Democracy in Action is a collaborative initiative devised by university staff and students in partnership with Citizens UK (CUK).
What is democracy? What makes you angry? How can you make change? How can you take action? How can you work with the local community to bring about change and invigorate democratic practice?
These are all the questions we’re encouraging students to tackle in our newly launched Democracy in Action module which also encourages them to take action in their local community.
We think this module has offered huge benefits to students, shown the importance of interdisciplinary learning, and highlighted how the university can work with the local community. We’ve also got exciting plans for the future.
In 2019-20 we worked with Citizens UK (CUK) to develop the Democracy in Action module focused on learning from and supporting the Colchester community. Over 25 undergraduate students had the opportunity to participate'.
All students received CUK's widely-recognised training in community organising and worked with four CUK Colchester member organisations, carrying out listening exercises for the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner’s campaign.
Students listened to the stories of rough sleepers, youth workers, the elderly and many more, allowing all involved to achieve a better and more profound understanding of the community in which the university lives and breathes.
Students participated in research-led learning activities to enable meaningful engagement with civil society organisations through listening and action exercises. They developed new ways of understanding and acting on the problems we face, strengthening our relationships with other community members and bolstering our common democratic power.
The project affirms the University’s commitment to transformational education, community engagement, employability, citizenship and interdisciplinary teaching. Students often explore concepts and theories linked to democracy, human rights, social justice, power, organizations, human relations, and accountability. However, there are few opportunities for students to explore these ideas in practice.
Through this initiative, students were encouraged to understand the challenges of collective decision making, policy impact, active citizenship and community action relevant to many facets of their academic degree content across disciplines. The project was a collaborative initiative involving staff and students across the university.
Students and members of the local community alike felt the academic and broader social benefits of the module. Beyond training and learning activities, students also actively engaged with four community organizations: the YMCA, The Methodist Church, The Salvation Army and Colchester Foodbank.
Working together with these organizations, students could listen and engage with different views and various issues related to the Police, Fire and Crime agenda. They then formulated and presented their ideas and possible solutions. In this way, students gained a practical understanding of local governance proceedings and everyday life problems. They connected with the community in a way that they had not previously had the chance to do. For example, in the pilot module evaluation, one student stated:
"By having conversations with people seemingly different to us we have realised that we have many things in common, and that we have to work together to make Colchester and Essex County a better and safer place to live."
‘Democracy in Action is a participatory, research-informed and student-led module. Students learnt from theoretical and real-life engagement, putting into practice classroom learning, and engaging in alternative participatory forms of teaching and learning. This initiative created an environment in which students could develop, refine, and practice a wide range of skills relevant to their employability prospects and their role as citizens.
The students on the pilot took action on a lighting and safety issue at the Greenstead underpass. Through listening exercises, students were able to identify that communities in Colchester felt unsafe, particularly about the lack of street lighting, with the Greenstead underpass being an area of particular concern. Once Covid halted the project, staff continued this action, resulting in the resolution of the lighting issue at the Greenstead underpass. Therefore, the pilot had a specific tangible community impact, highlighting the potential for similar future community organizing actions within the auspices of the module.
Following on from the pilot, the module will run in the academic year 2021-22 in collaboration with Citizens UK, adding immense value to students’ employability prospects and citizenship skills. This module is unique in its content and mode of delivery due to the partnership with Citizens UK, the involvement of local community organisations, and its research-informed, participatory action-driven ethos.
The idea behind this pilot was to construct a practice-based module, participatory in character, that would allow students to develop their critical academic skills in community building. These objectives were met by capitalising on the already existing relationship and values shared by the University and Citizens UK.
We look forward to offering students from across the University to discover for themselves how enriching and fulfilling Democracy in Action can be; connecting the work they have done in the classroom with the world around them and being actively involved in this connection.
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