What Is Democracy?

6, 7, 8

Learners read and reflect on the meaning of democracy. They discuss and explore examples of participatory democracy in history. They read quotes from Founding Fathers and relate them to philanthropy and civic engagement.

PrintTwo 50-minute Sessions

The learner will:

  • define democracy and compare and contrast spectators and participants.
  • relate democracy involvement to philanthropy.
  • one copy of the handout below, Quotes about Democracy, cut into eight quotes
  • optional copies of selected articles below for additional reading and discussion


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Brainstorm some spectator sports (basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse) and ask the learners to describe the role of the spectators in the sport (promote team energy and enthusiasm). Share fun examples of spectators who are passionately involved in the game. Ask, "As hard as they try, how much can a spectator influence the game from the stands?"

  2. Marian Wright Edelman, in order to get people involved in responsible citizenship, said, "Democracy is not a spectator sport."

    With the learners, create a definition of democracy, such as "a political system in which the power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them." Discuss what a spectator in a democratic system would look like (ranging from lack of interest to yelling at the TV). Discuss how much a spectator can influence the political game from the stands. In contrast, what does it mean to be a participatory citizen, someone who is in the game? Give them a few minutes to think.

  3. Give the learners examples of people participating in government and examples of people acting as spectators. They give a hand signal to indicate which is participatory. One by one, give the following examples (fill in with more of your own), discussing after learners respond to each because there may be different perspectives on the value of these actions.

    • peaceful protest in front of the White House
    • talking about issues at a gathering of friends
    • voting in a local election
    • blogging on a social network about elected officials
    • the Boston Tea Party
    • writing a letter to a senator about a civil rights issue
    • yelling at the radio
    • calling into a radio talk show to complain about the city government
    • the Montgomery Bus Boycott
    • declaring independence from an oppressive power
    • wearing a protest button or T-shirt
    • staying away from someone who disagrees with you
  4. Ask learners to think of an event or individual that had a major impact on the development of the country (e.g., Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and the Minutemen, Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth) and discuss what would be different if they chose to be spectators instead.

    • What if Dr. Martin Luther King knew that social injustice was wrong, but then decided that he should not get involved because he didn't have the time?
    • What if Paul Revere knew that British rule was hampering the possibility for a free country, but then decided that he was too tired and old to be involved?
    • What if citizens recognized a local manufacturer as a major polluter in their community but didn't speak up?
  5. Ask learners to consider the power they (as young people) hold to create change and to work for ideas that are important to them. Ask them to consider what would happen if they did not act on the issues that are important to them.

  6. Day Two

    Anticipatory Set:

    Write the following quote: "History is yours to make. It is not owned or written by someone else for you to learn. History is not just the story you read; it is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror and replete with hope. You shape the balance." (inscribed on the exit of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as noted by Joel Westheimer.) Ask the learners to pick out words or phrases in this quote that seem important to them in their role as personally responsible citizens. Discuss their responses.

  7. Share the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves."

  8. The core documents of the United States were formed and continue to exist because of a robust nonprofit sector where individual citizens organize themselves to give, serve, and take action for the common good. From the social contracts of the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, people in the U.S. have advocated for freedom and the rights of individuals.

  9. From the handout below, give eight learners a quote to read aloud and name the author of the quote. After they read all eight, go back and read each one at a time. Discuss, What does this quote mean in relation to democracy and civic responsibility?

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Describe how different needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society, and family.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Give political and historic reasons why civil society groups have formed in the nation and world.
      2. Benchmark MS.5 Identify historic examples of citizens using civil society organizations to petition the government.
    2. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Define civic virtue.
      2. Benchmark MS.8 Define civil society.
    3. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Explain the role of philanthropy in major themes and social issues in the nation's history.