Democratic Outcomes Guide Engagement Choices

How you engage with the community or policymakers may depend on the alignment between your goals and the goals for democracy. Many efforts emphasize sharing science because it serves the dual goals of publicizing faculty and student research and building science literacy and trust. Check out the American Geophysical Union's: Sharing Science for Paths to Engagement that emphasize K-12, public talks, social media, media, and district meetings.

Other democratic goals include supporting local decision making, improving civic participation, meeting community needs, and engaging for justice or the equitable distribution of benefits and harms (e.g. reducing the exposure of Black and brown communities to excessive environmental pollution, climate impacts, disaster impacts, and health harms). To meet these aims, identify opportunities that best fit with your time, interests, motivation, and professional goals. Also consider ways you can increase the audience for events or deepen engagement (e.g. move audiences from passive listening to interactive learning or advocacy). Follow local news or query city managers or board members on top community issues. City boards include planning commission, parks, and civil service. Top mayor-identified city issues include: 1) economic development, 2) public safety, 3) infrastructure, 4) budgets, 5) housing, 6) education, 7) energy and environment, 8) health, 9) demographics, diversity, and inclusion, 10) technology and data (NLC, 2017). However, recognize that the priorities of those in power may or may not represent vulnerable communities. So engage in ways to learn from and empower those most marginalized by policies and practices. As a starting place, review budgets, policy, and planning guides looking to see resource distribution and planning align with supporting equitable and just outcomes. Are issues of race, class, and earth & environmental injustice considered? Does the budget favor community priorities, especially those facing the harshest conditions?

Move forward at a pace that makes sense to you. For example, attend meetings and invite local speakers to learn from before committing to large-scale projects. Or see how a pilot study goes first. Seeking feedback from those involved informs progress. After you gain issue awareness and confidence, identify power structures and cultural leaders to learn from and move projects forward in service to your community.  Finally, be aware of laws, privacy issues, and safety risks that pertain to your community work (i.e. HIPAA, city laws, work with minors, potential sources of harm).

Design prompts for science activities in support of democracy. These will help align with your motivation, the change you want, or the intersections with your work/institutional values.

  1. Why do you feel a personal obligation to support the community you live in?
  2. What social injustices issues are unacceptable to you? Are there any opportunities for teaching, research, community science (i.e. reciprocal research with community), or outreach to address these?
  3. Do you think all students should vote or reflect on the consequences of policies? How will you support their engagement?
  4. Do you know how your community feels about the science issues you see as locally or politically important? How will you learn diverse perspectives important to change (e.g. decision makers, neighborhoods most impacted by the issues you engage)?
  5. Are there locally relevant science issues you could explore through research or in class that would be of decision-maker or community health interest? (i.e. for geoscientists this might mean exploring critical earth needs at the local scale)
  6. Are there intersections between goals for democracy and your research or teaching aims (e.g. applied science, ethical responsibility)?
  7. What opportunities are there to join or learn from local groups, grassroots organizations, or city leaders about the issues you are interested in supporting?
  8. Are there any opportunities for joint events with partners that would build both student and community literacy?
  9. What resources does your community offer you and/or your students? (i.e. professional network, internships, land for research, instrumentation, context)? What priority areas are community members investing resources in that you or your students might benefit from?
  10. What democratic goals does your institution value and reward?
  11. What is one step you could take in your research, classes, or outreach that would support your community, especially those most vulnerable?
  12. Are there any resources or toolkits available that help communities make decisions that you have special expertise in? (i.e. floods, earthquakes, climate change, stormwater). How might these tools, your research, or your class activities, support those that need-to-know?
  13. What barriers do you face to moving democracy forward? Who will help you think this barrier through?
  14. How will you explore the systemic and overlapping nature of injustices and identify the opportunities to shift power and resources?

Did you know?

  • Millennials (20-35) will surpass Baby Boomers as the largest adult generation. They are ~20% less likely to vote (PRC, 2018).
  • Less than one third of all college students report that they raised awareness about issues (21%-local or campus, 31%-state or global) (NSSE, 2016).
  • Only half of all college graduates report discussing issues of equity or privilege (NSSE, 2016).
  • In small cities, greater than 40% of all people join boards because they were asked (Baker, 2015).
  • Most people on small city boards have served in other community organizations (Baker, 2015).
  • People serving in city roles come from many backgrounds and may not have the best tools at hand for science-related decisions. Consulting and sharing locally-relevant science is a powerful role.

Strategies or information resources helpful to local action:

  • American Geosciences Institute, Products: Discover decision-relevant, impartial geoscience information that is rich with links to credible and impartial sources. Examine case studies, fact sheets, and visualizations on geoscience issues of importance to your community before you begin. Support informed decision-making.
  • American Geophysical Union, Thriving Earth Exchange. Explore opportunities to advances community solutions through a network that matches scientists to the community. Or examine case studies or use the Thriving Earth approach to form your own partnership.
  • McMonagle, K., Center for Public Deliberation, 2017, Partnering for Inclusion: Recruitment Strategies for Deliberative Conversations. Describes common internal and external barriers to partnering, provides tools for stakeholder analyses, describes culturally competent communication.
  • SERC, Service Learning Module, 2016 Resources for Designing and Implementing. A clearinghouse of service learning tools are included here such as the eight block model which considers how to design around learning goals and partner goals.
  • UC Berkley, Public Service Center, Faculty Toolkit, Designing community-based courses. Offers insight into establishing partnerships, potential student and partner roles (i.e. who initiates what, the nature of engagement), describes benefits of partnering, incorporates reflection on fit, risks and potential hazards, and strategies for supporting students through structured meetings and reflective writing. While this tool is designed for service learning, it might also be of interest to faculty seeking their own engagement roles because it considers how engagement initiates and evolves.


  1. American Geophysical Union Sharing Science
  2. Baker, J.R. (2015). Government in the Twilight Zone: Volunteers to Small-City Boards and Commissions
  3. Center for Civic Education (website). Constitutional Democracy
  4. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) (2017). The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking
  5. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tools
  6. Mind, Influencing local policy- making every adult matter
  7. Musil, C., AAC&U, Civic Prompts
  8. National League of Cities, 2017, State of the Cities Annual Report
  9. National Survey of Student Engagement, 2016, Annual Results
  10. Pew Research Center (PRC), FactTank, 2018, Millennials approach Baby Boomers as America's largest generation in the electorate
  11. U.S. Department of State (website), Democracy