So, What’s a Growing Democracy Learning Lab

The Democracy Learning Lab Guide

So, What’s a Growing Democracy Learning Lab

62 years ago the United States government started a project called the Peace Corps. Everyday Americans of every kind are still working with everyday people in various projects across the globe. Through many ups and downs it has stayed the course. 

Hi. I am Michael Johnson, and I believe some of the most important work to be done in our country lies beyond fixing the problems with our current democracy. We need to grow it. To do that well we need what one might call a “democracy corps” of everyday citizens.

A small number of us are convinced of this. Nobody really knows how to do this, yet. However, we do know enough to get started, and we can learn from there. So, we are launching the Growing Democracy Project (GDProject ) both to promote this work and to learn how to do it well.

We have developed a powerful tool to get started: the Growing Democracy Learning Lab

Since you are here on this page, I’m assuming you have some kind of interest in such a program. So let’s talk about it. First, let’s take a moment to put the Learning Lab in perspective.

The GDProject is grounded in this conviction: everyday people are the primary resource for growing our democracy. They are also the most overlooked resource for doing this developmental work. If they aren’t deeply democratic in the ways they live and relate, then our country can’t be. 

Our goal is nothing less than to grow our democracy into the predominant social and political force in our country, even if it takes seven generations.

The Democracy Learning Lab is our first program. It is one tool for developing legions of deeply democratic citizens. 75 years of work in experiential adult learning in many places drives the Lab program. It is an experiential learning program designed to be of, by, and for everyday citizens.  

Classrooms can’t do this. They’re not designed for it, so it’s not their job.

Organizations grounded in democracy can tailor the Democracy Learning Labs to fit their structures and resources. The GDProject hopes to build an alliance of such organizations. 

Together we can develop a transformative civic education system

That’s the overview. I think you will find enough information throughout this section of our website to get a fairly good hold on the design and what will be involved in carrying it out. 

But what is really going to happen for you? What will you be going through if you spent a meaningful amount of time in a Democracy Learning Lab with a small group of other people who want to develop a deep democratic practice? 

Let’s talk about that for a while.

You will live with seven to ten everyday citizens and some of our staff exploring the guts and heart of democracy and how to make it work well. We call this root democracy. It is a practice.

The people in your group will be as diverse as possible: race, age, gender, political orientation, etc. You all will be finding out how to listen and understand each other well enough to talk together honestly even when there are big differences and conflicts. The challenges in solving them will be key opportunities for developing your practice.

You will be developing this practice in depth so all of you can get better at thinking together, working  together, enjoying life and caring more for others. Close continuous contact and plenty of private time will make it possible to reflect on your personal and collective experiences. 

When any group is talking about important issues or action plans, they will run into many problems arising out of their differences. When this happens your Lab group will need to shift to talking about how they are talking. 

To do this requires a set of four skills:

  • Behavior description—describing the behavior you observe without adding judgment or interpretation. 
  • Description of feelings—the ability to identify and clearly describe your feelings. 
  • Paraphrase—working to understand the other by sharing the meaning you are getting before you draw any conclusions. 
  • Perception check—checking out with the other your guess about the feeling she is having.

Developing these as part of your democratic practice is essential to becoming able to understand the other and what is going on in the group in real time.

This will be the core learning of your Lab experience: learning how to see and talk about how you and your group are talking. This ability is fundamental to the practice of democracy at all levels. 

To work in democratic ways, a group, a network, an organization, a society must have people who embody this capacity just as a working jazz group must have players who embody, not just the right skills, but the deep dispositions of their musical craft and artistry. 

Jazz and democratic players do not have to be at a professional level. They just need to be good enough to play well enough. And that can be their base for getting better.

Sometimes you will succeed, other times you won’t, and sometimes there won’t be enough time to get to a resolution. That will be okay most of the time. 

Keep your eyes and ears on the task at hand: turning a conflict into an opportunity by learning how to see and hear how you are talking, and then being able to talk about that. 

You will be learning how democracy, like all of life, is a struggle that can go well even when disagreements are not resolved. It’s not a win/lose game, but how to keep it together in spite of and because of differences. 

The practice and the learning are lifelong. The Democracy Learning Lab is an intense boost in that process.

So, that’s the kind of learning the Growing Democracy Learning Lab is about. It will not be easy. You will find out things about yourself you never knew about, and some of those things will not make you happy. But your fellow Labmates are going to help you work with that, and you're going to help them work with their struggles. 

And if we do all of this well, we will become in a short time at least a little bit more interested, interesting, intelligent, caring, connected, and powerful. And, hopefully, more committed to growing democracy in America.

So, that is what the Democracy Learning Lab is all about. 

Well, it actually goes a step further. America needs a thousand of various Democratic Learning Labs networked together into a transformative civic education system. So, figuring-out how to make future Learning Labs work well will also be an important part of your learning. 

Thanks for your interest. We hope you explore the rest of this section and the whole site. We are available for follow-up through our Contact Us page.

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So, What’s a Growing Democracy Learning Lab