Toward a DC Democracy Festival
Address widespread civic ignorance and disengagement with an annual democracy festival in Washington DC that entertains, informs and engages youth and families.
Dance, flowers, marijuana, beer and wine all get festivals. If we want to make democracy more engaging for more people, rather than boring or divisive, why aren’t we investing in democracy festivals? If democracy is so important to Americans, why don’t we have democracy festivals every year in towns and cities across the country? If Washington DC is the capital of our country, and democracy is central to American freedom, why do we have an annual National Book Festival and a Folklife Festival on the National Mall, but we don’t have a Democracy Festival?
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 we make democracy fun again, without spurring conflict, corruption and exclusion? Learning Life, a DC-based educational nonprofit, believes we can, in part with democracy festivals, as part of a wider Democracy Learning Community. And we’re not alone: democracy festivals are spreading in Europe.
Shorter-term, the goals are to produce a youth and family-friendly DC Democracy Festival (DemFest) that:
- Makes democracy fun for all ages
- Is financially self-sustaining
- Widens participation in democracy
- Deepens civic learning
- Fosters creative collaboration, particularly between folks in the DMV arts, education, business, philanthropic, and democracy sectors
Longer-term, the goals are to:
- Expand the DC DemFest into an annual National Democracy Festival, supported by myriad local, state and national private-public partnerships, with fun, profitable, civically-engaging festivals in towns and cities across the USA, including on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
- Spread a democracy festival model abroad that can both generate revenue for local businesses and communities, and increase civic learning and engagement internationally.
Date & Location
DemFest will tentatively occur on a Saturday, all day, as early as September or October 2024, though this will depend on funding and the number of stakeholders ready to participate.
The first DemFest is likely to occur at a metro DC public, charter or private high school, preferably in Washington DC proper. High schools are good locations for a festival because they offer (a) an educational setting, including AV equipment, (b) many rooms and outdoor areas to accommodate a variety of festival events at the same time, and (c) ample space indoors in case of bad weather.
Learning Life will serve as lead organizer for the festival to recruit and coordinate the different stakeholders, who will, in turn, run their respective DemFest activities. Festival features or activities may include the following, with priority given to kid and family-friendly activities:
- One or more game rooms for kids of different ages, with varied games, digital or analog, stationary or active, to engage youth in learning about democracy.
- Roaming artists on the festival grounds, in historical costumes, enacting famous speeches or historical moments, and/or engaging attendees in learning about American democracy leaders, more to less known.
- Musical, dance, and other arts performances focused on democracy-related issues, with opportunities for meaningful audience participation.
- Vendors, including DMV cooperatively-run businesses, offering food, democracy products (maps, posters, cards, books, games, art, etc.), and opportunities to engage as a citizen at local to global levels.
- Multi-partisan and nonpartisan participatory discussions about new democracy books, research, big questions, and local to global policy issues, including elected officials who come to listen more than speak.
- Speed networking and informal gatherings to foster meeting, learning and collaboration on democracy issues.
- Opportunities for meaningful, moderated small group and/or one-on-one conversations across political divides.
- Interactive, group simulations for high school and college students to practice decision-making on issues at local to global levels, from gun violence to climate change.
- A film and documentary series focused on democracy issues.
- A pop-up, interactive democracy museum and/or art exhibit.
- A trained democracy troupe composed of eligible, motivated DC youth, who engage schools, classrooms, nonprofits, businesses, museum audiences, private parties, etc. in democracy games and/or performances for a fee, giving their audiences a taste of the DemFest, and extending its reach throughout the year.
Issues & Stakeholders
Democracy related issues/topics that may be addressed at DemFest include, but are not limited to: voting rights, voter mobilization, campaign finance reform, economic democracy, empowering the marginalized, government transparency and accountability, democratization, citizen diplomacy, civic education, civic journalism, dialogue and deliberation, criminal justice, human rights, civil liberties, etc.
Constituencies Learning Life is interested in engaging in DemFest include, but are not limited to:
- Relevant government agencies of DC and surrounding cities and towns, particularly municipal agencies concerned with recreation, arts and culture, education, youth, community affairs, and civic engagement.
- Democracy-focused professional organizations, whether these be focused on advocacy, policy, research, or else.
- Performing and visual artists interested and/or actively producing art (theater, dance, music, film, documentary, painting, digital art, etc.) related to democracy. For some issues/topics related to democracy,
- Teachers and students in DC area high schools and middle schools and universities who are focused or interested in the arts, history, government, social studies, and community studies.
- Community organizations, including student groups and teacher associations interested in the arts, democracy and government, social justice, human and civil rights, etc.
- Businesses related to democracy, like consumer and worker cooperatives, and businesses that sell democracy-related products or services.
- Foundations and other funders interested in community affairs and/or democracy-related issues.
How You Can Get Involved
- Fill out the DemFest Partner Survey if you are an individual or organization interested in being involved in the festival as an activity host, performer, vendor, sponsor, impact evaluator, or else.
- Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with (a) any DemFest questions, (b) recommendations of individuals or organizations we should reach out to about DemFest, and/or (c) if you would like to receive email invitations to DemFest-organizing-focused Democracy Dinners.
- Join our “Democracy Learning Community” Linkedin Group to keep updated on DemFest progress, to connect with others interested in protecting and advancing democracy, and to share your democracy calls-to-action, publications, events, news, programs, or projects.
- Donate $100, $250, $500, or whatever you can afford to help make DemFest happen. Individuals who give $250 or more and organizations that give $1,000 or more become DLC sponsors, and get recognized at DemFest. Sustainable DemFest funding will not come just from grants, but also individuals who want to help made democracy more engaging for more people.
- Fill out our DMV DLC survey to share your opinions and ideas for building a wider Democracy Learning Community in metro DC.
For those interested in how DemFest might measure impact on widening and deepening civic engagement, and increasing collaboration for democracy, here is what we are considering:
- Attendance: Track the total number of DemFest attendees.
- Collaboration: Track the number of festival contributors (e.g., sponsors, vendors, performers, etc.), their industries and/or demographics (age, gender, race, religion, religiosity, political affiliation, partisanship, etc.). Exit surveys of randomly selected festival attendees to gather demographics, feedback on the festival (how much they liked it, what they liked most, least, what they learned, etc.), any new connections they made, and actions they plan to take.
- Knowledge surveys: Some DemFest activities, like digital games, may be conducive to measuring participants’ knowledge or skill before and after the activity.
- Sign-ups: Count the number of festival attendees who sign-up to get more info, or volunteer with the civic and political organizations that table at DemFest. Resources permitting, there can also be a 3-6 month follow-up with those organizations to assess new collaborations emerging from DemFest, and how many DemFest attendees have gotten involved with each organization (though this latter measure may indicate organizations’ follow-up effectiveness as much if not more than festival effectiveness).
- Exit survey: Festival attendees can be statistically randomly asked upon exiting the festival to answer survey questions that get at what they liked, learned, think could be improved, and else.