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Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics: A Discussion with Danielle Allen

December 08, 2015

By Engagement Lab (Roma Dash)


Top Ten Questions for Change-makers Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics:

  1. Why does it matter to me?

  2. How much should I share?

  3. How do I make it about more than myself?

  4. Where do we start?

  5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?

  6. How do we get wisdom from crowds?

  7. How do we handle the downside of crowds?

  8. Does raising our voices count as civic and political action?

  9. How do we get from voice to changes?

  10. How can we find allies?

Tisch College recently held a brown-bag lunch discussion led by Danielle Allen, this year’s recipient of the 2015 Tisch Research Prize winner. Allen, a co-editor of the book From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, is also a member of the Youth Participatory Politics Research Network.

Those in attendance included Diane O’Donoghue: Senior Fellow for the Humanities at Tisch College; Dale Bryan, Peace and Justice Studies assistant director; Jennifer McAndrew, the Communications Manager at Tisch; Alberto Medina, Communications Specialist at Tisch; Steve Cohen, from the education department at Tufts; Sherri Sklarwitz, Associate Director of Student Programs;Jessica Byrnes, Special Projects Administrator at Tisch; and Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research; Director of CIRCLE; Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tufts. Together, working around a table, they responded to the ten questions listed above and came up with suggestions for how to integrate them into different communities.

The 10 basic design principles that Danielle Allen and her team of researchers design principles have come up with are aimed at Change-Makers, who make use of digital platforms to bring about changes by the way of participatory politics.

Allen is a member of MacArthur foundation research network on youth and participatory politics. The first goal of the research network is to get a better sense of how “youth engagement in the digital landscape is affecting their civic and political participation.” The second goal is to develop what MacArthur calls “action projects”; research into the production of tools that would be useful in the process of participatory politics.

Allen’s team is concerned with dealing with some core ethical questions like the impact of digital universe on politics issues like cyber bullying, and the degree to which young people succeed at sorting out the good source from the bad ones.

“We’ve been building in an ethical picture,” Allen said. “What counts as successful civic agency in a digital landscape?”

The research gave way to finding that thinking about platforms isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Building platforms can also give rise to vulnerability like the ease of being hacked.

“As a result, what we realized was that a lot of civic action engagement is where young people gather all the existing tools, most of which are commercial and sort of form bundles and tools that they’ve used to achieve their efforts.”

Throughout the basic principles, Allen and her team laid out their basic concerns, which where:

  1. How do we get youth involved?

  2. How do we keep them involved?

  3. How do we keep the process inclusive?

  4. Is there a way to apply the principles effectively? If so, what are they?

McAndrew came up with the idea of putting up online modules for training. It would be a perfect way to include the interested parties without alienating them. “These are busy people, volunteers and such,” she said, “In person training would be fantastic but a lot of these organizations don’t have the resources.” Focus should be on how to make it easy for others to join in. Online modules would allow the people to learn about these principles at their own convenience.

Another way of including the principles, said Madina, is to go to websites like Twitter. “It seems to me that the same questions with a slightly different lens might be the questions that they’re discussing at Twitter headquarters,. How do we get deeper healthier engagement? How do we elevate good content vs bad content?”

This way, the social networking websites, which are a huge part of the youth, will work in tandem with organizations to create a new protocol for civic engagement campaigns online. The method could also be a way to attract funding for the incorporation of the design principles.

Sklarwitz suggested that they structure it with students and curricula. (“This is how we get kids engaged and participating “). And, they work with students in terms of their social media literacy, Librarians would also make good targets for this project. “A lot of the education around tech use comes from part of the librarian’s role,” Sklarwitz said.

The principles could also be turned into a workshop or a series of workshops, maybe even included in a year-long curriculum in interschool programs or youth leadership programs.

As Levine said, “institutions are tools that people use to coordinate in our society.” Through the ways suggested by everyone, the purpose of the principles can be achieved. We can engage the youth, engage the institutions that structure these youths; and help them take civic action and raise their voices in a way that they be heard, and affect the changes in an effective manner.

The discussion concluded with three possible options for creating such pathways: through gaming, inclusion in school curriculum, and by creating a series of workshops.

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