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‘Imagining Democracy’ course works to realign ideals and reality of American democracy
students in discussion

During the course, students meet election experts to talk about the mechanics of electoral democracy.

— Photos by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

For two hours every week, a cluster of Emory College faculty and students envision what life would look like if the ideals and the reality of American democracy aligned.

Emory historian Carol Anderson provides the historical view of both the archetype and actuality. Political scientist Bernard L. Fraga, who specializes in voter behavior, adds real-life context. Two “community fellows” from Atlanta engagement organizations add their understandings of how historically disenfranchised groups tend to act and think.

At every point, the dozen undergraduates in the “Imagining Democracy” course work to tie that knowledge with their own innovation in a way to strengthen the community and, in turn, democracy itself.

“A full, vibrant democracy requires civic engagement,” says Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies and an internationally recognized scholar on voting and civil rights. “It is more than a thought exercise to consider what real citizenship would look like, because people have the power to apply that vision.” 

‘The freedom to dream’

The course is part of a Mellon Foundation grant for Anderson and Fraga to create a lab that builds civic engagement, leveraging their expertise and Emory’s location in Atlanta as a historic and contemporary center for civil rights.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the work, the class welcomes students from all majors. Still, students had to apply for a spot in the course, which emphasizes outside reading and seminar-style meetings more commonly found at the graduate level.

Students in the fall semester course will also complete a research project that works to create potential solutions for common disengagement problems. The research will be part of a digital “Democracy Hub” designed by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and will be accessible by citizens, community groups and future program cohorts.

“We want to know how to translate what many people don’t think of as political opinions or perspectives — the things they want in their lives, from fixing the streets to better schools — into the freedom to dream and the self-actualization to see that working together in a democratic process is a component to improving their lives,” Fraga says.

Emory College junior Dawnya Green found her front-row seat to democracy at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. She observed that infusion center patients advocated for their needs and wants after Winship doctors sat and answered questions to help them grasp their treatment.

“If you want people to adopt something into their everyday practices, whether in health care or something like going to city council meetings, they have to recognize it as a viable addition to their routine,” says Green, an African American studies major who aims for a career helping empower people to take the reins related to their health care.

“Now that I understand how to explain that, I am invested in the sense of purpose that comes with putting it into practice,” she adds. “This amount of hope about the future of democracy is not something I have ever had.” 

Grounding the academic with the practical

The value-add from the community fellows — Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, and Phi Nguyen, director of democracy at Demos and former executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta — is the ability to further ground the historical and academic discussions with what taking action looks like.

Both leaders and their organizations work to mobilize voters and are heavily involved in community engagement, helping with everything from grocery distribution to training others on how to get involved in their own communities.

Undergraduates in the “Imagining Democracy” course consider how to motivate disengaged citizens to become involved in the political process. The class is led by Carol Anderson (shown) and Bernard Fraga.

They also are allowing students from the fall course to apply for spring practicums with their organizations.

“This notion, to mix the academic experience with community experience, shouldn’t be radical but it is,” says Albright, who has taught courses at universities in Georgia and Alabama. “We’d love to see a cohort of students we can have these conversations with, and do work in the communities where they live, every year.”

Sophia Cherribi, a double major in business and political science, has already put the academic and community work together. She has interned at the Georgia State House, volunteered with the ACLU and worked with a community nonprofit in metro Atlanta.

Still, at a time when some graduating seniors are easing out of undergraduate work, she is eager about the possibility of participating in a spring practicum with Black Voters Matter or Demos. Helping people imagine what they could accomplish for their communities is exactly the sort of career Cherribi plans to pursue after Commencement.

That is, if the work doesn’t convince her to pursue a legal or policy career instead.

“Being involved in your community and your government should be the easiest thing for us to do. It’s ridiculous the barriers we’ve put up to that,” Cherribi says.

“I can’t express how much I’m inspired by this class to change that,” she adds. “I’ve never been in a space where I had the opportunity to not just reform, modify or disavow, but to create and imagine new structures. This is an opportunity to really think about what could be if we help people understand the power they have.”

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