Follow the (student) Leaders for (fun) Democracy

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Paha Sapa: Play it Forward fun

Also published at DemocracyU

What can students do about democracy?

While debate echoes in Congress and conference rooms about democracy, kids are achieving it via basketball in cul-de-sacs and YMCAs.

Lest I’m thumped over the head by sophisticated thinkers for over-simplifying, I’ll add:  Coordinating a multi-faceted movement to transform the United States is not child’s play.  We can’t succeed without the wisdom of age and experience.

In fact, I’d say our civic situation requires all people get off the sidelines and get moving.

Still, consider the lessons of a recent student-led democracy-in-action narrative:

Three adolescents joined three elementary school kids, animatedly debating how to divvy up teams for pick-up basketball on a local court. In seconds a flash mob swarmed—all colors and ages of both-gendered students, from preschool to post-secondary.

Simple rules and rights were negotiated: let all play and none get hurt.

Alternately arguing and laughing while stampeding from net to net, the players navigated diverse abilities in the shared space.  Unknowingly creating an example of collective choice in collaborative action.  By satisfying self-interests and common good, complete with “adaptive governance.”

A Dad and I played, too, orienting and adjudicating their “model” as hybrid referee/coaches.

Others gathered, stunned—among them sweaty jocks. A Muslim mom noted the pro-social skills children were teaching adults.  Another, a Hispanic whose daughter organized younger players recruited a nearby parent to help encourage the high-schooler’s leadership in after-school work.

What do this fledgling leader and her co-players offer our democracy?

The lived-experience lessons their contagious play provides are catalyzing their emergent civic agency —and alert adults impressed by their expedient, effective methods are learning, too.

Their “practical imperatives first” way inspires my deliberative discourse work, including DynamicShift.

And Paha Sapa: Play it Forward, facilitated by researchers from University of Minnesota’s Citizen Professional Center. It engages government and business to follow citizen’s lead for grassroots reform.  To achieve health and connection through physical play activities in local parks and other public places.  Echoing the students’ practice of inclusive spontaneity.

A recent event drew hundreds, all types, dodge-balling, ducking tackles and dancing—among them Elizabeth KautzWhich reminded me of conversation she and I shared when Kautz, our Mayor, was President of the US Council of Mayors.

Civic engagement is serious work, advised Kautz. It requires initiative, cooperation and sustained cross-sector efforts from students to senior leaders. But participatory democracy parallels important aspects of pick-up games.

Including, says Kautz, because it is “Fun!”


Andrea Morisette Grazzini founded DynamicShift in 2009.

She is founder of WetheP a cross-sector civic engagement company. She also serves as a leadership innovations consultant and participatory researcher.  Her work has influenced numerous regional, national and global conversations on co-productive change. Including We the People, the national movement by Center for Democracy and CitizenshipAmerican Democracy Project, American Association of State Colleges and Universities and The White House Office for Public Engagement.

Essays and dialogues by Andrea are available at numerous forums, including online TEDTalks.



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