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Voice and choice

Seth Andrew says his work explores what it means to have an educated and engaged citizenry

MARLBORO—Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Builders and the new Degrees of Freedom at the soon-to-be former Marlboro College campus, explained the importance of civil lives and middle-class lifestyles.

Andrew said his family instilled in him an interest in public life, civic engagement, and public policy. His family’s dinner table conversations often centered on public issues.

When Andrew reached college, he realized not all people felt obligated to participate in their democracy. This awakened in him the desire to focus on what it means to have an educated and engaged citizenry.

Many years later, after Andrew founded the first Democracy Prep school, he said a seventh-grader asked him: “What is democracy?”

By his own admission, Andrew’s response was “awful.” He tasked a teacher and her students to develop a better one.

The teacher took the problem back to her students and, the following day, told Andrew they had an answer.

“Democracy is choice and voice,” she told him.

And Andrew said it became his goal to expand “choice and voice” for all his students.

Graduation requirements for Democracy Prep include students giving a public speech in front of a public body — for example, a school board or selectboard. They must also write an opinion piece and have it published. Finally, they must assemble 100 people as followers to a cause that they create, and they need to lobby an elected official about the issue.

Economic security and the health of democracy

Andrew said he was initially befuddled by the simplicity of his students’ answer of “choice and voice.”

But, he said, the students were right.

When citizens have a voice in their democracy, and the ability to make choices about their democracy, their time, and their lives, then a society is healthy. But when people lack either, then society does not have a functioning democracy.

He sees economic security as a prerequisite for participating in aspects of democracy that reflect choice. After all, it is easier to volunteer one’s time when one is not working three jobs.

“Netflix does not count as civic engagement and, if that’s all you have left in the tank, that’s not enough,” said Andrew.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #565 (Wednesday, June 10, 2020). This story appeared on page A3.

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