I plan to go to Penn State Dickinson Law School. I’m thinking of going into business law, but currently exploring other possibilities as well.

Why Learning Life?  I chose Learning Life to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen diplomat. I believe that spreading the values of democracy and diplomacy is essential, as it will help to bridge the divides that exist between communities across the world.  The research and outreach I’ve conducted with Learning Life has given me valuable insight as to how a non-profit organization functions.

Mahum Shah

Year, major, and school: I am a public administration major with a concentration in non-profit management.  I am a senior at George Mason University and I will be graduating this May!

Hobbies: I love to go to the gym, paint, travel and journal.  I am also very family-oriented, so I love to spend time with my siblings and cousins in my free time.

Career Aspirations: I hope to work in the nonprofit sector with organizations such as UNICEF, in education, health, and human rights. I hope to be able to better the world both locally and globally.  I eventually want to start my own nonprofit and work in project management/public budgeting for government agencies or nonprofits.  

Why Learning Life?  I was interested in working with Learning Life to gain insight into the functions of a non-profit organization while tapping into my passion for helping others around the world. Learning Life helped me strengthen my passion for diplomacy, family, and education and I learned the importance of storytelling.  I got to work closely with many incredible individuals from all over the world via the Family Diplomacy Initiative and made many connections. I learned about so many different people’s lives and what they have gone through.  Being able to help them in any way I could was rewarding.  I am truly grateful for this opportunity.

Jiayi Wang

Year, major, and school: I am a junior at George Washington University in DC. I am majoring in International affairs and minoring in French, with a concentration in Asia studies and international development.

Hobbies: I love painting, dancing, skiing, and tennis. I do outdoor sketching regularly every month. And every winter, I go skiing with my friends or family.

Career aspirations:  Upon graduation, I am driven to pursue advanced studies, aiming for either a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree in International Relations. This academic path will allow me to delve deeper into specific areas such as diplomatic studies, conflict resolution, or global governance. I am particularly interested in contributing to academic research that informs diplomatic strategies and international policy. Simultaneously, I am eager to gain practical experience through internships that align with my academic focus. I aspire to secure internships within diplomatic missions, international organizations, or research institutions, where I can apply theoretical knowledge and my linguistic advantages to real-world challenges. These experiences will not only enhance my skills but also provide valuable insights into the operational aspects of international affairs.

Why Learning Life?  A fall internship at Learning Life presents an ideal opportunity for me to merge my passion for international affairs with a commitment to innovative education and citizen engagement. I am eager to contribute to projects that extend learning beyond traditional boundaries and resonate with my aspiration to foster global citizenship. The organization’s mission, coupled with its Washington, DC location, aligns perfectly with my academic focus and career goals, providing a unique platform to apply my skills and make a meaningful impact.

Maggie Yang

Year, major, and school: I’m a freshman majoring in Regional Studies in Asia at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Hobbies: In my free time, I love to read new novels, listen to political podcasts, and cook food with my sister. I like to spend time with friends and family whenever I get the chance. My favorite show of all time is Sherlock, the BBC version.
Career aspirations: For now, I’m hoping to finish a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown and eventually pursue a Master’s degree in international affairs. I hope to gain further experience working with both diplomacy-based think tanks and various government agencies, such as the Department of State.
Why Learning Life? Learning Life’s commitment to citizen diplomacy and ability to bring together people of different backgrounds and perspectives captivated my attention. I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet people from across the world, as well as conduct outreach with industry professionals across the country. Encouraging civic engagement through the understanding of democracy and diplomacy is more important than ever in a politically polarized world.

Stakeholder Spotlight: Gustavo Carvajal Villalobos

The “Stakeholder Spotlight” is an occasional series of posts highlighting people who are helping to advance Learning Life’s work.  Our latest post in this series features Gustavo Carvajal Villalobos, who has served with Learning as both an intern then as a family diplomat trainee.  For ways you can become a Learning Life stakeholder, click here

What is your current occupation?

I am a Program Manager for the School of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts.

Please tell us more about you and your family.

I come from the beautiful land of Costa Rica. I love life and do my best to support those around me in reaching their goals. I am the youngest of three siblings and a proud uncle to four kids who remind me daily how important it is to work for the youth. I enjoy traveling, meeting new people, and outdoor activities. I consider myself friendly, charismatic, and respectful of everyone’s backgrounds and diversity. For the past few years, I have been working with young adults, doing my best to address different issues in constructive and sustainable ways.

Why did you get involved with Learning Life?

I decided to be part of Learning Life’s team because I’m passionate about global issues. Working with refugees in Africa, I had the opportunity to observe how violence has destroyed families in many African countries, so I became sensitive to this situation. Learning Life provided me with a platform to discuss, analyze, and increase my network with like-minded humanitarians. Family and friends supported my efforts to push Learning Life forward, to whom I’m deeply thankful.