What if democracy could be done differently? What if it could be done better?
These are the questions we have been posing to students while helping them use their own student governments as an opportunity to experiment with and develop innovative ways of practicing democracy. Instead of using elections – a practice dominated by the most charismatic and popular among them – the students in our projects have been randomly selecting their representatives in lotteries – providing an equal opportunity for all students to participate, even the shyest or least known. Instead of having one small group of student representatives for the whole school year, students have also been rotating in and out of office, allowing more students an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. Instead of rigid hierarchies involving a president, a vice president, and so on, these students have been working together in horizontal teams of equals.
Altogether, these changes have made student governments fairer, more inclusive, and more representative. The experimentation involved has also provided the students a rich experiential democratic education: developing not only the capacities necessary for meaningful participation in civic life, but also a critical and creative outlook about how best to involve communities in the issues that affect them. Now, Democracy In Practice has launched its latest project, taking these innovative practices and the lessons learned and expanding to a new school: the R.V. Public High School in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
After hearing about our projects, the school’s principal had a strong desire for us to work with her students and invited us to meet with teachers to discuss the project. In addition to the principal’s enthusiasm, we were attracted to this school because it provides distinct opportunities and challenges for our continued experimentation and learning. The students are considerably older than those we worked with in our rural K-8 school project and generally have more time to dedicate to extracurricular activities like student government than those we work with in our project at the night high school. These differences mean that we will be able to dive deeper into the various aspects of governance and leadership. This school is also the largest that we have worked in, and we are excited to adapt these practices to work on a larger scale.
Having received the input and support of teachers, we presented the project to students class by class. It was great to have Richard, a former member of the Student Government of the night high school, volunteer to share his experience with the students. Once the presentations were wrapped up, we were ready to conduct the first student lottery. One male and one female representative were randomly selected from each of the six grade levels to form a council of twelve students. Rotating these positions, the twelve selected will serve a term of three months and will then administer the next student lottery to select their replacements. 154 students volunteered to participate in this first round — a stark contrast from the 10-20 students that would typically run as candidates in elections. It was extremely exciting to see just how widespread the desire to participate was!
Having finished the first student lottery and formed the student government, now begins the intensive process of providing these new student representatives the tools, orientation, and capacity-building they will need to be successful – not only in the student government’s initiatives, but also in their development as engaged and capable citizens. In the coming months, we will continue to provide an inside look into this whole process and the student government’s progress, so stay tuned!