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Signature Initiatives

Signature Initiatives

As the exercise of free speech and the free exchange of ideas is fundamental to participation in democratic societies, the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester offers several Signature Initiatives that provide opportunities to engage with in activities outside of the traditional lecture/panel format. They offer deep dives into the politics and policies debates that will shape the 2020 elections, and celebrate the ways in which the arts can provide us with creative avenues for active citizenship and meaningful engagement. Check back frequently, as new initiatives will be forthcoming throughout the semester.

American Flag flying in the wind
All Semester
Democracy & Debate Collection (Michigan Online)

Democracy and Debate

A democracy thrives when its citizens exercise their right to engage in every level of government. Becoming an informed, equitable, and empowered society depends on all members of that society adopting a learning lifestyle and embracing their constitutional rights. This Collection is a curated portfolio of learning experiences that will help learners understand the complexities of democratic systems, which includes content about current policy issues, community engagement strategies, social justice and racial equity, the underlying political and legal processes, and ways in which citizens can enact change in their own contexts.

See the Michigan Online Democracy and Debate Collection.

Voters' Broadcast

Lisa Bielawa’s Voters’ Broadcast is a broadly participatory musical performance for an unlimited number of voices and instruments made up of choral and instrumental ensembles. The work is directed, conceived and composed by Rome Prize and American Academy of Arts & Letters Award-winning composer Lisa Bielawa, with text excerpted from celebrated artist Sheryl Oring’s I Wish to Say.

Voters’ Broadcast will bring together choirs from across the University of Michigan community during the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester to stimulate voter engagement, political awareness, and community participation in challenging lockdown conditions, through the act of giving voice to the concerns of fellow citizens, during the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential election. The work will be released in three parts, with events hosted by Matthew VanBesien, president of UMS, on September 30, October 14, and October 30.

Michigan Publishing book covers and publications
September 1 2020 - 31 December 31 2020
Dialogues in Democracy (University of Michigan Press)

The University of Michigan Press is pleased to announce the launch of “Dialogues in Democracy,” a collection of at least 25 free-to-read books contextualized by multimedia resources including author podcasts and videos. Ideal for students and the engaged voter alike, these resources illustrate the core tensions in American political culture—tensions that erupt every four years during the presidential election and are particularly apparent during these unusual times.

In fall 2020, University of Michigan students, faculty, and staff will join together in a university-wide educational initiative to explore what it means to a member of a democratic society. The free titles featured in “Dialogues in Democracy” allow the public to join this “theme semester” from anywhere in the world, with a curated selection from the Press’s world-renowned political science list enriched by interviews with the leading scholars who work with the Press.

“We’ve picked some of the best titles in the Press’s political science list and worked with the authors to make their books free-to-read all this fall,” notes Dr. Elizabeth Demers, the Press’s editorial director. “I’m proud to act as curator of this trusted, peer-reviewed collection of authoritative books on every topic from voter behavior to gun policy.”

A downloadable reading guide allows students and others to experience the richest, most comprehensive scholarship available today. Included books explore campaign finance and political polarization, how women work harder to stay in office, public attitudes concerning the presidency, guns and public health, the effect of the welfare state on low-income families, the remarkable rise of transgender rights, the politics of American Jews and millennials, and the central role that race will play in deciding who will next occupy the White House.

In addition to the recorded podcasts featured in the collection, a series of new online conversations with authors is being recorded. These will continue to enrich the “Dialogues in Democracy” feature throughout the fall.

The books are free to read through December 31, 2020, as part of the University of Michigan Press Ebook Collection on Fulcrum. The Press is grateful to Dr. Angela Dillard and the University of Michigan Presidential Debate Academic Advisory Committee for their support.

Learn more on Michigan Publishing’s website.

John Lewis: Good Trouble

An intimate account of legendary U.S. Representative John Lewis’ life, legacy and more than 60 years of extraordinary activism — from the bold teenager on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement to the legislative powerhouse he was throughout his career. After Lewis petitioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help integrate a segregated school in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, King sent “the boy from Troy” a round trip bus ticket to meet with him. From that meeting onward, Lewis became one of King’s closest allies. He organized Freedom Rides that left him bloodied or jailed, and stood at the front lines in the historic marches on Washington and Selma. He never lost the spirit of the “boy from Troy” and called on his fellow Americans to get into “good trouble” until his passing on July 17, 2020.

