For many, the holidays mean gathering around the table for a hearty meal with loved ones. But with family festivities often comes controversial conversation — especially around political issues such as migration, security, unemployment, economic stagnation, demographic changes, social inequalities, and more.
Anxiety around political differences is not new, but these conversations have become increasingly difficult in past years. New research from the Learning and Action Center (LAC) notes:
“Intensive polarisation, political apathy, and other democratic challenges of the twenty-first century are calling for a renovation of what it means to participate in the public arena.”
The study, “Doing Democracy: How Social Entrepreneurs Bridge Divides, Fight Apathy and Strengthen Civil Liberties,” analysed how 25 Ashoka Fellows are working to promote democracy and civic engagement in 11 European countries, and included interviews with eight of these leading social entrepreneurs.
One of the main findings: we must make democratic participation an everyday activity. This requires going beyond traditional political processes of democratic engagement like voting. Being a changemaker in a polarized climate starts with ordinary conversations.
The study offers ideas for activities that we can all use to reframe uncomfortable — and potentially alienating — political discussion into opportunities to strengthen democracy, whether we’re sitting in city hall or around the dinner table.
When the conversation takes a tricky turn this holiday season, give these seven strategies a try.
Strategy 1: Make Politics more Engaging and Relatable
Keep political issues simple, but don’t oversimplify them. Reframe complex global issues into relatable local contexts. Talk about how your local schools will soon teach coding, for example. Consider ways you can contribute to the diverse communities around you.
Strategy 2: Foster Offline Engagement through Online Tools
Staying connected with friends and family through social media is great, but take the opportunity during holidays to meet people in person. Use the holidays as an opportunity to discuss public-interest issues and decisions affecting your community.
To keep the conversation going after gatherings, use digital tools to share information and resources with one another based on your in-person discussions.
Strategy 3: Bring Unlikely Allies Together
Seek out differing opinions and remain open to expanding your own thinking and that of others. Where is the common ground between your niece’s opinion and your grandfather’s? Find ways to make divergent perspectives meet.
By attending an event hosted by a local grassroots organization with family members, you can also build awareness of how social problems are experienced and discussed in smaller settings.
Strategy 4: Leverage the Power of Networks
The holidays provide opportunities to collaborate with people working in adjacent areas or fields to where you work. Try striking up a conversation with the person preparing the cake, asking the cashier at the supermarket how their sales are going, or delivering pie to your neighbour and talking about neighbourhood safety. Loose networks can trigger innovative ideas. Play matchmaker and connect people to each other.
Democracy is done by people for people — reframe networking as a core component of democratic participation instead of a dreaded activity we only use for work.
Strategy 5: Shift Power Relations
Learn from direct experience and acknowledge expertise. If someone you meet has been affected by a new political policy, value what they have to say from their own lived experience.
If someone in your sphere doesn’t often speak up, create space and encourage them to share their thoughts and contribute to conversations.
Strategy 6: Tap into Citizens’ Skills and Expertise
Use your work skills — or that of your friends and family — to solve social challenges by engaging different skillsets to fix familiar problems. Good at drawing? Make a logo for your community organizations. Great at gardening? Support the local environmental group by planting trees.
Form a new holiday tradition and offer your professional services for free to organizations directly addressing democratic challenges. Don’t just feed the hungry, change the systems that let people go hungry!
Strategy 7: Use Research as a Basis for Reflection and Action
Do research together and talk about it with each other. Information gathering and critical analysis are not just for professionals, but key skills for active citizenship.
Position trustworthy research at the centre of political discussion and share that information with the people involved in the discussion. Help researchers gather data on important subjects by responding to surveys or interviews or by attending focus groups.
Not just for special occasions
Democracy is something we all need to do every day. Through respectfully engaging common conversations — especially around the holidays — we can ensure healthy democratic dialogues.
If the activities above still aren’t enough, why not work directly with Ashoka Fellows to strengthen democracy?
Here are a few of our favorite ways to get involved:
Find any other organization that you like and ask how you can help!