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Democracy is a work in progress. There is plenty we can improve to have stronger democracies that empower people of all walks of life, from the least well-off, to those most privileged. I believe we can improve our democracies by practicing them daily, through what I call Lifestyle Democracy. Below, you will find a quick guide how to navigate the website and get the most out of it:
What is Lifestyle Democracy (LD)?
Welcome to Lifestyle Democracy – a global community where we learn to live and build democracies, one day at a time!
What is the vision of LD?
A place where individuals, organizations and communities connect and learn actionable steps to apply democratic principles in key spheres of their daily lives for personal and collective empowerment.
Why is it important that we embrace democracy as a lifestyle?
I believe that democracy is the best, yet imperfect, system that we have at governing ourselves individually and collectively. I believe in a system that by definition is about empowering people.
The word democracy has Greek origins, “demos” meaning people and “kratos” power. I see democracy as giving people actionable tools to gain more power and use it to lead more productive, meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Why do I advocate that we apply democracy in our daily lives?
In recent years, trust in democracy has been eroding. What is wrong with democracy? Why are some people losing faith in it?
I believe there are two key issues we face with democracy today:
Democracy is an unfinished project. Democracy is a work in progress. Our understanding of democracy is also a work in progress. When democracy was born in Ancient Greece, only men with property could vote. The system excluded women, foreigners and slaves, i.e., most of the population.1Chalmers, Patrick. “An Athenian Remedy: The Rise, Fall and PossibleRebirth of Democracy.” The Correspondent, 16 Oct. 2019, https://thecorrespondent.com/70/an-athenian-remedy-the-rise-fall-and-possible-rebirth-of-democracy/267859130-689a1a1a.
It was not until the late 19th and early 20th century that most countries started allowing adult men and women to vote, regardless of their possessions or wealth. It took over two millennia of social struggle to provide adult men and women the right to vote, at least in some countries.
As the world is continuously changing, so will our understanding of democracy and how we apply it in our daily lives.
To feel the benefits of democracy, we must learn, live and build it every day. In most democratic countries, we typically vote for our political representatives once every four years. What do we do the other 1,459 days? If we are not practicing democracy between elections, what are we doing? That is like working out once every four years and wondering why our workout routine is not producing the desired results. If we expect democracy to work just because we practice it once every two or four years, it should not surprise us it disappoints and fails so often.
In summary, democracy is under threat because we do not understand it. Democracy is failing in many parts of the world because we do not know how to apply it in our daily lives.
Lifestyle Democracy seeks to meet you where you are in terms of your understanding of democracy and help you get to where you want to be. It is not about reaching a utopian society. It is a journey about discovering how to build stronger democracies tomorrow starting today.
Lifestyle Democracy is not about Democrats vs. Republicans or left vs. right wing politics (or whatever other dimensions). Democracy is more than just a political system. It is more than just having free and fair elections.
Democracy is a lifestyle, a way to live our lives where we engage in the continuous process of democratization, a continuous process of improving the state of our democracies, be it at home, at the workplace or in the government. It is a process of individual and collective (self)empowerment.
Join the movement and let us learn together to live and build democracies, one day at a time.
how are we going to deliver on this vision?
There are six ways that we seek to deliver this vision:
About me – the two experiences that inspired me to start the journey towards lifestyle democracy
here’s the short brief.
I am Stefan. The concept of democracy intrigued me after two experiences I had, one where I learned about worker cooperatives in Argentina while studying abroad there and the second one while working for a democratic school in Puerto Rico. I want to study more of these cases of democratization from around the globe and share the lessons learned with you, so we can grow together as a community.
here’s the longer story.
In the fall of 2010, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires. In one of my courses, I had to conduct an independent research. I thought worker cooperatives in Argentina had a compelling story.
In the wake of one of Argentina’s deepest socio-economic crises in 2001, hundreds of companies went bankrupt. Thousands of workers lost their jobs. The courts ordered the companies to sell all production equipment to their creditors. However, some former employees resisted the court orders and saved their jobs. What fascinated me was that some workers took over these insolvent companies and continued producing.
Experience #1: How learning about Argentina’s empresas recuperadas inspired me to write about workplace democracy?
