EngagePerspectivesCommunities of Practice at Penn: Democracy
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Communities of Practice at Penn: Democracy

How can we learn together about our community at Penn and what practices best facilitate deliberative democracy? In the third episode of our series on communities of practice, we hear from the Andrea Mitchell Center about the study of Democracy, citizenship, and the constitution for the Penn community and beyond. Dr. Lia Howard is joined in conversation with Jeffrey Green, professor of political theory in Penn’s political science department and director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy; Matthew Roth, who is a historian and is the Assistant Director of the Andrea Mitchel Center; and Sarah Ropp, post doctoral fellow with the Andrea Mitchell Center and with the SNF Paideia program. She is a scholar of Comparative Literature and Childhood studies.

woman with her fist in the air

Excerpts from edited transcript.

Lia Howard: Thank you for the deeply important work you do at the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy to advance the research and understanding of deliberative democracy, citizenship and the Constitution for the Penn community and beyond. This past year has been such a challenging one and we’re so interested in curious to hear your ideas about the Penn community. Jeff, let’s start with you. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your role as the Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center, and your current research as a faculty member in Penn’s Political Science department?

Jeff Green: Sure. And thank you, Lia, for having us here to discuss these issues with you, and we really appreciate working with the program over the past year or two. I’ve been directing the Mitchell Center since 2017. And the Mitchell Center is committed really, to two broad missions. On the one hand, to foster scholarship about democracy at all levels from school to faculty. And on the other hand, to hold public events that includes the Penn community and the broader Philadelphia community and recently, more the whole world community through Zoom, to discuss issues that are vital to democratic societies.

And my research is as a political theorist in Penn’s Political Science department, I’ve been at Penn since 2008, and I’ve written on a wide array of topics, but I suppose the most dominant issue has been democracy. I’ve published [INAUDIBLE] to date. The first, The Eyes of the People — Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, asks what democracy can mean in light of the fact that most of us I think, engage with politics, not just with our voices making decisions, but with our eyes as spectators.

And the second book, The Shadow of Unfairness, A Plebeian Theory of Democracy, looks at the problem of the fact that socioeconomic status, even in the most egalitarian country, seems to predict political involvement. And what can we do about democracy, what can we say democracy means going forward in light of that seemingly intractable problem. And I’m currently finishing a book on Bob Dylan, which believe it or not, does connect to democratic themes, engaging with Dylan from a philosophical perspective. And I’m finishing that up as we speak.

Lia Howard: Wow, I can’t wait to read that book on Dylan. That sounds so great. And of course, your other work as well, very fascinating. Matt, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, about your role as the assistant director of the Andrea Mitchell Center?

Matt Roth: Sure, and I’d like to, again, add our thanks to Paideia for working with us for this past year and having us on the podcast. So outside of the Mitchell Center, I received a PhD in history from Rutgers. And I have published a book on the History of the soybean as an American crop called Magic Bean. I’ve worked at the Mitchell Center since 2013 when it was actually still its predecessor organization, that Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism.

As far as my role goes, I do a lot more of the logistics and arranging events, bringing in speakers and making sure the events go off as they should. As well as publicizing them with a lot of attention to trying to, I don’t know, guess you would say put butts in seats or eyeballs on the screen, just so that the value we create through our events actually has an impact in actual people’s heads. And maybe plant some seeds of ideas that will bloom in later years in various people’s heads. So that’s kind of how I see my role and goals at the Mitchell Center.

Lia Howard: Matt, thanks so much. Another book I need to read about soybeans– that’s sounds fascinating too. Sarah, I wonder if you might tell us a bit about yourself, your role as a postdoc at the Andrea Mitchell Center.

Sarah Ropp: Hi, Lia, thanks for including me in this conversation. My work as a postdoc with the Andrea Mitchell Center includes a few different things. I’m at work right now on a book proposal for a manuscript called The Prosthetic Child– Post-Trauma Literature from the US, Argentina, and the Netherlands, which is about rhetorics of victimhood and resilience in context following wide-scale collective trauma that have been experienced as threats to democracy. So post-occupation Netherlands, post-dictatorship Argentina, and post-9/11 US. And the sort of special place that the child victim/survivor occupies in memory discourse, and the lived impact of those rhetorics on real children who negotiate that through life writing afterwards.

