Democracy Lab: Community Workshops Bridge the Divide
“The beauty of a democracy is that it involves all kinds of people setting aside their narrow self-interest to work toward the collective good,” said Dr. Sarah Star, Assistant Professor of Arts and Humanities at Carroll Community College and the founder of Democracy Lab, a non-partisan community workshop initiative aimed at fostering our community’s commitment to American democratic ideals.
Through its facilitated workshops and discussions, Democracy Lab serves as a gathering place where Carroll students, staff and members of the community can assemble and engage with one another in the kind of candid and civil exchange of ideas that is the bedrock of a healthy democracy. Participants discuss their differences honestly and openly, learn about others’ perspectives and experiences, and hopefully identify some common ground with one another.
Democracy Lab community workshops started running in the fall of 2020. For its first year, the Lab brought participants together to talk about politics and the election. In its second year, the Lab focused on important matters about education, such as free speech on campus and the cost of higher education. Now in its third year, the Lab addresses current issues like poverty and parents’ roles in education.
The main purpose of Democracy Lab is to get people really talking and listening to each other so that we can better understand who we live amongst and what our community needs. Our goal is simply to help each other understand one another.
Launching Democracy Lab
“I had the idea for a project like Democracy Lab long before I brought it into being,” Dr. Star explained, stating that for many years now she has been concerned by the deterioration of public discourse.
“There is altogether too much contempt for one another in the ways that we speak to and about each other,” Star continued. “I think things really came to a head in the summer of 2020. At the time, we still didn’t know where we were with respect to the pandemic, people were scared, many of them trapped in their houses and feeling isolated. On top of that, there were the social justice protests that summer and, looming over everything, the prospect of a really contentious presidential election. In the midst of all of this, I felt it was important for my neighbors to have a way to stay connected to one another safely and in a manner that might offer some hope for the future.”
Apart from her doctoral training in Philosophy of Science at University College London, Dr. Star doesn’t boast any educational or professional background specifically related to the Democracy Lab community workshop project. While this might seem like a drawback, she believes it is actually part of the Lab’s peculiar magic. “For the most part, democracies are comprised of non-specialist citizens doing their best to address questions and issues as they arise within their communities,” Star said. “That’s what we strive to replicate in our discussions.”
Dr. Star has regularly featured subject matter specialists—often recruiting guest speakers from among her colleagues at the College—whenever she believes an event would benefit from an expert point of view
“The complexity of a topic needs to be acknowledged and explored,” Star said. “When we imagine we have the one and only true answer to any sort of controversial issue, this is almost always because we’ve oversimplified it, and have chosen to ignore the often-legitimate reasons someone else might understand it a different way.” For example, an issue such as abortion has more than two sides; in fact, there are many sides to it and other similarly provocative issues because there are so many competing values and ethical duties that go into defining them.
“Whether we like it or not, there are many corners of human life that simply are complicated and untidy,” Star said. “It’s uncomfortable, but I think we have to be able to listen to and engage with one another productively on these sensitive topics.”
Creating Community Workshops
Serving more than one hundred people drawn from across the College population and the surrounding community, the Lab draws on the expertise of both faculty and community members to produce a wide range of programming. Seven events are offered each semester. Fall workshops are organized according to a theme; Spring workshops are determined according to the interests of the participants.
While Dr. Star finds all of the Democracy Lab community workshops worthwhile and engaging, she did share a few of her favorites Labs to date:
- “Citizenship in the Age of Social Media” focused on how social media is reshaping the ways in which we live our lives, and was the first time Dr. Star co-facilitated a discussion with one of the Democracy Lab regulars. “He is someone who has spent a lot of time studying in this area,” Star said, “and it was really exciting to see a member of the community stepping up to take such an active role in shaping the project so early in its development.”
- “Educating for a 21st Century Democracy,” presented in the Fall semester of the Lab’s second year, reflected on the changing political needs of a 21st century democracy. “As an educator concerned with ensuring that I am turning out people with the tools needed to act responsibly as citizens,” Star explained, “it enabled me to reflect on my own practice and pedagogical commitments in a new and broader way.”
- “Democracy and the Arts” explored the intersection of the arts and democratic ideals. “The arts have a wonderful way of inviting us into a kind of lateral thinking, which I think can be enormously useful for a democracy,” Star said. “The result in this case was a discussion that was just enormously lively and fun.”
The Future of Democracy (Lab)
There are many ways Dr. Star aspires to build upon her Democracy Lab community workshop initiative, including expanding it with the addition of facilitator training programs. “We need more people in our communities with the knowledge and skill to help people have productive and meaningful conversations,” Star said. “By actively and consciously training people in these ways, Democracy Lab could really develop in some interesting directions.”
Star would also like to introduce some kind of Democracy Lab-led citizenship-skills mini-camp that can help people brush up on the basic habits and skills required for a democratic citizenry.
For her efforts inaugurating and coordinating the Democracy Lab community workshops, Dr. Star was honored with the Innovation of the Year award from The League for Innovation in the Community College, which recognizes faculty, staff and administrators who have created and implemented innovative programs, partnerships and activities that improve their institution’s ability to serve its students and the community. Additionally, Democracy Lab was profiled in Campus Compact’s 2021 edition of Model Programs Magazine.
Dr. Star has been praised by her colleagues for setting an excellent example of how we can live more harmoniously in a global society. “It is rare that we get to have these difficult conversations and hear opposing views with the intent of actually trying to understand each other,” said Dr. Roxanna Harlow, Associate Professor of Social Science at Carroll. “A person’s view on a subject doesn’t capture their full humanity, and Democracy Lab helps remind us of that.”
“The main purpose of Democracy Lab is to get people really talking and listening to each other so that we can better understand who we live amongst and what our community needs,” Star said. “Our goal is simply to help each other understand one another.”