The Democracy Lab is a project-based pedagogical opportunity for Duke undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in:

  1. Researching how to make “democracy” more representative, empowering, and effective.
  2. Learning how to create change and develop leadership skills in relationship with community partners in NC and beyond.

The projects supported by the Democracy Lab at Hart vary by theme but link democracy work to community-based research. Like all community-based collaborations, effective democracy work begins with listening, relationship building, and engagement with where people are in a given community or context, not where well-intentioned researchers, activists, or partisans think they should be. As such, democracy work is much broader than electoral processes and particular policy arguments. It can take many forms but shares three fundamental features:  engagement with a community partner; collaboration with community members; and ethical, community-based research that together generate effective solutions and enduring social and political change.

The current research themes of the Democracy Lab have each been conceived through dynamic, community-based collaborations between Duke faculty, students, and community partners in North Carolina over the past two years. Each project has been built collaboratively with open-ended questions between students, faculty, and community groups that directly engage pressing collective action challenges in North Carolina.  These projects are also supported by the staff of the Hart Leadership Program and connect students and faculty across several classes and across several semesters, constituting a larger community of change-making practitioners and leaders.

The History and Future of Civic and Political Engagement at Hart

Project based learning been central to the Hart Leadership Program’s purpose and mission for decades, whether in creating the Service Opportunity Leadership (SOL) program or more recently in piloting the Political Engagement Pathway (PEP) fellowship.  The Democracy Lab further expands project-based learning beyond the HLP’s signature programs to cohorts of students across disciplines, majors, and classes.

The Democracy Lab at Hart is a work in progress that has grown from the energy and insights of students, faculty, and their community partners as they have collaborated in tackling systemic collective action challenges. Open to all Duke students, the Democracy lab allows Duke students to combine the study of history with democracy work and research with community partners within and across several classes. The projects associated with the Democracy Lab will also extend across time, allowing students to return to and deepen their engagement with research projects they might begin as first and second year students and then return to them within capstone seminars or senior theses. Five themes will shape the project foci of the Democracy Lab at Hart in 2021:

  1. Student Voting Rights half a century after the 26th Amendment’s passage
  2. Criminal Justice and Policing Reform in Durham, Past to Present
  3. Immigrant Citizenship and Human Rights
  4. Thirty-Five Years of Environmental Justice Work in NC
  5. Art and Representation in Democracy

Several classes in HLP will directly engage these project foci in 2021 as we collaborate with our non-partisan community partners including Democracy North Carolina, Forward Justice, PODER Action NC, the Triangle Community Foundation, and the Andrew Goodman Foundation.  The classes participating in the Democracy Lab this spring is growing and includes the seminars and lecture classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy, the History Department, the Center for Documentary Studies, and the English Department. See our list at

Fall 2020 Events

August 10: Elections in the Pandemic Summer Cohort Student Presentations

August 13: On The Freedom Side: The Promise of a New Democracy Led by Youth Advocacy

October 7: Structural Barriers to Voting: Student Solutions from the Hart Leadership Program

October 8: Democracy Challenges and Opportunities in a Pandemic: The Bass Projects

November 2: Celebrating Student Visions: The Why Vote? Video Challenge

Spring 2021 Events

February 15: Walking the Talk: Practicing Anti-Racism 

Fall 2021 Events

September 28: Engaged Citizenship in Durham: A Conversation about Participatory Budgeting

Spring 2022 Events

January 27: A Hart Conversation on Leadership and Failure