Magazine Perspective

Invitations to Practice Democracy

How campuses can reimagine public spaces to inspire constructive dialogue

By Nicholas V. Longo

Spring 2024

ln hallways and public spaces across Providence College, chalkboards, electronic screens, and whiteboards invite people to share their thoughts on timely and often contentious topics. Questions such as “What does American democracy mean to you?” and “Is there hope for American democracy?” prompt students, faculty, and other campus community members to crowd the boards with responses. Some comments: democracy means the ability to “have my own opinion,” “be able to agree to disagree,” and “work together to solve problems,” and many voices are “not heard as much as it is promised.” Other responses demonstrate hope for the future: “We must put in effort to work together to form a better tomorrow.” And, democracy is possible through “grassroots activism,” “conversations and food,” and, perhaps most presciently, “the education of new generations.”

These democracy walls—or Dialogue, Inclusion, and Democracy (DID) Walls—were first created in 2018 by our DID Lab, which I co-lead with Quincy A. Bevely, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, as part of our efforts to catalyze civil discourse and a more inclusive culture on our Catholic liberal arts campus in Rhode Island. Since that time, students in the DID Lab have worked together to name important issues and craft questions about them for the DID Walls and campus-wide events. The DID Lab students, known as student dialogue fellows, commit a year to learning skills such as active listening, asking strategic questions, and facilitating difficult conversations. They work in pairs to oversee DID Walls at various campus locations and help facilitate face-to-face dialogues as part of a broader initiative called Conversations for Change. Funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, this initiative also supports public dialogues with the local neighborhood and faculty development work on integrating civil discourse into courses.

To prepare students to become informed and engaged democratic citizens, higher education needs to get serious about its civic mission. We won’t be able to overcome increasing political polarization in society or public mistrust in higher education through one-time lectures or detached analysis. Rather, we need to think about campuses themselves as what Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation (which works to support liberal education), calls “rehearsal spaces for democracy.” This means colleges and universities need to create opportunities for students to engage in practices that are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy: listening to others, participating in constructive conversations, weighing tensions and trade-offs, working collaboratively, and responding to real-world problems with responsible action. These experiences reinforce the public skill of learning to talk across differences—a “turning toward the other,” as described by philosopher Martin Buber, where basic trust and reciprocity emerge so that genuine dialogue and transformation can occur.

Democracy walls at Providence College help foster civil discourse on often contentious topics, such as race relations and LGBTQ+ rights. (Providence College)

Members of campus communities are feeling the effects of divisive politics that silence constructive voices. In a 2022 Knight Foundation survey on free expression and campus speech, 65 percent of undergraduates said that because of their campus climate, they refrained from speaking freely for fear their views might be seen as offensive. Yet in the same survey, almost as many students—59 percent—said that they believe colleges and universities should allow them to be exposed to differing opinions and ideas, even if those expressions might be considered offensive. Many students, it seems, are fed up with social divisions and yearn for deeper connections. Learning to engage across differences is not only the hallmark of a liberal education; it is something 86 percent of employers say is essential preparation for the workforce, according to the most recent employer survey from the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Our DID Lab has used democracy walls for the past five years to ask about complex issues that many people would rather avoid, such as race relations, immigration, and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as educational and housing policies, ways to establish work-life balance, and even favorite music. Our lab analyzes the responses to the prompts, which stay up for two weeks at a time, and uses them to curate questions for future DID Walls and topics for programs such as With Mutual Respect, for which students, staff, and faculty come together in person to discuss contemporary challenges. In 2023, this program, sponsored by Providence College President Kenneth Sicard, tackled one of the most contentious issues currently facing a Catholic campus like ours: “Abortion after Roe.” This year’s theme, “Our Dysfunctional Political Climate,” aims to cultivate respectful dialogue in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

The initial proposal to use public spaces for civil discourse was met with concerns from administrators who worried that the DID Walls would invite comments that could not be monitored and might lead to wider divisions. To address these concerns, we worked with a team of students studying public art and community engagement in a course taught by my colleague, Nuria Alonso García, to devise guidelines that now appear beside each democracy wall. The guidelines include reminders to “engage responsibly,” “be respectful of people’s humanity and dignity,” and to avoid “offensive language and profanity.” Disagreements may arise, one guideline notes, but “personal attacks are not acceptable.” If a comment violates a guideline, which happens on occasion, the student leaders overseeing the wall confer with DID Lab faculty and fellow students and, if necessary, remove the response. Since student dialogue fellows engage with stakeholders in the areas of campus where DID Walls are located and responses are written in public view, a level of connection and accountability develops that leads students and other participants to engage constructively and become more invested in a climate of respectful dialogue.

Other college campuses use democracy walls as well, most notably Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), which launched its Democracy Plaza with several chalkboards in a prominent outdoor location during the 2004 presidential election. The campus center now has a three-wall board for public reflections on current events and social justice issues. In addition, Miami University–Hamilton in Ohio, Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona (in partnership with the Phoenix public library) have experimented with democracy walls.

While most campuses don’t have democracy walls, momentum is growing to find ways to bridge divisions. Nonprofits such as the Constructive Dialogue Institute and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, equip faculty and staff with research-based dialogue techniques. The youth-led group BridgeUSA, which leads constructive dialogues on campuses, has launched more than fifty chapters nationwide. The Deliberative Citizenship Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina organizes monthly student-facilitated online dialogues on topics such as the environment and health care. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Ithaca Initiative at the University of Delaware is building a national civic network by convening civil-discourse program directors and student leaders to share ideas and best practices each semester. And Duke University runs a summer institute to help faculty from across the country develop curricula on political polarization.

By themselves, none of these civil-discourse initiatives will solve the many challenges we face in our polarized times. However, when students are invited to have actual experiences listening to others, engaging in dialogue, and working collaboratively, they become familiar with an alternative to the politics of division and see what a more inclusive democracy might look like. One simple catalyst is reimagining the public spaces on our campuses.

Lead photo: A Democracy Wall (Providence College)


  • Nick Longo

    Nicholas V. Longo

    Nicholas V. Longo is chair of the Department of Global Studies at Providence College, where he codirects the Dialogue, Inclusion, and Democracy Lab.