Jan 26, 2022 | Blog

Democracy Depends on You

By Jennifer Wolowic

Jennifer Wolowic, PhD, leads the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative at the Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Its work focuses on how to change local, everyday experiences of democracy. 

Having led the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative for the last few years, I’ve talked with hundreds of different groups and individuals about democracy. Among most, I hear a similar hesitation to engage with the word and its ideals. As a word, democracy is intimidating and as an idea, democracy is difficult to connect to our everyday experiences directly.  

One thing I do know: democracy is much more than politics.  

Its values and practices are core to our civic communities and the work of non-profits. The skills and values that uphold democratic systems and engagement are a part of every program, every organization and service.  

Another thing I know: everything we do can either weaken or strengthen our democracy.  

As leaders, service providers, and advocates, it is crucial for non-profit leaders to check in every once in a while and think about how they contribute to strengthening a culture of democratic leadership and participation. How are you helping your team and your communities learn and grow as members of our democracy?  

Democracy is still a big word, so let me break it down into five principles for your reflection:  

Principle 1: Remember to build people’s capacity to participate 

Under your leadership, are people learning and practicing skills that help them be a part of decision-making processes? Are you helping create the time to reflect on those opportunities? 

Principle 2: Try to foster a commitment to democratic values 

What democratic values are important to you as a leader? How do you embody in your leadership and collaborations? How do you create space to name and talk about them? 

Principle 3: Create opportunities to build relationships and social connections 

How often do you participate or lead activities that prioritize building social connections? How do they create joy and feelings of influence? 

Principle 4: Show up and be equitable and caring 

How do you ensure all people are comfortable in your organization and in your spaces? What do people learn that they can take into other spaces? 

Principle 5: Don’t be afraid to be held accountable 

How often do you create space for feedback? How do you demonstrate to others that you are using that feedback to improve?   

Take a few minutes and answer each of these questions honestly. Then, assess your role in empowering people and participating as an active member of our civil society.  

The other thing I know: democracy takes a lot of hard work.  

 At this time, society is coming to grips with just how much work we have to do to live up to our stated ideals. This is the hard work of reconciliation, anti-racism, and community-based solutions. It is about setting up our services and organizations in ways that help people feel empowered rather than nameless clients. It is also the work of improving our democracy.  

 Each of us has a role to play. And these principles guide us in some concrete directions that each of us can lead. So I hope you will reflect on your role in our democracy and use these principles to talk with your staff and communities.  

 Any improvement begins by identifying our weaknesses and asking for input from others. It is the first step in growing as individuals and organizations. It is how we are accountable to ourselves, our organization, and our communities.  

Democracy is up to you.  

I hope you will use these principles to create opportunities to actively talk about how you are already helping to strengthen our democratic culture within our non-profit work and identify how you can do more within your organization. Then activate your ideas and create opportunities for others to better engage and participate in our democracy. 

For more on these principles and steps you can take to evaluate how well you are strengthening democracy, check out our two episodes with Jennifer Wolowic: The Five Principles of Democratic Engagementand Bringing the 5 Principles of Democratic Engagement to Life.

Dr. Jennifer Wolowic leads the Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative. The initiative pilots democratic interventions, explores reforms, and develops education to spark dialogue on how we can make our culture of democracy stronger. Jennifer has led several of these programs including a collaboration with the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia that used game design to help improve how we can talk through difficult issues. She joined us back in 2020 to talk about 5 principles of democratic engagement, so now she’s back to talk about how we can use those principles to evaluate whether or not our organizations are helping to strengthen our democratic culture.

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