I decided that I would take up the story of the empresas recuperadas (recovered workplaces) because it resonated with the experiences I was seeing in my county. In 1991, the country declared independence from the Former Yugoslavia. During the 1990s, Macedonia, my home country, was transitioning from a state-planned to a market economy.
As part of the transition, the country embarked on privatizing many state enterprises. Unfortunately, the country did not follow more successful models of privatization that led to economic growth and prosperity as for example in Slovenia, which declared independence from the Former Yugoslavia the same year as Macedonia. While Slovenia continued its socio-economic development, Macedonia regressed.
The Macedonian government privatized many state enterprises under controversial circumstances. Shortly after their privatization, the new owners quickly liquidated them. This swelled the unemployment numbers and enriched a few people. Besides the fraudulent privatization efforts, the economic conditions were hard as the wars in the Former Yugoslavia disrupted supply chains. Contrary to popular belief, there was no war in Macedonia during the 1990s, but the wars in Former Yugoslavia, the UN sanctions and the Greek blockade negatively affected the economy.
This resulted in thousands of qualified workers losing their jobs. Some would protest. After months and years of protests and lawsuits, many workers would lose faith in the system and accept their fate, unemployment and poverty. The official unemployment rate in Macedonia has stayed over 30% for the first two decades since independence (1991).
On the other side of the world, Argentina’s story had some parallels with that of Macedonia. The 1990s were years of economic transition. However, instead of economic decline as in Macedonia, there was an economic expansion. Business was flourishing. The Argentine peso was pegged to the US dollar, the workers’ salaries were growing. However, the underlying foundations were unstable. The country was financing these expansions on debt that it could not pay off.
Argentina’s economy experienced one of the most severe depressions in its history.
In 2001, the country declared default. What ensued was one of the biggest socio-economic and political crises in Argentina’s history, about a quarter (25%) of the workforce was unemployed and poverty soared to over 50%.
The economy went into a depression. There were mass riots. This was a serious blow to the country’s economy and pride. In a few short years, Argentina transformed from a leading economy in South America to a lagging one. Middle-class families transitioned to poverty. The crisis forced a nation with a strong work culture and work ethic to accept unemployment and receive benefits from the government to make it through the month.
Just like in Macedonia, in Argentina, they liquidated many enterprises in dubious and controversial circumstances, forcing thousands of workers out of work.
yet, the laid-off workers had a different response…
In Argentina, the laid-off workers did not just protest like their counterparts in Macedonia. Some of Argentina’s workers occupied their former workplaces, formed worker cooperatives, and continued producing to earn a living. The workers did not achieve the occupation in one day. It took many days, weeks and months of sustained protests and activism for the workers to “recover” their jobs.
These workers received support from their family members and other civil society organizations in preventing the police from forcefully evicting the workers from the occupied factories and workplaces. The workers had to resist the police and the authorities from extracting them from the work premises that were in process of liquidation. For more, you can read about stories of worker-run factories in the book Sin Patrón (Without a Boss) and also in my thesis highlighting the challenges of worker cooperatives in Argentina.
The companies that were occupied and that remain working to this day are known as the empresas recuperadas or the recovered enterprises. At the time of publishing my thesis (2012), there were about 20,000 workers who recovered their jobs. Today, there are about 400 empresas recuperadas employing about 20,000 people.2ille, Kristina. “Co-Ops Can Lay a Path to Just Economies Amid the COVID Crisis.” Truthout, https://truthout.org/articles/co-ops-can-lay-a-path-to-just-economies-amid-the-covid-crisis/. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.
In all the cases of the empresas recuperadas the workers, overnight, became both owners and workers, opening a new set of challenges and opportunities. Previously, as employees in a traditionally managed factory, all they had to worry about was following orders and instructions. Management decided what to do and how much everyone got paid. They were used to a hierarchical organization, a top-down organization.
However, the moment they also became “owners,” they had to think about managing the enterprise. This is where many empresas recuperadas faced challenges. Many of these workers had no formal or practical managerial experience. Suddenly, they had to manage an organization, a horizontal organization, where everyone was equal. This was a novel experience for many workers, and thus very uncomfortable. Sometimes it succeeded, and sometimes it failed.
