Democracy in Action is an award-winning module on community organizing, offered to students in their final year at University.
A product of an exciting collaboration between the University of Essex and Citizens UK, Democracy in Action makes a difference to both the university community and the external community within which the University resides. Motivated by the desire to address a wide range of social and civic issues, these partnerships are underpinned by the principles of coproduction and community based participatory action research, the democratic exchange of knowledge and experience, as well as collective forms engagement and strategic decision-making.
Not only does this project enrich the teaching and student experience at the University of Essex, it also impacts on the wider community through engagement in community organizing and research, providing tangible benefits for the local community. This collaboration between CUK and University staff and students has also led to the formation of network of relationships with other community organisations, such as Colchester Foodbank and The Salvation Army.
The ‘birth’ of this module in 2019 in its pilot form reflects a long-standing collaborative relation between the Department of Government and the Essex Business School. Democracy in Action’s predecessor was Democracy in Schools, whose aim was to bring the teaching of democracy to the local schools through by harnessing our university students enthusiasm about this important political idea, who would teach key aspects of democratic politics to school pupils in the North Essex community area. With this as background, Rebecca, Jason, Jimena and Kostis could see the potential of a sister module - Democracy in Action – to offer a pathway to university students to complement their studies of various theories of democracy with the practice of democratic community organizing, and to show how organizations, from businesses to charities to political institutions themselves, can be more or less democratic depending on the character of the ‘practice’ within and between different organizations. We received funding from the Education Strategic Fund in 2019 to pilot the module in the early months of 2020.
Democracy in Action was – and continues to be – the product of an ongoing collaboration between our students and other key figures, including Juliet Kilpin (CUK), Sara Batts-Neale (lead University rep to CUK and co-chair of Colchester Citizens), as well as assistant lecturers Kostis, Jimena, Anne, Lorenzo, Julius and Anam.
The module received a collaborative Excellence in Education award from the university in 2021.
Democracy in Action (CS316) allows third year students to do their final year project in an innovative and interdisciplinary way.
The module gives students the opportunity to better understand the local community, the issues it faces and how to address them. Students learn to build power and negotiate with local government on issues of local concern such as hate crime, transport, mental health, and housing.
At university students often get the chance to explore key concepts and theories associated with democracy, human rights, social justice, power, organizations, negotiations, human relations, accountability, corporate social responsibility. However, there are relatively few opportunities available to students to ‘test’ these ideas in practice. By placing the community organizing at the centre of the student experience, this module aims to bring theory closer to practice.
Through the five-step training of Citizens UK (1. Organise 2. Listen 3. Plan 4. Act 5. Negotiate) the students learn the basics of community building and organising, then get to put this into practice. The module brings together theory and practice, serving as a way for students approaching the end of their studies to ‘apply’ their knowledge and skills outside the classroom. Students learn how to identify relevant stakeholders and decision-makers and negotiate with local government and organizations on issues of local concern such as hate crime, transport, street lighting, living wage, mental health and housing, and more besides, discovered through ‘listening’ exercises.
Students work with their peers, members of local organizations, academic staff at the University, and professional staff from Citizens UK to build alliances, create common cause on important issues, and help devise strategies to tackle them. Through training and practical experience, students will build their confidence, and develop skills associated with project management, team-work, communication and creativity, which will help open up future career and citizenship pathways.
The module speaks directly to the University’s commitment to transformational education, community engagement, employability, and citizenship, attracting students from across a wide range of disciplines and departments. Democracy in Action strengthens the connection between the University of Essex, Citizens UK Colchester and other local organisations by having the students focus on building better communities through the co-production of knowledge and best practice.