It was spring 2020, COVID taking over our lives and hopes, when the current fragility of our democracies became even more apparent. It didn’t take long to notice the amplification of pre-existing structural inequalities that permeate our societies. Yet again, it was the vulnerable populations who unproportionately paid the price. At the same time, critical voices on how the pandemic was being handled were quickly called out and thrown in the same pot of those choosing fiction over facts. Categorizing those who begged to differ with government policy as COVIDiots, for example, wasn’t exactly helpful, but served to further divide societies.
Working for a small but international non-profit that aims to build dialogue and bridges among those who are drifting apart, we wondered:
- Whose voices are sorely missing in democractic spaces? Who can we involve in shaping democracy?
- Who has the potential to drum up noise and engagement to claim or create spaces for communities that lack space?
- Of course, as we pondered over answers to these questions, we understood that complex questions require complex responses.
The voices of so many communities and identities remain absent. We wanted to start somewhere, however, so we decided to focus on young professionals, activists, and artists in their late 20s and 30s. We realized that we want to target those who lead a thriving career and have unique ideas for democracy, but need a kickstart to hit the ground running. People who have the emotional intelligence, knowledge, networks, and competencies to be active agents for our democracies, yet lack a framework to refocus on the social utopias they might have given up on.
The Alfred Landecker Foundation’s shared mission, parallel organizational culture, and similar drive eventually gave birth to our Democracy Fellowship; our humble contribution to break, shape, and reinvent democractic spaces that are riddled with -isms of all kinds and injustices in all corners. Annually, we recruit thirty Fellows with leadership experience who were born after 1980. They are at a time of life, which for many is less associated with democracy activism yet more with career building and/or family planning.
It’s a conscious decision to work with professionals in a busy period of their lives. They have the standing, the skills, the knowledge and the networks it takes to drive change in society. What they might lack are incentives such as a community, tailor-made training and funding – the ingredients of the year-long journey we engage them in.
Take the Fellows’ passion and expertise, bring in diverse networks and experts, add a scholarship and seed money, and part-time activism can blossom.
Activism is a huge term. For many, it might alienate more than encourage. The threshold may seem too high to overcome. However, what sounds and feels like a full-time gig, doesn’t have to be. Democracy is every single person’s business, not just politicians’ and full-time activists’. For a vibrant and resilient democracy, the inclusion, engagement, and commitment of the widest possible variety of people is necessary. Be it corporate leaders or start-up hipsters, frontline healthcare workers or highschool teachers, urban planners or architects, community organizers or non-profit executives, journalists or artists, we need people from all corners of society. It is also busy professionals’ commitment to democracy, combined with their skills, their knowledge, their networks and their passion, that contribute to making the fabric of our societies strong, resilient and yet elastic. We need to let go of the idea that activism requires 24 hours everyday: focused part-time engagement that connects the dots and empowers others goes a long way in assuring that democratic voices who have been silenced will start to get heard.
Our Fellows and their projects are there to inspire others to take action, in whatever form or shape is compatible with their current life situation. Can it be turned into a movement? We hope so.
Being an activist is often perceived as a full-time hobby-job or lifestyle. Our Landecker Democracy Fellowship shows that we can consciously and strategically shape democracy without having to sacrifice family life or professional mobility.
Are we pulling it off? Meet the inaugural cohort and find out for yourself. Fellows’ projects range from fighting for the rights of stateless people to building networks of professionals of color to training civilians for sea rescue missions in the Meditareanean Sea. Fellows work at the intersection of theatre, art and history or empower activists in repressive regimes, giving a voice to those left out. They educate others with curricula that represent history in a new multidimensional way. Others are mapping the housing structure in rural areas to accommodate those in need of an apartment or are training young adults in community organizing. We believe in our current and future Fellows to grow a network of professional shakers and movers for our democracies, thirty steps at a time.