Want to Build a Vibrant Democracy? Start by Being an Active Citizen
We live in a world where we have a greater sense of interconnectedness than ever before due to access to social networks, the ever-present media and the larger awareness of the events that are happening in remote areas of the earth where we did not have access previously. Due to this inflow of information, we are able to hear in real time about events like Brexit happening in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump being elected the next president of the United States and Colombia rejecting the peace agreement on a referendum after more than 50 years of war. These situations make us reflect on the state of democracy nowadays. Are the results that we are obtaining in the polls a reflection of something deeper happening in our societies?
I was mostly disconnected from politics until I started to wonder why Colombia has the most resilient civil war in the continent, why the economic bloom is not reflected in a reduction of inequality and why the ruling class still exhibits the same last names from the last century? I became curious and my search for answers suddenly placed me as a speaker at the 2016 World Forum for Democracy (WFD), with the central theme of the relationship between democracy and education and how the later can be a powerful tool to bridge the social divide and foster active citizens that promote the principles of a democratic life.
As a youth advocate on education, I was presenting the idea of DemocrArtization, an approach created by the BogotArt Foundation that deals with the democratization of art and learning through cultural projects as a way to engage children and youth from marginalized communities to be active changemakers in their own environment. The core idea is to be able to change mindsets and show people how they have the power (the etymology of democracy) and can change aspects of the system that they do not like, even if it is at a local level. For example, it could be as simple as noticing a wall that is in bad conditions and replacing it with a mural where all participants co-create it, thus having a higher sense of belonging to their neighborhood, feeling empowered and trusting their skills to positively contribute to their community.
What we were able to see at the forum is that beyond one particular approach, the key is to provide people with ways to counteract the hopelessness that is derived from all the negative news around in comparison with the few highlights of potential solutions to some acute problems. Moreover, it is critical to creating self-confidence to solve the challenges in one’s environment, to be a promoter of an active democracy.
I believe here is where we, the youth, come into play. Although, on a global scale our chances seem limited since 73% of the countries restrict young people from running from office (even when we can vote) and in the media 81% the youth feel unfairly represented, we have the power to change the current outlook of democracy and start to build our future societies, based on the values that we want.
At the WFD, the initiative Kiron led by a young individual won the Democracy Innovation Award for its contribution in providing access to higher education to refugees. This is just one example of the multiple youth-led projects seen at the WFD that are bringing innovative solutions to the global agenda. However, it is not enough for grassroots initiatives to be highlighted.
For transformative change we need to have a model where critical thinking is at the core of our education, remaining curious and learning to ask the right questions; where we perceive and exercise our role as citizens in an active way to have an impact in sustainable change and; where we are able to scale up successful local examples, to the systemic level and decision-making arena. Thus, democracy does not remain as an activity that we learn as spectators but is rather a sport we practice daily to keep growing our strengths and capabilities. I believe that societies where people are acting as politicians on the ground, where they are influencing their immediate environment on regular basis and do not settle for what the status quo offers are precisely the ones who can be more critical at the voting polls and who, knows perhaps the next candidates that we elect.