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The Challenge

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How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact? Read the challenge brief

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Microdemocracy: Citizens Learn to Ask the Right Questions

The ability to ask good questions is essential for gaining access to public information. We need to democratize the teaching of the skill and make it available to people in low-income communities who come into direct contact with public agencies.
Microdemocracy is a new idea that ordinary encounters with public agencies are opportunities for individual citizens to “act democratically” and participate effectively in decisions that affect them.

The skill of question formulation is a foundational democratic skill that is not deliberately taught in most classrooms in the country. Our book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011) has led to students in schools in low-income communities who are more engaged, take greater ownership of their learning and are learning more. 

The same transformation takes place when adults who need to navigate complex public systems learn to ask their own questions and focus on key decisions. The Right Question Institute has developed a strategy that is being used in communities all around the country and beyond to help people learn how to advocate for themselves and hold decision-makers accountable. Gaining access to foundational skills for gathering information and taking action is essential for strengthening democracy on all levels.

What do we call it when people in low-income communities ask questions, participate in decisions and hold decision-makers accountable in their ordinary encounters with public and publicly-funded institutions such as their children’s public school, the welfare office, job training program, Medicaid-funded health care service, and public housing? We have no ‘democratic’ name for action at that level.

Democratic theorists may ignore the experiences there or simply call it ‘individual advocacy.” But, they are overlooking the importance of this terrain. We think we should expand our notion of where democratic action can occur. All those public sites are actually outposts of democracy that exist only because of decisions made further up the democratic decision-making chain. The outposts are already considered as public terrain. They could also become democratic terrain. But that depends on what happens there.

The Right Question Strategy can change the dynamics of what happens in those encounters. As people learn to focus on decisions and ask their own questions, they begin to participate more effectively in decisions, partner with public servants and also hold decision-makers accountable. These are skills that the Right Question Strategy teaches as thinking and advocacy skills. But, they are also democratic skills and reflect democratic habits of mind. In a democracy, unlike in a dictatorship, citizens should be able to ask questions, participate in decisions that affect them and hold decision-makers accountable.

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

We will create and disseminate creative commons materials in various formats and media that can be used to teach the skill of question formulation in public and publicly-funded agencies and institutions that come into daily contact with residents of low-income communities (community health care centers, public schools, welfare offices, job training programs and adult literacy classes).

Where are you located?

Cambridge, MA, USA

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. Word of mouth
Luz's profile photo
entry submitted by: Luz Santana
March 19, 2013, 12:35PM
53 views 4 comments 7 applause Applaud

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March 19, 2013, 09:51PM
already working in schools across the country [including here in Brooklyn!] keep up the good work.
March 19, 2013, 03:53PM
I love it, what an important way to build civic engagement. Good luck!
March 19, 2013, 01:18PM
Wonderful concept...everyone should take a look!
March 19, 2013, 01:02PM
Great proposal, Luz. You're focusing on what everyone else seems to skip over; the foundational skill for gathering information and for democratic action.
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