I work with Jeff in sort of mentoring the Mitchell Center undergraduate research fellows through their capstone projects. I also work with the Paideia program doing dialogue-focused work. So I have a blog series this semester that’s up at the Paideia blog that focuses on the role of dialogue in anti-oppression pedagogy and movements. And I’m hosting the dialogue workshop about positionality and discourse. Next semester, I’ll be teaching a dialogue-focused course through the Paideia program. I think that’s mainly what I’ve got going on as a postdoc here at Penn.

Lia Howard: Well, we’re so, so fortunate to share you with the Andrea Mitchell Center. And thank you for sharing about what you do and what you study. So I want to think a bit with you all about the Penn community and what it looks like from your vantage point at the Andrea Mitchell Center. You’re experts at probing democracy, and we’d like to think about what it looks like– democracy, I mean– from our context here at Penn.

So Jeff, can we start with you. When you think of the Penn community, what comes to mind? In a place as large and diverse as Penn, how do you balance the need for a unified campus, especially in the current pandemic, with respect for an awareness of the many distinct mini communities here? Are there lessons we can learn from political theory, questions you ask that can help us better understand some of the tensions within the Penn community?

Jeff Green: Yes, I mean, it is a very large and diverse community at Penn, as far as I can tell. And I think the tradition of political theory is one that from almost its very beginning in the West, has been about dialogue and conversation. Plato didn’t write in his own voice, but brought together different voices in a discussion. And I think that deep connection of philosophy to dialogue is also relevant to how we think about putting on events at the Andrea Mitchell Center, which tries to usually include multiple perspectives. And to get those perspectives to engage with each other.

And I should say that when I’m thinking about the multiple perspectives in the community here, I’m not only thinking of the different ideologies and affinity groups that make up the Penn campus, but also thinking about the Penn campus as one community or many community vis-a-vis the broader Philadelphia community, and now in the Zoom world, the broader audience that comes from the digital audience. And so we’re trying to bring together not just different groups within Penn, but also at the same time, people from outside of Penn who often seamlessly interact at our events as question askers, sometimes, of course, as participants.

And when an event is going well for us, I think it feels that it has that rich dialogue, that diversity of perspectives, and that integration of both the Penn community proper and the broader community, which from a certain perspective, is part of Penn too. So it’s not one, I think, answer. But in general, we try to do lots of different events, including lots of different people and perspectives, and try to get dialogue across those perspectives to occur.

Lia Howard: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much. And I appreciate how we share dialogue as well. Not just Sarah, but dialogue as well. Matt, would you add anything? What does this look like at the big vision level and then at the programmatic level?

Matt Roth: Well, I would emphasize what Jeff emphasized about bringing in the wider public, which was actually something we did with the Penn program on democracy, citizenship, and constitutionalism, even before it was the Andrea Mitchell Center, and at a time that it was more, I would say, less public facing than it is now. We always had our events free and open to the public. We like to engage members of the public to come in.

And I think that that’s actually not incidental to the Penn community, but sort of a core part of the concept. We had an online event last year about pilots, all of the discussion on payments in lieu of taxes that some people are arguing that Penn should pay. And one of the points that one of the presenters made was that Penn has a status as a nonprofit and doesn’t pay taxes in part because of the value it’s supposed to provide to the wider public and to the wider community.

So I think seeing the wider community as part of the Penn community you know should be seen as kind of a core part of not just the mission at the Mitchell Center, but I guess it’s the university’s mission. And programmatically, again, we’ve always tried to bring in the public, and since we’ve been the Mitchell Center, I think we’ve done that more and more.

Lia Howard: Thank you so much. I appreciate you both probing the idea of community being larger than Penn in many different ways. Sarah, what would you like to add? As someone relatively new to Penn, what have you learned about the Penn community, Penn students, and Penn culture?

Sarah Ropp: Well, I’m still very new here, I feel. And I feel like I’m still very much in learning and absorption and observation mode. In my interactions with Penn students via the Mitchell Center undergraduate fellows and the Paideia fellows, Penn students are amazing. They are very bright, they’re very articulate. They seem to have very clear convictions and senses of direction.

I’m still very curious to continue to learn more as someone who is not just a newcomer to Penn specifically, but is coming from a background of public education, both as a student and a teacher. An Ivy League University campus is a very new world to me, and so I’m very curious about where the folks in the Penn community are coming from, what their experiences have been. And I’m looking forward to continuing to interact with both Penn students and faculty and learning more about that.

I can say that everyone that I’ve interacted with has been incredibly welcoming, incredibly kind. Whether it’s Jeff and Matt at the Mitchell Center or you, Lia, and Leah Anderson, Lisa Marie everyone at the Paideia program as well. And I’m slowly starting to build a little network and connect to people here.

