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Democratic Engagement Exchange at Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts

May 13, 2020

John Beebe on the work of The Democratic Engagement Exchange at Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts and why listening is key to growing the democracy sector. Be sure to check out the Exchange’s Democracy Dialogues virtual series.

Tell us about the Democratic Engagement Exchange. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

Our purpose is to build a vibrant and inclusive democracy where everyone living in Canada can contribute. Making our democracy more resilient requires a cross-sectoral effort, but this kind of engagement is not necessarily core to the mission of nonprofits, universities and colleges, or even government agencies. What makes The Exchange unique is that we provide accessible trainings and tools to these organizations to help them engage underrepresented communities in our democracy. We need to bring everyone from the margins into the decision making process.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how Democratic Engagement Exchange is responding to the crisis?

People care about the larger, systems-change issues that have been exposed and become a priority because of the pandemic. There is a clear focus on the ability of our healthcare and economic systems to respond to the immediate crisis. We launched the Democracy Dialogues virtual series to unpack the political dimensions of how the pandemic is impacting our lives. The pandemic is creating new challenges and opportunities for reform in our democratic systems. This series is bringing together leading scholars and practitioners and examines how decisions are made, the stark power inequalities, how people are organizing their communities, and even how we elect leaders during this crisis.

What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?

Disengagement and complacency. Reasonably, many people aren’t interested in the traditional levers for decision making because they are intentionally left out of the process. This means that solutions to our most pressing public policy issues aren’t designed for them. Our solution is to work with trusted community based organizations, leading scholars and committed public servants to create stronger pathways to institutional expressions of voice (i.e. voting) and to support democratic engagement practices at the community level that foster inclusive decision making.

Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? This could be related to your work or something you see happening in the sector. 

We want to shout-out Halifax Public Library. During the 2019 general federal election, they ran Vote PopUps across the city and made it their own. They made Halifax Public Library branded “Why Vote” sticky notes, and even held Vote PopUps in grocery stores. That was the first time that’s been done! Public libraries haven’t historically taken on active voter engagement, but they have been great allies in the work and really taken it to the next level. They are a natural partner since they are trusted, neutral, and serve diverse communities. They are also experts in open and accessible learning. We’re thrilled to have public libraries as partners across the country.

Tell us about how  Democratic Engagement Exchange is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?

We have a national focus on our work. We are not a frontline organization ourselves, but we are intentional with our relationships to have as broad a focus as possible. The Canadian Vote Coalition has representation from every province and territory, and a wide variety of sub-sectors that all serve diverse communities such as legal aid clinics, community food centres, and settlement agencies. Our primary tip is to listen. Listen to your partners. Listen to your community. When we engage with people in community we start with a question “What matters to you?” Our goal is not to push a particular policy agenda. Instead our goal is to support communities so they can better use the power they have to create solutions that work for them.

Are there specific asks Democratic Engagement Exchange has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

The democracy sector is tiny in Canada. But all Canadians rely on and benefit from a vibrant and inclusive democracy. Whether you are working to address the challenges associated with climate change or worried if your kids are getting a decent education, a healthy democracy is foundational. As a sector, we need to build alliances and make the case for active democracy.  And while we can’t expect our allies to turn away from their mission critical work meeting basic needs, we must find ways to enlist partners beyond the narrow “democracy sector” to actively engage democracy.

The Democratic Engagement Exchange’s mission is to build a vibrant and inclusive democracy where everyone living in Canada can contribute. Together, we can build healthy communities and find solutions to our most pressing challenges. For too many Canadians our democracy isn’t working. One third of Canadians report they never talk about politics. In the last federal election, eight million eligible Canadian voters chose not to vote. Follow @RUEngageX


This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!

John Beebe

Director of The Democratic Engagement Exchange

John Beebe’s passion for democratic engagement started while biking across North America when strangers from all walks of life took pity on a sweaty teenage kid and opened up their homes and shared a little of their lives. Since then, John has had the opportunity to work for the US Congress, and work for organizations like Samara Centre for Democracy and Pathways to Education. Through these experiences, John continues to be reminded of the wisdom that resides in our communities when we take the opportunity to engage and listen. Reach him at