Social Innovation and Democracy

February 22, 2010 //

by John Esterle

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative have released a thoughtful, comprehensive report on the conference they hosted in New Hampshire this past July. Having attended that gathering, I appreciate the effort to synthesize what was learned and to share some things that have happened since. It’s worth checking out.

The appendix highlights two overarching themes/questions that animated the conference:

1) How do we move from diffuse democratic experiments to more just, comprehensive systems?

2) How do we educate and prepare citizens to be more effective participants in a just and deliberative democracy?

One innovative approach to answering those questions is found in a new article by Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, co-directors of The Right Question Project (a TWI grantee), that appears in the latest issue of The Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal.

The article highlights RQP’s microdemocracy concept, a framework I think holds much promise for addressing how we weave skills and processes essential to democratic practice — listening, inquiry, thoughtful decision-making, self-advocacy — into the fabric of our individual and community lives. I really like how the article uses a concrete, personal story to illustrate the power of an educational, skill-building approach that “meets people where they are.”

In doing so, it brings to mind something I continue to think about a lot: the importance of incorporating storytelling into civic engagement efforts right from the start if we want to leverage those efforts to affect a broader public discussion. Anyway, I’d be interested to hear from folks on that theme as it’s one I see us continuing to explore here at TWI.


  1. Charles on February 23, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    John, I gravitate to your question about how to incorporate storytelling into civic engagement efforts – it's something that I've been thinking about as well, and my response has been heavily influenced by the organization I work in now – The RYSE Center.

    In the same line of thinking with The Right Question Project, it's so important to "meet people where they are." Then, I wonder, how and where do people naturally tell their stories? At RYSE, I'm finding that our youth members naturally tell their stories orally to one another, in the form of music, blogs, vlogs, visual art, and other social media tools. The larger question, for me, becomes: if there are stories being told, how do communities, people in decision making positions, and organizations listen to stories or partner with storytellers to inform community-wide actions? How might societal institutions look differently to accommodate and/or incorporate stories being told? In addition, though there are spaces for storytelling, we should continue to think through ways to elevate those stories, and provide skill building support so that stories accurately reflect and is in integrity to the message of the storyteller.

    Thanks for your thoughts, John! I'm looking forward to hearing more of The Right Question Project's learnings.

    -charles ugalde

  2. John Esterle on February 24, 2010 at 4:03 pm


    Thanks for your great questions and your observation about what you're seeing at RYSE. Your point about paying attention to where and how people naturally tell their stories is really important. Your question about how institutions might change brings to mind all the new models of journalism that are springing up. I think how new ways of reporting stories factor into the community engagement and storytelling equation is another important question to explore.

    Anyway, no lack of questions! Thanks again for yours. Also, I look forward to hearing more about the evolving story at RYSE.