Lia Howard: Well, I’m so glad to hear that. So many recent books seem to highlight the fragility of US democracy. One such book written by a US national Security Council official, Fiona Hill, titled There’s Nothing for You Here– Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, suggests that the US democracy is moving towards autocracy. These books make me wonder about what we as citizens can do when faced with these troubling trends. How are individual citizens connected to their government. Do the individual actions and practices of citizens make them complicit in building a democracy, or conversely can citizens help to course correct through their individual actions to reshape a more democratic society?

Jeff, what kinds of practices do you use already at the Mitchell Center to help students better understand democracy and their role as citizens? Going forward, what other practices would you like to maybe introduce to continue to build vibrant and inclusive community at Penn?

Jeff Green: Well, Lia, I think the thing that comes to mind right off the bat would be the Penn Political Union, which is one of the initiatives we organize and sponsor at the Andrea Mitchell Center. And this is a student-level, student-led multi-partisan parliamentary organization. The students organize themselves in five political parties from across the political spectrum. They debate themselves and outside speakers from the realm of politics, journalism, activism, academia, and so forth.

And it’s a very vibrant part of the Mitchell Center. And I think it doesn’t just create a forum for people to discuss ongoing democratic issues and debates, but it models a kind of civic behavior where you make impassioned but reasoned pleas for a perspective. You do so self-consciously coming from a particular ideological background. And you do so knowing that there are people who disagree with you. And so it seems that given the current climate, that type of practice is especially important, and one that we’re very focused on cultivating here at the Mitchell Center.

In terms of other things that we might want to pursue going forward to make democracy even more inclusive and to help resist this fear of democratic backsliding, I would emphasize that from a philosophical perspective, I think it’s quite interesting that there are other meanings of democracy besides voting, besides having your voice represented. One of the oldest definitions of democracy coming from Aristotle is that it’s the rule of poorer people.

And whether or not you agree with Aristotle, that suggestion that there is an economic dimension to democratic empowerment is one that in a sense, we’ve tried to speak to our recently begun series a couple of years ago, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, which invites usually scholars, but it could be anyone, to come in and discuss work that is all about the material aspects to democratic life. The way that work life or economic issues, inequality, and competing ideologies of capitalism and socialism and all those in between is informing our democratic experience and is providing suggestions for how that experience might be improved going forward.

Lia Howard: Wow, Jeff, that’s excellent. I really appreciate that definition from Aristotle and the inclusion of economics in our discussion of democracy. Fascinating. Matt, what might you add?

Matt Roth: Well, again, I would second what Jeff said, especially about the Penn Political Union as modeling a certain type of I don’t think just civic behavior, but a way of thinking. I think commitment to democracy requires this weird kind of double brain or double mind, where in one half, you have your personal convictions, your commitment to certain policies and ideas that you naturally think if these could just win out once and for all, the world would be a far better place, and everything would be great.

But then and the other half of your brain, you have a commitment to the idea that nobody has a corner on truth. That many of your own ideas and policy commitments are probably way off and way wrong. And that everyone benefits by having basically this never-ending process of arguing and compromising with one another. So it’s a hard kind of mindset to maintain. And I hope in programs like the Penn Political Union as well as more generally, the fact that we try to bring in, again, a variety of perspectives from across the political spectrum, that we do kind of model that mentality.

Lia Howard: Well, Penn Political Union sounds like a tremendous program. Thank you for sharing that. Sarah, what might you add?

Sarah Ropp: I really appreciate what Jeff and Matt have said. And I would just add that I identify as a teacher more than anything– more than a scholar, more than an activist or anything else. For me in my own work and in my own life, the beginnings of a more democratic society are always a more democratic classroom. Community can feel really abstract to me when I try to think about it in a larger sense. Society can feel really abstract. But 20 people together in a classroom feels very concrete and intimate to me as a form of community and as a small microcosmic society.

And so I think that in my own work, I’m always trying to think about how can my classroom be truly inclusive, how can it be truly student-centered, bottom up, mutually supportive. And a place where each person, at least within that space, is a full citizen with all of the rights and responsibilities that that entails. And the hope is that the experience of having been a part of that kind of community within a classroom expands outward as people then go and are interacting with all of the other communities that they’re a part of.

Lia Howard: Wow, Sarah, that’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing about your classroom and your philosophy with teaching. Love that. So I want to spend the last little bit of our interview together just reflecting. This past year and a half has been deeply challenging. We’re living through a pandemic, which has altered the way we live and work. We’ve been exposed to tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and chilling acts of anti-Asian bias. Yet we’ve witnessed widespread protest marches, where people of all races have joined together to decry these deep injustices.

