Interdisciplinary Studies Centre

Democracy in Action

Community membership

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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.

How the program works

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.

Assistant Lecturers

Jimena Vazquez

Jimena Vazquez is PhD candidate in the Government Department and member of the Centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis. Her PhD research focuses on theories of political subjectivation and critique in Michel Foucault’s thought. More broadly, her research interests focus on subjectivity in post-structuralist discourse theory and its interplay with power and the possibilities for political action. Her interest in possibilities for political action has led her to become involved in interdisciplinary projects, such as Democracy in Action, that allow precisely for the exploration of such possibilities.

“Being able to participate in the drafting of Democracy in Action and its pilot module was an extremely enriching experience. I have always been interested in better understanding how to connect theory and practice, as well as exploring practice-based learning, and this module allowed for precisely that! The engagement that I witnessed from students was amazing and so fulfilling.”

Julius Schneider

Julius is a PhD student in the Government Department and studies the rise of the far-right in Germany. He is intrigued by the inter-disciplinary nature of the seminar and enjoys accompanying the projects of the students on topics they are passionate about in a supportive role.

"As an undergraduate student myself I was often frustrated how even assignments from a critical perspective had no real-life impact and stayed files-to-be-forgotten on one's laptop and therefore wanted to be part of this project which aims to strengthen ties with and bring about positive change in the community."

Anne Steinhoff

Anne undertakes her PhD in Accounting at the Essex Business School. She is also a member of the Centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis. Anne studies the political nature of performance measures in workplaces. For this, she draws on the lived experiences of employees with the autoimmune disorder Coeliac Disease.

“After supporting the pilot module, I am excited to assist with the teaching and running of Democracy in Action this year. What makes the module so different to other modules is that it engages students actively in the learning outcomes. Rather than providing students with case studies in the classroom, we take them to the action, right into the local community.”

Anam Kuraishi

Anam Kuraishi is a PhD candidate in the Government department. Her PhD research focuses on reconceptualising the post-truth phenomenon. She bridges post-structuralist discourse theory with empiricism to develop an alternative definition of post-truth in relation to discourse and exemplifies post-truth accounts in Pakistani newspapers, alongside measuring the perceived truthfulness of post-truth accounts using a survey experiment. Her research lies at the intersection of comparative politics, and critical political theory with a regional specialization in South Asia. Her interest in interdisciplinary research led her to be involved in projects such as Democracy in Action that allow the exploration of practice-based learning.

"Democracy in Action provides a platform where students can implement the theories learnt in class into practice to bring about a positive change in their communities. The practice-based learning offered in this course is an enriching and exciting experience."

Konstantinos Roussos

Kostis is a Lecturer in Social Work and Social Justice division at the School of Health and Social Care. He is interested on the social impact of community-based and grassroots forms of welfare provisioning. He is a founding member of the centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis, and his recent research focuses on the politics of the commons, social movements, and social and solidarity economy. He has worked with various organisations and community projects in Europe and the UK.

"Democracy in Action gave us the opportunity to coproduce a space of learning as a common good, in terms of equality, freedom and active participation. Thus, our approach attempted to engender an educational space where students do not rely on teachers to explain reality to them. In this sense, one main aim was to enact a pedagogical practice that does not recognise any natural intellectual hierarchy. Students were encouraged to think and take action for themselves and in turn this enabled us to adopt a facilitating-companion role in helping students to become active learners."