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Fostering Engaged Citizenship as a Dynamo of Healthy Democracy

Robust civil discourse and civic engagement are key pillars of democracy worldwide. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) aims to help create platforms for open discussion on critical issues and to educate active and informed citizens.

Landmark grants to major universities in the United States have supported the creation of thoughtful models of engagement and discussion, with a particular focus on rising leaders from a variety of backgrounds. 

  • Established in 2018 through a $150 million grant from SNF, the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University brings together experts from political science, psychology, philosophy, and other disciplines to foster open and inclusive discourse by engaging a wide public.
  • The SNF Paideia Program at the University of Pennsylvania, created through a $6 million SNF grant in 2019, seeks to imagine a new paradigm for educating students as whole people and citizens, drawing inspiration from ancient Greece and the concept of “paideia,” which indicated the rearing of the ideal citizen.
  • The SNF Ithaca Initiative at University of Delaware Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy & Administration, launching in 2021, will incubate the foundational skills and attitudes that allow civil discourse to flourish and help students become engaged citizen-leaders.

Recognizing that citizenship is skill that needs to be cultivated with intention, another thread of SNF’s grantmaking has sought to provide civics learning to younger students as an integral part of their education.

  • Generation Citizen helps students across the country identify an issue in the civic sphere relevant to their lives, then develop and execute a plan of action to address it, building the skills called for in proactive democratic participation.
  • The National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition gives students the tools to understand how debates about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, the founding document of our democracy, continue to play out in real-world issues today.
  • Legal Outreach offers college prep and pre-professional programming to high school students from underserved communities in New York through the framework of its new Civic Engagement and Social Justice program.
  • The Academy for American Democracy at the New-York Historical Society uses experiential activities to help sixth-grade students learn about the history of our democracy and feel the importance of getting involved in keeping it vibrant.

Other grants seek to break down artificial barriers between academic institutions and the public, as well as between disciplines, championing new modes of discourse, inquiry, and collaboration:

  • The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Public Humanities Initiative (SNFPHI) at Columbia University aims to create a collaborative bridge across the Atlantic, activating latent creative potential in Greece while drawing on the intellectual traditions of one of the United States’ premier research universities.
  • A pilot program at Yale University seeks to replicate the clinical model used by Yale Law School, which melds theory and practice to ground discussion in experiential learning and real-world action, across the university.   

In addition to these partnerships that help young people grow as citizens and that break down barriers between academia and the public, SNF also seeks to create platforms for open, respectful, and productive dialogue. The Foundation’s commitment to making space for discourse is the impetus for the SNF DIALOGUES discussions, a series of monthly events where the public and experts engage around timely topics of international concern.

As important as the programming these organizations offer is the faith their work manifests in democratic processes—faith that our shared humanity can transcend deep social divides to spark productive conversation, that democratic norms are worth saving, and that we each have the power to help sustain them.