Transforming How We Think About Democracy

May 18, 2023

This Q&A with Tara Mahoney and Jesi Carson is an inside look at some of the big ideas and questions that will be explored at the Participedia-CERi Summer School on Radical Democracy. Tara Mahoney, (Ph.D.) is the research and engagement coordinator and postdoctoral fellow at SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative (CERi). Jesi Carson, Participedia’s Design Technology Lead, is a design researcher and interaction designer specializing in community engagement and creative facilitation.

What is radical democracy? Why is it relevant today?

Jesi Carson: Radical democracy is a way of contesting or reimaging what democracy is today and challenging the status quo of how people engage in governance – from the top down and the bottom up. I think it's relevant because we're living in a constant state of crisis all over the world, and people need to come together in new ways to find alternatives and ways forward.

Tara Mahoney: I think at its core, the spirit of it is getting to the root of democracy. That’s what the word radical means – getting to the root of something. Radical democracy aims to get to the root of democracy by empowering people to govern themselves and have agency over their lives. This is especially relevant now as democratic norms are threatened by authoritarian forces and people feel they lack a voice in political and economic systems. To reimagine democracy, grassroots movements and innovations are crucial and growing, as shown by the inspiring projects documented in the catalogue. The summer school seeks to contribute to this resurgence of radical democracy by educating people about its rich history and current practices.

What is the role of creativity in democracy?

Jesi Carson: Creativity is important in radical democracy because it gives people the tools and frameworks to do that rethinking and reimagining work. Design itself, as a field, is being critiqued and contested by contemporary designers and people who value equity and justice, along with democratic norms and values. New ways of doing design, such as design activism and design justice, are participatory and put communities at the centre. So rather than an elite group of designers going off and rethinking how the world should work, it's more about communities that are affected by these big challenges who are positioned as experts in their own contexts, and they become the designers. And so, design and creativity are a way for people—for anyone, not just designers—to engage with how the world should be or could be and then use that as motivation to do the work.

Tara Mahoney: How do we address the problems that we're facing in a democratic way? That requires imagination. Take the big issues that we're facing, like climate change, or the drug poisoning crisis, or the housing crisis, we first need to be able to imagine: What is the potential future where we're working toward? What does success look like? How do we get there? What are the steps and processes by which we get there? Then we can ask ourselves other questions like: how could we do democracy in a way that would be more fun? Or more family-friendly? Or more accessible to people whose first language isn't English? Using creative processes like speculative design or design fiction, you can start working with these different questions and start coming up with ideas. Of course it doesn’t end there, the ideas are the beginning but I think that creative part is where people start to get excited about democracy again.

How will students learn to confront issues regarding radical democracy through creative methods?

Jesi Carson: We're going to engage students in a design process throughout the week, where they're learning from experts in radical democracy from different parts of the world about key themes. They then combine that learning with their own lived experience to create an imagined project of radical democracy that serves a community of their choosing. So, they're going to be doing a hypothetical design project around radical democracy. We are drawing on project-based learning throughout the summer school. We'll also be exploring creativity and radical democracy by learning from artists and creatives working in this space. We're excited to have artistic curator Olumoroti Soji-George of Gallery Gachet and the Black Arts Centre (BLAC) joining us for an artist talk about community-engaged art practices and the role of the artist in times of social crisis, among other topics. We're also joined by Justin Langlois a local artist and educator at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, who will provide inspiration on radical democracy and creative activism, as well as co-facilitate an exciting design process with us. It's going to be a lot of fun!

What is the most important thing you want students to take away from this course?

Jesi Carson: I think the most important thing that students should take away is that they can take action. And there are ways big and small for all of us to be active in our own communities, in our own contexts. It can be overwhelming, this state of crisis that we're dealing with. And I just want everyone to know that there are ways to get active and get involved. Hopefully, they can take some of these frameworks and learnings back to their own school or their work or their community and keep going. 

Tara Mahoney: I think the most important thing that students should take away is that they have a role to play. They matter. What they do matters and a functioning democracy needs them. The world is malleable, it can be changed and it is being changed all the time. Democratic participation is a portal into social change. But democracy isn’t guaranteed, we have to work for it, we have to tend to it like a garden, keep it alive and maintain it. And, that work can be deeply rewarding and nourishing. It often means working in community, creating projects that can have a meaningful impact and building relationships that can change your life.

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