International Democratic Education Conference

University of Colorado Boulder at the foot of the Flatiron Mountains.

University of Colorado Boulder at the foot of the Flatiron Mountains site of IDEC.

August 4, 2013

The International Democratic Educational Conference (IDEC) has just begun today for the next five days at University of Colorado at Boulder.  Over 400 education change makers from all over the world are attending the annual conference which was last held in the U.S. ten years ago.  Lindsey Cox and myself are attending from Partnership for Change.  The goal of the conference is to create a space for education change makers to connect and share ideas about transforming our communities and schools so that all young people can meaningfully engage in their education and acquire the tools to build a just, sustainable, and democratic world.

The conference has been designed to employ learn and share workshops.  As opposed to having a presenter conduct a workshop for 90 minutes, IDEC’s structure allows for the opportunity for ideas to be shared by all collaboratively that facilitates engagement with the topics of interest.  This approach models democratic education at its best creating the space for dialogue and sharing knowledge.  Each session has an assigned facilitator to act as a space holder and ideas are shared on a visible learning wall.

For each day there is a theme.  The theme for the first day of the conference is history.  We learned about the 21 year history of IDEC along with the history of democratic education.  Yaacov Hecht, who started the first conference in Israel, talked about where the democratic education movement is and how it is poised to bring about significant change in the next five years.  Hecht talked about the importance of the movement having a moral center and always prepared to reinvent itself.

August 5, 2013

Today’s theme for the conference was vision.  Selected participants have been grouped in daily “coffee talks” which are theme-driven conversations without PowerPoint presentations.  The four participants spoke to the theme and responded to questions presented by a facilitator.  I chose the family and community “coffee talk.”  The vision of democratic education was discussed and several definitions emerged from the audience, yet all were similar.  I feel that what we are doing in the Partnership for Change, innovatively engaging our community and our educators to rebuild the high schools of Winooski and Burlington into student-centered, proficiency-based learning systems is another definition of democratic education.  And, I think it is a powerful one.  It is exciting to know that there are education change makers all over the world doing similar work.

I experienced my first “learn and share” sessions today.  I chose two sessions in the category of Family and Community: “Wisdom of the Circle – Circle-Based Practices” and “Innovative Learning to Build Strong Community.”  I was able to draw on my experiences from the Partnership as well as the work I did with NeighborKeepers.  It was reassuring to hear about best practices from others that aligned with my thinking and experiences.

This conference is unlike any I have attended before.  A common critique of conferences is that the agendas are so full that there is little or no time to connect and reflect with others.  Here at IDEC that has been flipped because we are the agenda with regards to what we bring to each session.  As I learned in the morning “coffee talk,” democratic education is not a hierarchical structure but a networked system connecting people and ideas that encompass our entire community.

August 6, 2013

The theme for the conference today was connection.  The presenters at the “coffee talk” shared their inspirations of connecting their work with themselves.  All talked about the importance of being in relationships with authentic connections to each other in order to do the work of democratic education.

I participated in two learn and share sessions today, “Bringing Community Resources into Schools” and “Community and School Partnerships.”  Not only were strategies discussed about engaging business and non-profit partners but also parents.  At a Jeffco public school in Jefferson County, CO parents are asked what interests do they have when registering their child for school.  The understanding is that they may be called to the school or the class may come to them to learn from them.  Many parents stay involved with the school after their child has graduated because it is a very meaningful connection to the school.

Each day we wrap up in our home-base group, a cohort we were selected into to debrief our day.  Several young people who are following the youth track for learn and share talked about their frustrations of adults dominating the conversations at the expense of some young people not sharing.  I related that this is a challenge for the Partnership for Change and suggested that maybe setting up a youth caucus led by youth could create the space for open, honest conversation among youth.  Our group talked about how power and privilege always seemed to emerge in the conversations and sometimes dominated the discussion.  I suggested giving conference participants the option to do a self-assessment to understand where they are on the continuum of becoming culturally intelligent and inclusive.  Having this awareness can be instrumental in our development to have authentic connections to people different than ourselves.

August 7, 2013

Today’s theme was equity.  The coffee talk was reconfigured to combine four individual sessions into one.  There was passionate discussion about how and why equity plays out in democratic education.  Two different schools of thought emerged.  The first was that democratic education must be achieved through the lens of social equity while the other point of view was that social equity must be achieved through the lens of democratic education.  Although this conversation was extended because so many had something to say, it underscored for me that a deeper conversation about power and privilege was needed.

A number of white participants pushed back and were upset that power and privilege was in the conversation while many people of color felt that it was the elephant in the room.  This was revealed by some brave youth of color, two of them from Burlington High School, who spoke their truths about how power and privilege has been used in their school experience causing them harm and internalized racial oppression.  It had been my experience of interacting with some white participants who did not have a clue about the impact of their power and privilege.

I suggested to several of the conference organizers why it might be important for all conference participants to know perhaps through a self-assessment tool where they are on the continuum to be inclusive, multi-cultural, inclusive, and anti-racist.  Such awareness could inform one what kind of preparation they might need to authentically engage in tough conversations about equity.  We cannot gain and grow into an inclusive and equitable community unless we go through the pain necessary for creating democratic education.



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