More information and Registration

Available Fall 2020
"Dialogues in Democracy: In Conversation" Limited Podcast Series

Our limited podcast series, releasing on Thursdays throughout October 2020, will bring several illuminating conversations to the University of Michigan campus. Each episode will feature a pair of authors bringing different perspectives to the table on issues of national, and international, concern: social policy, national security, racial justice, and leadership.

Listen to these conversations HERE

Gallery Submissions: NOW - JANUARY 2021
Photocracy: Defining Democracy Through Stories & Art

Photocracy invites students, faculty, staff and alum from the U-M campus community to share what democracy means to them by submitting an image along with a short written or audio- or video-recorded explanation of the personal meaning of that image. Submissions will be showcased online in an ever-growing collage of images and videos, where viewers can view a diverse and wide-ranging collection of submission in a gallery of images to see and hear more about the unique perspectives of our campus community. In this way, Photocracy becomes a community platform whereby each of us can speak and each of us can listen as we prepare for the election.

The Photocracy: Call for Artists and Designers asks faculty and graduate student artists and designers, as individuals or teams, to propose a commissioned piece that will be developed using the collected images, text, and recordings as source material and inspiration for an interactive work that will be initially displayed or previewed in January 2021 during the week of the presidential inauguration and fully exhibited in Spring 2021. Proposals may be for any genre of creative work in any format – installation, exhibition, performance, composition, etc. – and must include an interactive community element that can be experienced in connection with the exhibited or presented piece. Whatever the outcome of the November 2020 election, our community will benefit from interacting with the pre-election inspired work and reflecting on their evolving ideas of democracy and the American experiment through that interaction. The presented work can be in a final form when exhibited or presented in January, may continue to be exhibited or performed throughout the Winter 2021 semester, or may continue its creative development through April 2021. Note: Proposals that include interdisciplinary collaborations, teams, or strategies; use of technology; or UX/UI considerations are encouraged. A $7,500 honorarium will be awarded to the selected artist(s), designer(s), or team(s), and an additional $2,500 will be available for materials and other expenses. ArtsEngine will work with the selected artist(s), designer(s), or team(s) to secure exhibition or performance space, or any additional identified needs.

Submissions to the gallery from students, faculty, staff, and alum - now through January 2021; Call for faculty and grad student Artists and Designers commission due December 5, previewed January 2021, exhibited/performed Spring 2021


Dialogue Deck

At the precipice of one of the most highly charged US Presidential Elections in recent history, the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Edward Ginsberg Center offer this Dialogue Deck exercise as a platform to examine and explore social and political norms, values, and beliefs through shared dialogue and reflection. There are numerous ways to reflect individually or in groups through the provided reflection prompts and debriefing questions. UMMA & Ginsberg Center staff are available to support the integration of this activity into your classes and programs. We hope you’ll use this deck to create meaningful dialogue and connection with your family, friends, colleagues, and maybe even yourself. Share your reflections on social media and tag us at @ummamuseum @ginsbergcenter!

I Wish to Say

Sheryl Oring returns to University of Michigan for a month-long performance of “I Wish to Say” from September 29 - November 1, 2020 as part of the university’s Democracy & Debate theme semester in collaboration with Stamps Gallery. In this project, Oring invites students from around the country to dictate a message to the next president, typing the notes on vintage typewriters. These interactions will be staged as virtual performances via Zoom every Tuesday from 4.30 pm-6.30 pm and Sunday from 1 pm-3 pm during the project’s run.

Additionally, selected messages will be set in Voters’ Broadcast, a new musical work conceived and composed by Lisa Bielawa, which will bring together choirs from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. The 15-minute musical work will be released in three parts over the course of the fall semester as part of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester programming.

Going on Now!
Music For Our Times and a Time For Music -- Democracy & Debate Social Justice Playlist Song Submission

U-M Community! Suggest your contributions to a playlist for social change! We’re compiling the Democracy & Debate Social Justice playlist on Spotify, and we want your voice to be heard!

Make your suggestion here

The Functioning of Democracy: Insights from Michigan’s local leaders

The Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) has launched a project on the functioning of democracy at the local level that provides unique resources for U-M’s theme semester on Democracy and Debate. The CLOSUP resources provide insights into how American democracy is functioning at the local level, based on a decade of surveys of Michigan’s local government leaders, through the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS). Topics include citizen engagement, local officials’ trust in other levels of government and in their citizens, relationships and communication between the state government and its local jurisdictions, relationships between local officials themselves, and between local governments and their citizens, civil civic discourse, election administration, police-community relations, and more. CLOSUP staff are available to help faculty and students make use of these resources in theme semester courses and activities. Contact closup by email to, or see the project website: