Dukakis Center hosts international conference on "Civic Engagement and the Practices of Democracy"

Dukakis center medallion

"What needs to change more, the citizenry, elected offices, or the political system?"

So asked Professor Gerry Stoker, of the Universities of Southampton and Canberra, in the keynote lecture to the international conference "Civic Engagement and the Practices of Democracy," held at the Met Hotel on April 18 under the auspices of the Michael and Kitty Dukakis Center for Public and Humanitarian Service of the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), in collaboration with the Public Opinion Research Unit of the University of Macedonia Research Institute.

The conference featured twenty scholars, civil servants, and practitioners in the private sector and in civil society, for a wide-ranging and stimulating debate of problems in contemporary democratic governance – in Greece, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, and, indeed, around the world. The speakers included representatives of the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki, who discussed their efforts to increase citizen engagement in resolving urban problems.

Nikos Marantzidis and Georgios Siakas revealed the findings of a nation-wide poll the Dukakis Center commissioned to study the phenomenon of apohi in Greece in recent elections. Their findings echoed research conducted by several other speakers, such as Richard Fox of the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who has asked why young people do not consider seriously running for public office.

Why not get engaged? It would appear that large segments of the population are motivated by fear and anger not to get involved, despite a near-universal sentiment throughout Europe and North America that the system does not work. The pessimism that pervaded many of the presentations at the conference could not mask the fact that efforts are being made in many sectors of society to inspire greater engagement – from specific departments and programs in municipal administrations, to educators in public and private educational institutions – including democratic schools right here in Greece, to activists and practitioners in civil society.

Where Gerry Stoker asked where we need to start to reform our political systems and revive our faith in democracy, Melinda Haring of the American think tank the Atlantic Council issued a note of caution. The United States and many European countries invest heavily in strengthening democratic practices and institutions in many former communist and authoritarian countries. Some, like Azerbaijan, would seem to be lost causes. Despite our hopes and claims, democracy might not be a universal value.

Meanwhile, Lancie Syllvia, Director of Engagement at the Philadelphia-based branding agency Here's My Chance, noted that while the get-out-the-vote campaign she oversaw in Philadephia, "Next Stop Democracy," did not necessarily produce a spike in voter turnout in the city's last municipal elections, the local artists she commissioned to produce the street art campaign she conceived did flip the artist community and certain underprivileged groups that avoid the polling station perennially.

The youngest participant at the conference, 24 year old Mayara Soares, a Brazilian national studying politics in Paris, gave a stirring pitch for the organization she represents, Voxe.org, which is actively involved in pro-democracy activities wherever there are democratic elections. She is convinced that democracy is worth fighting for, and is acting on that premise, for example, campaigning to compel the governor of Brazil's largest state to improve the quality of classrooms in public schools.

Such stirring words and deeds were not lost on her lcal audience. As one recent ACT alumna later gushed on social media, «I was very very happy that the Dukakis Center continues to inspire young people as you always did! This is what doing public service means, offering youth inspiration and knowledge!»

Theme info: www.sxetika.com