Understanding Democracy: Join the free participative course in Glasgow

Ben Wray

John Rogers, course facilitator of a free participative course on democracy in Glasgow, explains the experience of the last democracy course and the plans for the next one, which begins on 20 November. To get involved contact johnrogers680@gmail.com

‘UNDERSTANDING DEMOCRACY’ is a ten week course designed to get us thinking about what we think democracy is today and if we are getting enough of it.  It is discussion-based with a set of trigger questions and exercises to stimulate discussion.  Although there are comprehensive handouts, the plan is for us to learn from each other. 

The aim is to explore how democracy emerged, what it is or could be, how democratic our country is, and what we can do about it.

We ran the course for eight people in the spring of this year, and the reactions from the evaluation were very positive, so that we plan to run more courses in the autumn and in the New Year.

Participants wanted to learn about democracy especially in the context of barriers set up by neoliberalism, and by the limits of our political system in genuinely offering opportunities to us to be part of the decision-making process.   And people enjoyed the debates that arose.

READ MORE – Robin McAlpine: Why my worries about democracy don’t start in Brazil

As course facilitator, I had initially thought the set of trigger questions would be enough, but the more I researched the subject the more I felt the need to include information on our voting systems, and the actual government structure.  And the history of our struggle for democracy is important, including some of the individuals who have made a difference, like Mary Barbour, here in Glasgow.  Then there is neoliberalism, which Aditya Chakrabortty describes as having been a ‘con trick’ on Britain, having ‘ripped off you off and robbed you blind’, and is a huge obstacle to democracy, which lots of us only have a vague notion of as to what it really is and how it affects our lives.

The course aimed to look at how confident we feel about getting active, and the extent to which a lack of knowledge inhibits us.  Neoliberalism makes us feel alone, in survival mode, but we’re not.   After all, it ‘takes a village to make a child’.  We are social beings above all else with natural empathic feelings towards our fellow citizens.  So generating a sense of ‘us’ seemed important, which could be achieved through the group activities and the discussions both in small groups and in the larger group. 

George Monbiot is one of several writers who describe how ‘narratives’ play an important role in how we see ourselves and the possibilities for making changes.   Those not in activist groups lack a forum in which to test out ideas and hear new ones, so the course provides just such a forum via group discussion and some group activities.

READ MORE: ‘We’re not going to be ruled by decree’: How a retired social worker got active and began running free courses on democracy and neoliberalism

People shared news articles they had come across, aspects of their work or activist work, and this enhanced learning, especially for those not actively involved, strengthens networks.

Making the course material fun seemed important, so the handouts, while including lots of information and ideas, also included cartoons and quotes from songs and poetry.  A ‘Democracy CD’, was included which people seemed to enjoy, and still seem to be listening to.  Researching all the possible songs was quite fun!

Participants enjoyed the activities and discussions especially getting other people’s views and ideas, and found the information stimulating.  One commented, ‘we worked democratically together’.  Another commented that ‘the balance between the group exercises and the information was fantastic: It was a very accessible learning experience which didn’t feel like a lecture or a passive experience’.  Some wanted a certificate of completion of the course (so this will be offered next time!).  Participants thought 10 weeks was a big commitment, so we will offer the course in 5-week chunks.

Experienced activists take a lot of the information for granted, but those of us who are not so knowledgeable, and perhaps a little unconfident in voicing views, need the opportunity to discuss what democracy is, could be, and how we can get together in contributing to decision-making.  Getting that sense of ‘us’ which can confront the government’s determined efforts to generate a sense there are lots of ‘them’ around seems very important, especially now.

READ MORE – John Rogers: If we’re really serious about getting change the fragmentation of activism needs to end

People felt ‘the State has backed off from a policy of Adult Community Education and this Democracy course goes some way to meeting that need.  People need opportunities to meet and talk in a structured manner.’

In the light of feedback from participants, some of the course has been rewritten, and added to, plus there are even better songs on the CD!  We are looking forward to running the course again.  After all it is a learning experience for facilitators as much as participants.

The courses will run at:

Pollokshaws Area Network, 132, Shawbridge Street as from 20 November for 5 weeks.  Times– 7.00pm till 9.00pm.  The second block will be arranged with the group.

The Space, 257, London Road as from 16 January for 5 weeks.  Times—7.00pm till 9,00pm.  A second block will be arranged with the group.

Picture courtesy of Alex Schlotzer

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