21st Century Democracy: Engaging Students To Be More Civically-Minded In A Digitized Era

As Americans nationwide voice concern about the health of our democracy and our ability to work together to solve the problems facing the country, civic learning as a priority in education has plummeted. How can we move it from the periphery of education to the center? What experiences should schools, colleges and universities offer to prepare their students to be engaged citizens? How can 21st century learning inspire our nation's young people to be more civically-minded, engaged and ready to lead? 

On Tuesday, January 10th 2012 the White House held a forum called "For Democracy's Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission,"  joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, other senior Obama Administration officials and higher education, government, business and philanthropy leaders to discuss how to help students take on their roles as citizens and future leaders. 

Participants concluded:

  • Students and courses should focus more on problem-solving
  • Students should gain the skills and experiences that help them become "agents of change" and learn how to "make an idea happen"
  • Students should "model democratic practices to solve problems" 
  • Students should have the experience of "participating in dialogue on controversial issues"
  • They should have the skill and experiences that allow them to "form relationships that create imagination"
  • Higher education should develop in students the "hunger to understand how things work so they can weigh in and participate in problem-solving"
  • Students should learn that "listening is as important as having a voice"
  • Higher education can join forces with K-12 education, communities, etc. so that "civic agency becomes a national priority."
Dr. Shakuntala Banaji is Programme Director for the Master's in Media, Communication and Development in the department of Media and Communication, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research has addressed internet cultures; online civic participation; the socio-political contexts of cinema audiences; young people and creativity.


During 2016, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry introduced Wake the Vote. The foundation of  Wake the Vote was a small, intentionally diverse cohort of undergraduates engaged in sustained interactions, challenging political experiences, deep reflection, and on-going learning. This cohort swiftly gained political expertise, which they used to build enthusiasm about voting, political participation, and democratic engagement among their peers on campus and throughout the larger community, largely through social and digital media. Wake the Vote offers students and community members the opportunity to create relationships across difference, examine issues crucial to American elections, build competencies for engaged citizenship, and experience American democracy through participatory action, travel, discussion, event planning, and personal reflection. The program teaches students to combine "new media," political participation, and bipartisan collaboration to advocate for full access to the most contentious part of our democracy- the vote.  


Wake the Vote 2016 Overview

During Presidential election years, Wake the Vote requires a commitment of 13 full months. Wake the Vote 2016 began in with an initial meeting in December 2015 and ended in January 2017. The presidential election year program follows a multi-stage learning and action model:

December 2015: Applications, initial meeting, and reading assignments.

January- April 2016 – Presidential Caucus and Primary Travel

 Wake the Vote students traveled as a cohort to the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and North Carolina primaries.  In each city every student was assigned to volunteer on the primary campaign of a presidential candidate. These assignments were made without regard to party affiliation or ideology, giving students the unique opportunity to work for candidates across the aisle or within their party who were not their first choice.

The cohort also traveled to New York City to meet political media professionals and to Washington. DC to visit the White House and meet with the domestic policy council as well as meet with members of Congress on Capitol Hill.

In addition to individual campaigning, WTV students convened regularly as a group during each trip to attend debates and events; to share and discuss experiences; to meet key political and media figures; and to focus on how various issues emerged in the campaigns.

Summer 2016 – Convention Travel and Campaign Work

After the random assignment process of the presidential primaries, every Wake the Vote student committed 100 hours of paid or volunteer labor to a candidate, issue campaign or non-partisan GOTV effort during the course of summer break.  This work included local, state, and national levels in their home states, in North Carolina, and across the country.

In July 2016, Wake the Vote students traveled as a cohort to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The cohort returned to Washington, DC to meet with members of conservative and progressive policy think tanks.  They wrote extensively about their experiences

Fall 2016 – Wake the Vote Election Hub and UP to US art installation.

Inspired by their experiences and the political party conventions in the summer, the students launched an election-themed exhibition hub to host conversations and events from presidential debate watch parties to panel discussions to local and national speakers. Wake the Vote worked with a nationally recognized political art curators from the Big Bowl of Ideas to launch the UP to US art installation featuring art from national and local artists at WFU’s University’s Pro Humanitate Institute. Both the Election Hub and the UP to US installation focused on four issue areas identified by the students:

  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Guns/Policing/Community Violence
  • Voting Rights/ Youth Political Participation

On election night Wake the Vote hosted more than 800 members of the campus and community in an enormous bi-partisan election night party that included Free Ben and Jerrys ice cream and an outdoor concert.

January 2017

 The Wake the Vote traveled to Washington DC and attended both the Trump Presidential Inauguration and The Women's March, which was the largest demonstration in American history to that date.

Our Mission

In this moment, even with the deepest of disagreements, the highest of stakes, and the realization that we often fail to meet our ideals, we affirm the importance of:

  • Well-informed democratic discourse;
  • Responsibilities of democratic citizenship;

  • Commitment to the core values of inclusion of all viewpoints and diversity of all perspectives;

  • Freedom from fear and oppression;

  • Support for rigorous intellectual opportunities that allow the expression of conservative and progressive viewpoints;

  • Vigorous and enlightened political debate;

  • Broad and active civic engagement;

  • Access and resources for more people to participate in the democratic process.