We’ve experienced political toxicity, polarization, and even an insurrection on our Capitol building in Washington DC. Yet we’ve also seen a record amount of voting and political participation. All of these things have influenced the way we as US citizens think about our US community, and have rippled out to affect the way we think about Penn as well. In short, living in community is both challenging and invigorating, deeply painful, yet at times deeply rewarding. We want to examine, what are some of the challenges and joys of your work with the Penn community. So Jeff, what are some of the things that have been challenging this year, and what have been some of the things that have brought you joy, hope, and encouragement?

Jeff Green: Well, Lia, I would say that the most, I think, direct alteration of my experience at Penn has been being on Zoom so much and not being face to face. That’s beginning to change now as we’re back to mostly on person events on the Penn campus. And I think as many would say that something was lost in the classroom, thinking in particular of Sarah’s nice emphasis on that being a core of what we are doing as educators, when the students and the teachers are not able to meet together and have those informal, spontaneous discussions before and after, and even during class. And I think that has been a challenge. That has felt like somewhat of a loss.

But at the same time, that technology has given me at other times some sense of in your terms, you know, joy, hope, and encouragement. For one thing, from a Mitchell Center perspective, we in the past year were reaching people at 150 different universities and colleges because of our going online. And so there was a different sense of the community we were reaching and a much more global one. And that was exciting in.

And a different way, I think the move towards more online platforming has made it more likely that more people within the Mitchell Center community feel that they can take a leading role and put on an event and have their own sense of what we should be focusing on done. And so if Matt wants to put on an event, if Sarah wants to put on an event, if our graduate fellows or former people we’ve been partnered with want to do something, we’re better than ever equipped to pursue their vision and to feel like we can include them.

And so it’s not that has to always go on online, those events that can come from anywhere within the Mitchell Center community. But I think there is something about the move to Zoom that motivated that shift towards a slightly more decentralized, all-inclusive approach to our programming that I also think is very exciting.

Lia Howard: Wow, 150 different universities. That’s incredible. So interesting. Now Matt, how would you respond to that question?

Matt Roth: Well I think to add to what Jeff says, the main realization has been that fewer things are kind of set in stone than we thought before. And I think in general, those of us who have been lucky enough to muddle through this period and kind of sort of make things work and not lose a job or a home or a loved one, there’s been some sense of confidence and hope in that things can get upended. And that it’s possible to adapt and come up with new ways of doing things and sometimes opening up new possibilities, as Jeff was mentioning.

So I think that, again, from the personal to the community to the broadest sense, has kind of been the experience of the last– how long has it been– a year and a half now?

Lia Howard: Yeah, yeah. Thank you, great. Sarah, how about you? How would you respond to that question?

Sarah Ropp: Well, it’s challenging to feel isolated. It’s challenging to stare into a screen all of the time. It’s challenging to move across the country and feel doubly isolated through COVID and through being an outsider who’s new to a place. I think that what all of our zooming has shown me is that desire for community is strong enough to transcend the digital barrier and transcend the awkwardness and the fatigue of Zoom at times.

And that it is still possible, and as Jeff was alluding to, sometimes possible in increased and expanded ways. There are ways in which the digital allows for new forms of inclusion that is really exciting. And I started teaching an ESL class this week as a volunteer with the Nationalities Service Center here in Philadelphia, and I just spent an hour and a half this morning with a group of 10 adult immigrant learners from very diverse backgrounds.

And despite the digital barrier, despite the language barrier, we had a really wonderful and really emotional conversation about loneliness and missing home. And we ended on a note of affirmation about the community that we could create in our class and the kinds of support that we could offer each other through loneliness and through isolation, which for the students who are immigrants and refugees, is a kind of alienation or estrangement from home that is compounded far beyond what I have experienced during COVID or in my move to Philadelphia from Texas.

And that is incredibly hope-giving to me, and incredibly encouraging that we could feel really connected to one another. each on our different computers, all in Philadelphia, but still far away from each other because of Zoom. And yet close to one another also because of Zoom.

Lia Howard: Wow. Thank you so much, Sarah, and thank you so much to all of our guests– to Matt and Jeff as well. We’ve enjoyed our time with you so much and are so grateful for the ways you serve and care for the Penn community.

Please join us in January as we visit with another one of our partner organizations to learn about their thoughts on the Penn community and the practices they use to sustain their work here.

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