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'Searching for Democracy' in California

Forum examines the evolution of civic conversation and the changing nature of democracy

July 12, 2011 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Nearly two centuries later – on March 4, 2011 – the California Council for the Humanities (CCH) launched a novel educational venture of the sort Jefferson had in mind: the two-year Searching for Democracy Initiative. It began with “Democracy and the Culture of Civic Conversation,” a forum held at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles.

The day-long gathering featured esteemed scholars, public intellectuals, policy specialists, journalists, and authors for a discussion on the evolution of civic conversation and the changing nature of democracy. The event was open to the public and was streamed live for viewing online, encouraging cross-country participation by allowing online users to post questions and comments for speakers. Speakers included communication professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author and former political prisoner Chris Abani, historian Joyce Appleby, and CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker, among others.

The Searching for Democracy initiative is designed to animate public conversation and enhance public understanding of the nature of democracy in an effort to improve the collective exercise of the powers of self-government. Over the course of the two-year initiative, activities including a statewide reading program, a traveling exhibition, a series of public dialogues, and school and youth-focused programs will work to thoughtfully explore intellectual and civic life. That effort will promote understanding needed to sustain a healthy democracy and improve, according to CCH President and CEO Ralph Lewin, “the life of our democratic ideals.”

The forum and Searching for Democracy as a whole are supported in part by the NEH Bridging Cultures initiative and through CCH’s partnerships with numerous California educational institutions and public organizations. Bridging Cultures addresses the role of civility in democracy and the understanding of Muslim contributions to world cultures. The humanities councils in Illinois, Virginia, Washington, and Idaho are partners in three of the eight Bridging Cultures-supported symposia.

For more information on Searching for Democracy, or to further explore the work of the California Council for the Humanities visit:

Recordings of all the conference sessions are available at: and