The Democracy Wall: How to Promote Civic Engagement
by Cate McNamara
THE GOAL OF THE DEMOCRACY WALL PROJECT is to promote civic engagement and civil discourse within communities. The project leverages the fact that most people view libraries as one of the most trusted public institutions. This sentiment cuts across race, ethnicity, gender, age, and income lines, supporting the value most people attribute to libraries within their communities.
|Overall, a total of 15 questions were asked systematically throughout the 12 library branches and generated more than 2,000 responses over an 8-month period.
The Democracy Wall Project started at the South Mountain Community Library in 2014. It uses low technology: a whiteboard and dry-erase markers. A biweekly question is posted to the wall that supports an overall theme. At their convenience, library customers participate in the project by reading the question and posted responses, along with writing out their own response to it.
In 2017–2018, the library was awarded an IMLS grant—distributed by the Arizona State Library—to expand the Democracy Wall Project into most of the Phoenix Public Library branches. The questions posed during this cycle were focused around neighborhood and community concerns, as well as the impact of city of Phoenix services.
Rolling It Out
Every 2 weeks, a Democracy Wall Project question was emailed to the participating library branches, providing some general consistency of when the questions would be posted. Each library would write out the question on its own democracy wall. Examples of questions are listed on the next page.
Tell Us …
- “Why do you like our Library?”
- “What could the City do to encourage you to ride a bicycle more?”
- “What is the best thing about living in your neighborhood?”
- “What are your thoughts about Police services within Phoenix?”
- “Do you like having the Democracy Wall Project in your library and why?”
Participating libraries took pictures of their walls to record the responses. Those responses were tabulated, and the data was posted in a Google spreadsheet to be further analyzed using qualitative software. Where applicable, specific city officials were given the responses to the questions as a means to additionally integrate community voices into public policy development.
At the time, Phoenix was in the process of creating a strategic plan for expanding bicycle services. While the city used multiple means to encourage community feedback, the Democracy Wall Project allowed for the data capture to be taken in a comfortable and safe setting that citizens were used to—their libraries. In the 12 public libraries participating in the project, approximately 200 responses were collected from this question and given to the city’s bicycle coordinator to be considered in formulating parts of the strategic plan to promote bicycle usage. This aspect of the project is an important loop back into the promotion of civic engagement. While the whiteboard questions emphasize the importance of expressing one’s thoughts and using one’s voice to contribute to overall conversations, this feedback loop demonstrates that expressing your voice matters in the creation of public policy and, ultimately, allocation of city resources into specific community areas.
In this case, expected responses of “more bike lanes” and “safer bike lanes” were prevalent; however, unexpected responses of “provide lessons on how to ride a bike,” “provide free bike repair clinics,” and “provide programs that support low-income areas to rent bikes for free or reduced rates” identified particular needs within certain neighborhoods that hadn’t been previously recognized.
Case Study Assessment and Outcomes
Both quantitative and qualitative measures were used to determine the project outcomes. Participation surveys were available at all participating library branches. Eight out of 12 libraries responded, with multiple answers from each. The survey forms tabulated only include those in which respondents indicated some type of direct participation in the Democracy Wall Project. A total of 115 surveys were coded and analyzed.
Important highlights of the project outcomes include the following:
- About 91% agreed that they valued seeing different views expressed on the Democracy Wall, with 52% strongly agreeing. On a national level, it is easy to see how polarized the country is becoming; however, these data suggest that on the local level, we are more accepting of different viewpoints.
- Roughly 91% agreed that they valued the diversity of the Democracy Wall questions asked. This is important, because it reflects the need of communities to have conversations about a broad range of topics that are important within those communities and that the library is a space to have those conversations.
- About 89% agreed that the Democracy Wall Project promotes civic engagement.
- Roughly 94% agreed that they wanted to see the Democracy Wall Project continue within their library.
Taken together, these data provide evidence that continues to support the overall academic literature addressing the need for American institutions to support civic engagement. Participants not only valued the opportunity to be involved, but because our project spotlighted city of Phoenix services and neighborhood concerns, the data suggest that library respondents want to see the library play a role in supporting conversations that impact their community.
The demographic data of the survey participants established that adults (19 years and older) were the primary audience and represented 86% of the overall survey respondents. Of this age group, 75% identified as being a registered voter. This corresponds to national data supporting the idea that those who are registered to vote are more inclined to engage in other civic activities. The “Not registered to vote” and the “Not old enough to vote” categories equaled 19%—or nearly 1 in 5 of the respondents who participated in the Democracy Wall Project. These data suggest that even though those respondents do not have a “voting voice” yet, they want to participate in the larger conversation of things that they feel are important. This implies there is a big opportunity that libraries and community leaders should capitalize on. Since 13% of those who participated in the project were not old enough to even register to vote, the data suggest that there are opportunities for libraries to provide teens and youths with outlets to express their opinions on community issues.
The last question posted directly to our walls asked for overall comments about the Democracy Wall Project. Overwhelmingly, positive comments were provided, including the following:
“It allows me to express myself without fear of being ashamed.”
“It helps build a sense of community. Please keep the questions coming!”
“It gives us the liberty to change our community one decision at a time!!!”
“It gives people a place to share ideas.”
“Freedom of speech is part of what makes me proud of this country. This library rocks!”
Overall, a total of 15 questions were asked systematically throughout the 12 library branches and generated more than 2,000 responses over an 8-month period.
Tips for Hosting Your Own Democracy Wall
As you can tell from the description of our Democracy Wall Project, all you need to get started is a whiteboard, some markers, and a few questions to ask. Here are some other things you might consider.
One of the best ways to promote a Democracy Wall Project is through social media. Creating your own unique hashtag as part of the overall marketing campaign is important. This allows your library customers to post about their own participation in the project and thus further promote it within their social media networks. Encouraging your library customers to post videos, photos, and their own responses can energize the marketing for your project. This creates a word-of-mouth effect within social media spaces and leverages your potential outreach in promoting the project.
While it might seem outdated, creating a blog to mirror the Democracy Wall Project would also create an opportunity to integrate the project into various classrooms. Public and school libraries could work with teachers to create questions that better support the use of the library into particular curriculum or school projects. With the use of computers being so pervasive within classroom settings, students can easily respond to the whiteboard questions via the blog. Likewise, it can be integrated into course management systems. This pathway can be an effective and innovative approach to better integrating the library into classroom settings and having more of a direct impact on student learning outcomes.
IMLS funding for our project allowed for the creation of a professional video (youtu.be/aRrw7GvN1a4) that described the overall project goals and outcomes. However, creating smaller videos of your project is a great way to promote it throughout your community. People are engaged by what they see, and even technological neophytes can create video clips in a short amount of time. Encouraging your library customers to create their own videos can also be a fun way to see the project from their point of view.
As part of supporting community trust and building community capacity, invite your library customers to take ownership of the project. A few times a year, I post a question that asks, “What questions do you want to see posted on the Democracy Wall?” This invites community members to shape the direction of the conversation. Librarians have a lot on their plates, and engaging the community in taking ownership of what conversations they want to have is essential. Your community members want to have a conversation, but they also want to frame what the discussion topic is—which is huge because it reflects the day-to-day impact that libraries can have within their communities.
Ultimately, this project can be shaped how you see fit. At the end of the day, providing a means for your community members to participate in civil conversations on topics that are important to them has a significant and lasting impact. Not only does it underscore the value of voice, both at the individual and community levels, but it expands the role of libraries as a means of promoting civic engagement. It adds another color to the creative palette of products and services libraries bring to their communities.