Inspired by these stories, I researched the topic during my semester abroad in Buenos Aires in 2010. Two years later (2012), I wrote my thesis on the challenges of these Argentine worker cooperatives at the macro and micro levels (check out my thesis here).
Empresas recuperadas is a model that can help communities to weather the negative effects of a crisis.
Despite all the challenges, I believe the empresas recuperadas could be studied as a model to recover and maintain decent employment in times of crisis, like the one we face today during a COVID-19 induced pandemic.
One of the biggest challenges the empresas recuperadas face is sustainability. Through my research, I learned there was a lack of democratic consciousness and education among the workers required to work in and manage a democratic organization. The dominant work culture and lifestyle that these workers are used to revolve around hierarchies that seek to control the power of employees.
Switching from a hierarchical to a democratic model of governance overnight is a culture shock.
The educational system prepares workers to be employees rather than owners or entrepreneurs. When they formed cooperatives, the workers suddenly became ‘bosses’ or ‘entrepreneurs’ and had to assume responsibilities for which they received no training or had practical experience. They had to learn on the job. Some succeeding, others failing, and many struggling.
This led me to the conclusion that democratic workplaces cannot be sustainable without education or training in workplace democracy.
My next experience led me to learn about how education plays a role in creating a consciousness and building a culture of democracy.
Experience #2: How working at a democratic school in Puerto Rico inspired me to write about democracy in education?
In 2012, my search for understanding democracy led me to Puerto Rico. My friend and I received a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation to teach disadvantaged high-school students 2D animation, writing and story-telling.
We worked with a partner organization, Nuestra Escuela (Translation from Spanish: “Our School”). It is a democratic school that helps marginalized youth in Puerto Rico become productive and responsible citizens through a transformative (alternative) education. It is democratic because it empowers each student to achieve his or her goal, through restoring their self-confidence and providing them holistic support.
The target group that Nuestra Escuela supports requires teachers who are empathetic and understanding of the life context of the students. Unfortunately, the public education system is not well suited to provide the required support.
Most of its current students were kicked out of the public education system under the pretext of poor grades or improper behavior (“drop-outs” – a term the school refuses to use for reasons explained in the following paragraph). The public education system does not seek to work with these students, rather it rejects them, shattering their self-confidence.
It stigmatizes and forces them to live at the margins of society. It makes the students believe that it is their fault they cannot perform well in school. To feel accepted the students who left the public education system join other groups that welcome them, sometimes even gangs.
For those who join, gang membership comes with a steep price. High risk of death. According to a report from 2006, 93% of homicide victims in Puerto Rico were males under the age of 30. In 2017, the homicide rate for male youth between ages 20 and 29 was about 133 per 100,000 cases,3Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, Sistema de Notificación de Muertes Violentas de Puerto Rico, Informe Anual, 2017, which is 6 times higher than the national average (for Puerto Rico), and over 60 times higher than the national averages for the U.S., Germany, Switzerland or Japan.
The graph above represents a comparison of homicide rates across industrialized countries and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens without the right to vote in federal elections.
These youth, whom the public educational system abandoned, seek options to survive and feel accepted. Gang membership and drugs can be lucrative, but the dangers of gang life lead these youth to seek alternatives. Many seek salvation in education, and this is where Nuestra Escuela comes in.
Nuestra Escuela believes in the students the public system rejects
Nuestra Escuela refuses to use the term “drop-outs” because the term does not measure the potential of the students. When the same students receive their education through Nuestra Escuela, they exceed their own expectations. They receive a chance to reach for their star, i.e. their goal in life.
The logo of Nuestra Escuela is an androgynous person reaching for a star. The person is androgynous so an individual of any sex or gender can identify with the figure. The star is a representation of a goal or a mission that the individual aims to achieve that is important for that individual. The star is dedicated to honor a loved one and serves as a motivation to keep reaching for the star, no matter the struggle.
Justo Méndez Arámburu, the founder of Nuestra Escuela, saw that these youth could benefit from a fresh approach. The basis of his approach rests on love, acceptance, and belief that each person has what it takes to achieve his or her dreams. I have seen the empowering effects of Nuestra Escuela’s philosophy of education and I can vouch for their methods.
