We are currently in our fourth year of school-based projects that reinvent student government, combining our aim of democratic experimentation with the added focus of providing young people with an experiential democratic education. At its heart, these projects involve adopting a more inclusive and representative approach by replacing elected student governments with those that are randomly selected and rotated from within the student population. This stands in contrast with typical student government where – paralleling adult governance more generally – certain kinds of students (usually the most popular, outgoing, or ambitious) run short campaigns, and after a vote the vast majority of students are excluded from further participation.
While more limited than its adult counterpart, student government often represents citizens’ first encounters with democracy and takes place at a formative time in their lives. More exclusive approaches to student government allow only a select few to have a say or experience the social and leadership development that accompanies active participation, and they also risk normalizing disengagement. By experimenting with practices like random selection and rotation, a larger and more representative portion of the student body is involved, and students are encouraged to think critically and creatively about how best to involve their communities in the issues that affect them. Students are also empowered to address the issues that they identify – past student government projects have, for example, created libraries, issued student ID cards needed for public transit, met with the city mayor, and organized educational field trips.
Student-Powered Democratic Experimentation
Schools are also a great environment for experimentation. The unique features of student government – its relative size and simplicity, the general lack of vested interests, and the low-risk setting – allow for a great deal of imagination, creativity, and tinkering. Student governments can be reinvented from the ground up and therefore offer a glimpse into the possibilities and problems of incorporating practices like random selection into everyday governance. Indeed, the continuous operation of student governments makes these projects unique among other forays into the use of random selection in politics, where past initiatives such as Citizens’ Juries are usually temporary, one-off initiatives that examine a single issue.
To date, these projects have been implemented in four schools in the Cochabamba region of Bolivia. Find out more about each below, and visit our FAQs section to see why we are working in Bolivia and to get a sense of our future plans.