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Practicing Democracy

Distinguished Visitor Marshall Ganz: Isn’t it only through thoughtful practice itself that we can hope to find our way?
Marshal Ganz talks with graduate students

I am grateful for the privilege of serving as the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor for the winter and spring of 2022.  At this critical moment for our democracy, I could not have asked for a better opportunity to learn, explore, reflect, and teach in conversation with Stanford students, faculty, staff, and broader community—an opportunity to have a conversation with the future. Having lived most of the first 46 years of my life in California, much of it devoted to community, union, and electoral organizing, it was a particular joy to return “home.”

As my host, scheduler, event manager, technical support, covid tester, and “match maker,” the staff and students at the Haas Center for Public Service have been generous, creative, and resilient. I’m equally grateful to Tiffany Steinwert, the Dean of the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life, for her courage, initiative, and commitment to piloting a new, potentially culture changing, class in community organizing at Stanford. Thanks to my “newest old friend,” Margaret Levi, who hosted dinners in her home affording me the opportunity to meet and engage with scholars with overlapping areas of interest. And I’m very grateful for the support of my own team, without whom this could not have worked, especially in the way that it did.

And it did work!

This visit turned out to be a unique opportunity to explore “practicing democracy” at a moment in which democracy itself is at risk. In my Practicing Democracy Project based at Harvard, we work on developing the leadership (educators, organizers, and researchers); teaching the practices (relationship, storytelling, strategy, action, and structure); and creating the capacity to ground the practice in colleges and universities, communities, workplaces, politics, campaigns, and movements. I’m especially interested in challenges around “who we are to each other” (solidaristic civic identity), our everyday capacity for self-governance, and the power to tackle structural barriers that keep us from transforming the divisive, inequitable, and dysfunctional ways we deal—or fail to deal—with our common interests.

The opportunity for a public address and other engagements helped me figure out how to frame these challenges as an invitation to learning rather than to commiseration, fantasy, or cynicism; an invitation, it turned out, to be in conversation with undergraduate and graduate students, Distinguished Careers Institute Fellows, Knight Hennessy Fellows, public policy students, and students and faculty at the professional schools of business, law, education, design, and others.

Across these diverse groups I heard remarkably consistent themes.

First, questions abound about who we are to each other; how to deal with the isolation, fragmentation, and polarization; how to embrace a sense of one’s full humanity, one’s own worth, at a time in which one’s individual economic worth seems to dominate all. Students seem starved for opportunities to connect with each other in meaningful ways, as opposed to the transactional relationships that define much of their experience. At the same time, they struggle with challenges around recognition, domination, and marginalization that can reduce identity to labels that can be hurled at one another. Students introduced to our practice of public narrative learned to communicate their own values, the values they share, and values that move them to act as story of self, story of us, and story of now. This provided a structure and space in which to have what many described as the first “real” conversation they’d had at Stanford.  As one student put it, “Oh. I get it. I don’t have a label. I have a story.”

A second widely shared theme is the question of hope, efficacy, especially collective efficacy—when efficacy is often framed in narrowly individualistic, meritocratic, and competitive terms.  Making the world a better place is often thought of as doing “for” others as individual clients or customers, rather than doing “with” others as fellow citizens, acting collectively to build the power required to fight for real change.

Third, I learned how much energy is rooted in the global gender revolution; the urgency of the climate crisis; the need to make multiracial democracy real; the yearning for courage and integrity in public leadership; the criticality and, almost by necessity, the hopes of a rising generation; and the desire to make a real difference, a real dent in moving the world in a far more humane direction. The challenge is in learning how we can turn this energy into the power to achieve its goals.

So, this was not a visit limited to speeches, conversations, and reflections. It was also an opportunity to contribute.

One of my goals was to introduce three programs we have used successfully at Harvard and around the world and explore building the capacity at Stanford to offering them in the future.

Marshall Ganz and members of PICO

At the end of January 2022, we launched a 2.5-day workshop in leadership, organizing, and action. We could accept only 50 of the more than 90 applications from students, staff, and faculty. In the workshop we introduced participants to a “heart, head, and hands” understanding of five key leadership practices: relationship building, storytelling, strategizing, action taking, and structuring. To begin building capacity at Stanford, five Haas Center staff joined as participants, learning alongside students.

The students relished the novel experience of working with peers in teams grounded in trust, common purpose, and a culture of learning. In their own words: 

“There is strength in vulnerability. The workshop highlighted the power of human connection and the ways in which we engage with one another's stories, both our hurt and our hope.”

“I was touched by the definition of leadership shared: ‘Leadership is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty.’ I now feel prepared to accept this responsibility while at Stanford, enabling our community to pursue justice—no matter the uncertainty.”

“Organizing takes the heart to care, the head to understand, and the hands to evoke action and change.”

“No one in my department talks about the importance of joy, motivation, stories of self/other/now, or any of the ‘heart’ topics—instead, we focus only on the ‘head’ and ‘hands.’ I need to be more intentional about seeking out these spaces and communities at Stanford.”

Marshall Ganz with students from Otero

In May, we offered the second program, a one-day workshop in public narrative, involving 22 student, staff, and faculty participants. In the interest of capacity building, we recruited coaches for this workshop from participants in our January training. This coaching team received additional training to bridge their experience from participant to coach, preparing them to lead other students in learning how to tell a story of self, story of us, and story of now. Among our coaches were three first-year students who showed maturity and skill in guiding participants in their learning, many of whom were advanced graduate students and senior staff.   

Our third collaboration was piloting a five-unit spring course in the practice of leadership and community organizing, led by Dean Tiffany Steinwert. Although based on my course at Harvard, to pilot it at Stanford required significant adaptation and training a team of three teaching fellows, none of whom had taken the course. As with the coaches for the public narrative workshop, the teaching fellows were drawn from the participants in our January workshop—one first year student, one graduate student, and one staff person. Each was trained in our pedagogy of practice before course launch and throughout the course. The course involved 19 students, organized into four student teams, three of which showed real results from their organizing campaign. We all learned a lot for the 2.0 version which will launch next winter.

One conclusion I’ve reached is that if we’re waiting until someone has—or claims to have—a perfect blueprint of solutions to our troubles, we’re going to wait a long, long time: long after it would do any good. The real challenge is to find more of a road map: pathways we can commit to walking with others, focused on key questions, taking action, and learning from actions we take. Isn’t it only through thoughtful practice itself that we can hope to find our way? The new Citizenship in the 21st Century course could offer such an opportunity. We are wise to learn what we can from history, experimentation, and analysis, but there are no certified experts on how to turn an unknown future into the robust democracy for which we may hope.  That’s our job. All of us.

Marshall Ganz leading a workshop at the Haas Center

So, what’s the elephant in the room? This is Silicon Valley; isn’t everyone launching a startup? The truth is that I had little opportunity—or did not seek out the opportunity—to come face to face with the culture I had expected to find at Stanford. What I did find is a deeply humanistic, justice focused, common interest oriented and creative counterculture struggling to be born, conscious of the fact that, elite university and all, Stanford could be a good place from which to launch.

All in all, it has been a most extraordinary visit, rooted in the opportunity not only to combine my own exploration, learning, and teaching within such a welcoming community of students, educators, and scholars; but also, to contribute to developing the leadership, sharing the practices, and building the capacity to strengthen the practice of democracy at Stanford.

Thank you.

Educator, organizer, and author Marshall Ganz is the Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing and Civil Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, narrative, strategy, and organization in social movements, civic associations, and politics. Mr. Ganz served as the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor in 2022.