Athens Democracy Forum – Ohio Wesleyan University
October 5, 2021
By Cole Hatcher
Ohio Wesleyan student Ellie Bearss ’22 was selected to participate in this year’s Athens Democracy Forum held in association with The New York Times. Her video also was selected to be played before a forum panel discussion on ‘Art as Activism.’
Name: Ellie Bearss ’22
Hometowns: Atlanta, Georgia, and Nashville, Tennessee
Majors: Dance and Politics & Government
Minor: Women’s and Gender Studies
OWU Connection Experience: The Athens Democracy Forum, organized by The Democracy and Culture Association and held in association with The New York Times
Bearss was one of 24 students chosen from an international pool of college students attending liberal arts institutions to be involved over the summer in pre- planning sessions and workshops for the 2021 Athens Democracy Forum. Bearss participated remotely in the summer sessions and recent forum held Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Athens, Greece.
The forum, first held in 2013, seeks “to serve as the North Star on which democracy and society can reorient themselves. It seeks to make democracy work.” This year’s forum featured topics including climate change, democratization, and disinformation. Speakers included U.S. voting rights activist Stacey Abrams as well as the president of the Hellenic Republic, prime minister of Slovakia, and leader of Democratic Belarus.
“The Politics and Government Department sends out opportunities for students, and this was one of the opportunities sent out that intrigued me.
“The process was an application where we answered several different questions. One was a short essay on a topic that would be represented at the forum, a longer essay reflecting on previous forum speakers’ articles about democracy, and questions on how you can apply knowledge learned at the forum to your campus. …
“My advisor, Dr. Brianna Mack, encouraged and helped draft my application for this experience. Having her feedback and encouragement was exceedingly helpful in achieving this opportunity.”
“In our first assignment, we discussed the current state of democracy within our own country. For our second assignment, we gathered two political cartoons that reflected issues in our own country and globally.
“There was a student from Slovakia and from Morocco in this group and hearing about their understanding of democracy based on their own experiences with the government was undeniably informing to my understanding of the United States system.
“For our last assignment, we were placed into groups based on our forum panel of interest. The panel that interested me the most was ‘Art as Activism,’ and I had four other people in my group for this panel. We met two to three times over the summer and discussed what art was and how it could be used as political commentary.
“It was incredible to hear how others across the world understand art and its power to shape our social and political motivations.”
“We made either a video or essay that related to our panel topic (‘Art as Activism,’ for Bearss). … I decided to create a video about how arts education can encourage civic engagement. I included the choreographer Alvin Ailey in my video because dance is often overlooked as a form of art and means of political expression.
“As a double major in both dance and politics and government, I felt that it was an opportunity to showcase its power to advocate. Civic engagement is also necessary to democratic systems as a whole, but if citizens do not how to engage or even know the power they hold as citizens, how can we expect them to become civically engaged people?
“My experience with arts education is one of the major factors to why I am a politics and government major, and I believe other young people deserve to access that education. I was lucky enough to have my video selected to play at the forum before the panel on Art as Activism started, which exposed my ideas to an international audience.”
“One of my favorite moments of the forum was when Stacey Abrams, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives and a voting rights organizer, participated in a discussion on the current state of politics in the U.S. Being able to directly hear from someone who has shaped how we understand voting and voter suppression was monumental.”
“Three of my favorite discussions that happened at this forum were on democratization, the metrics of democracy, and arts as activism. I understand that two of those sound rather bland, but they are integral to how we define our government systems.
“Democratization refers to how a country or government system turns into a democracy. If we understand how to do this then we can replicate and improve democracy. The metrics of democracy help us understand how to measure democracy, which means we can see how democratic a country truly is. That kind of measurement is especially important in shifting political landscapes. The art as activism panel was a discussion on what art actually is and where artists stand in political history.
“The panels had speakers from all around the world, which only added to the conversations. These three panels are tied to concepts discussed in the Democracy and Its Critics class I am taking this semester. The discussion during the democratization panel emphasized the big divide among how we even define democracy, which is the goal of my Democracy and Its Critics class. These ideas also relate to ideas we have explored in my international human rights, dance composition, and workshop in modern dance classes.”
“One of the major reasons I decided to attend Ohio Wesleyan was because of my ability to double major in dance and my academic interest, as well as the small size of the school. I attended a rather large public high school, and some of my classes here have been smaller than those at my high school. This experience has enhanced my relationships with my professors and allowed me to have a deeper understanding of key concepts.”
“I plan to apply to graduate schools for political science because I am interested in going into policy work, especially policy analysis. … I would like to work for a nonprofit where I am actively working to impact and uplift the future for individuals that are oppressed by current government systems. I am specifically interested in encouraging civic engagement and arts education because I believe those two issues directly relate to creating a better future for others.”