Before I arrived at the school (June 2012), I had my own set of assumptions and prejudices. I listened to a TEDx talk that Justo Méndez gave about the idea behind the founding of the school (the video in question is no longer available online, but here is another video, in Spanish, that shares a similar message). I read the school’s website. I saw that they had a system in place to transform youth, but I could not see the results of their work.
What I expected to see and what I saw made me believe in Nuestra Escuela’s approach
Before my friend and I arrived in Puerto Rico to implement the project, I assumed we would face violence at the school. Maybe not at the beginning, but during the project. Many of the students in the school come from families of abuse, violence and lack reliable access to water or electricity to study. Some were even former gang members. I never worked with former gang members or had close contacts with someone in the gangs or knew what a society heavily burdened by crime looks like.
The first day, as I was walking to the school, I was nervous, scared and slightly excited. I was nervous because we would work with a group of people who I assumed could be aggressive. I thought someone could mug us, rob us, or beat us up. At the thought of this, I was wondering if I was doing the right thing. The only thing I was excited about was the opportunity to practice my Spanish.
Outside the school, there were young people hanging out. Probably students of Nuestra Escuela. They were speaking in brisk Spanish, laughing and playing with each other. We said hi in Spanish to the students. We saw the sign, “Nuestra Escuela,” at the entrance to the school. We asked them where the director’s office was. They explained to us that we had to go through the main entrance and up the stairs. So, we did.
As we were going up the stairs, we saw a display of trophies. Lots of trophies. Gold, silver and bronze medals for baseball, boxing, dance and others. We entered the director’s office. We introduced ourselves. After a brief chat and an introduction, I asked: “whose trophies are those displayed in the hallway?” The director responded: “They are from our students!”
Nuestra Escuela empowers youth through its holistic program
I thought to myself. If these accomplished students were the same students who were kicked out of the public education system, why were they showing results at Nuestra Escuela and not in the public schools?
The difference is that at Nuestra Escuela the students receive holistic and personalized support, ranging from physical, psychological, social and academic support. Many of these students live with emotional traumas that require more care and dedication than they receive in the public education system or even at home.
The students come to Nuestra Escuela to receive a high-school diploma, the first official accomplishment to set them on the path of becoming productive citizens. But each student determines his or her own pace for their educational journey. There is no set deadline when everyone should finish their education. The school personalizes the learning experience for each student, supporting them to reach their self-determined star.
When the students come to Nuestra Escuela, they feel empowered. They feel loved. For many, it is the first time they felt a sense of family and belonging. This restores their belief in themselves and unleashes more energy for them to pursue what they know deep down they can do. This explains the trophies and accomplishments.
Nuestra Escuela was my first exposure with democratic schools, and I could see its transformative effects firsthand.
Nuestra Escuela helped me understand that democracy is a lifestyle
That summer (2012), Justo, the founder of the school, told me that working with young students ages 13 to 21 is too late to change their consciousness to a democratic one. The change must start earlier, from the beginning of life. That is when he shared the idea of creating a kindergarten for the children of the teenage parents who attend the school.
Today, this idea is a reality. Nuestra Escuelita (Translation from Spanish: “Our Little School”) offers educational and support services for the babies, toddlers and children of the students of the school. This led me to understand the importance of democracy in family life.
Through Nuestra Escuela, I saw the need firsthand for democracy in workplaces, in educational institutions, and in families. Sometime later, it occurred to me that we need to explore and apply democracy to other spheres of life. This is how Lifestyle Democracy was born.
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- 1Chalmers, Patrick. “An Athenian Remedy: The Rise, Fall and PossibleRebirth of Democracy.” The Correspondent, 16 Oct. 2019, https://thecorrespondent.com/70/an-athenian-remedy-the-rise-fall-and-possible-rebirth-of-democracy/267859130-689a1a1a.
- 2ille, Kristina. “Co-Ops Can Lay a Path to Just Economies Amid the COVID Crisis.” Truthout, https://truthout.org/articles/co-ops-can-lay-a-path-to-just-economies-amid-the-covid-crisis/. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.
- 3Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, Sistema de Notificación de Muertes Violentas de Puerto Rico, Informe Anual, 2017