Utah Democracy Project

The Utah Democracy Project is a programming initiative of the CSE. It grew out of a large federal grant on democracy. Democracy is both a form of government and a way of life. As a form of government, democracy is a government formed by consent of the governed and deriving its authority continuously via popular sovereignty from the people — where the ordinary citizen both directly and indirectly through chosen representatives exercises the powers of government. Those powers are mediated through a constitution, which both specifies the purposes, functions, divisions, and limits of government as well as provides a framework for the rule of law and for the basic rights that each person should have equal privilege to enjoy.

As a way of life, democracy is the recognition that the true governing class of society is the ordinary citizen who is regularly engaged in the development of political literacy and who lives with the expectation of frequent and meaningful participation in self-government at the neighborhood, local, state and national levels. Who rules and who is ruled frequently and regularly rotates among all citizens, and citizens frequently come together in diverse public spaces to talk about issues of public importance.

The Utah Democracy Project was a three-year project designed to cultivate political literacy and encourage political engagement through a variety of educational programs. The project was housed at the Center for the Study of Ethics at UVU and was a result of a congressionally directed grant awarded to the center as a federal appropriation. The Utah Democracy Project primarily served Utah County and the 3rd Congressional District. The Utah Democracy Project included a series of on-campus public forums and a variety of engaged-learning opportunities for students, faculty and members of the local community. The project also intended to support faculty and student scholarship. The grant director was David R. Keller, and grant personnel included Brian Birch, Elaine Englehardt, Neil Evans, Don LaVange, Will McKinnon, Michael Minch, Karen Mizell and Jeffrey Nielsen.

Political Responsibility

The Utah Democracy Project was intended to foster political responsibility in Utah Valley citizens. The project was founded on the premise that democracy cannot function well without considerable effort and a sense of shared responsibility of the citizenry. Strengthening democracy locally requires an understanding and engagement in global issues. This places the burden of responsibility on individuals, yet the education and engagement of the citizenry often falls short of the minimum requirements of substantive political engagement. A lack of understanding regarding the mechanics of the democratic process and apathy are the greatest threats to the health of the democratic system.

Political Literacy

Political literacy must precede political responsibility. Political literacy is the ability to understand and intelligently discuss the following:

  • The meaning and origin of democracy, especially the moral meaning and foundations of democracy.

  • The nature of the authority to govern in a democracy (sovereignty of the people as mediated through the rule of law), the role of constitutions in democracies, and the regulative ideals of democracy (namely, liberty, equality, rights and justice).

  • The basic forms of democratic government: direct democracy, indirect democracy (or representative democracy), presidential/congress and parliamentarian, along with an understanding of the nature and functions of the separate branches of government.

  • The levels of government, from the local community level all the way up to the federal level.

  • How laws and regulations are made, and how together they form the public policy of the various governing institutions.

  • How to be engaged as a citizen lobbyist to demand real participation in the creation of public policy.

  • Basic critical thinking skills (how to evaluate arguments, evidence and information sources, including the media).

  • Basic communication skills, both speaking well and listening sincerely to different viewpoints.

  • Conflict resolution skills.

  • Peer-based deliberation skills and the ability to form consensus in groups and arrive at well-reasoned decisions.

  • The diversity of cultural, religious and ethnic traditions present in the community.

  • How to network and get involved with local community groups in order to participate actively in public life and find new ways to be engaged at the grassroots level.

  • A basic understanding of — or how to get information on — the important issues facing our common lives as we live together in a genuine democracy.


The outcomes of this project were a renewed respect for and commitment to the democratic process amongst the citizenry of Utah County, and tangible products such as Discussions in Democracy broadcasts, student political internships and faculty scholarship. The project was designed with the aim of promoting civic dialogue, ethical inquiry and academic engagement in order to complement UVU's Community of Engaged Learners initiative (see www.uvu.edu/cel).

Project Structure

The Utah Democracy Project comprised distinct programmatic components. Each programmatic component was overseen by a coordinator.

  • Democracy and Globalism (Michael Minch)

  • Democracy and Religion (Brian Birch)

  • Democracy and Service-Learning (Karen Mizell)

  • Teaching Democracy to Children/Democracy for Secondary Students (Karen Mizell)

  • Democracy in the Field (Neil Evans)

  • Discussions on Democracy television series (Elaine Englehardt)

  • Peer-Based Democracy (Jeffrey Nielsen)

  • Student Internships (Elaine Englehardt)

Project Activities

The Utah Democracy Project consisted of public forums wherein students, faculty, civic leaders and the community at large can come together in mutual respect to address the crucial issues in the ongoing effort to build a stronger democracy in the county and the state of Utah. This community engagement was enhanced by media productions and student-learning projects.


Brian D. Birch is director of the Religious Studies Program and associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. After completing bachelor and master degrees in philosophy from the University of Utah, he attended Claremont Graduate University, where he received a doctorate in philosophy of religion and theology. His research interests center around the philosophical, theological and ethical dimensions of religious diversity. He has served as acting director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and editor of "Teaching Ethics." He currently serves as chair of the annual Religion and the Humanities Conference at UVU. In addition to receiving the Board of Trustees Award of Excellence and Teacher of the Year honors, he has organized numerous conferences and symposia, including the Democracy Project for the Center for the Study of Ethics in 2003-04.

Elaine E. Englehardt is distinguished professor of ethics, professor of philosophy and special assistant to the President at UVU. For the past 30 years, she has taught courses in philosophy, communication and integrated studies. She has served in many roles as an administrator, including vice president for scholarship and outreach, associate vice president for academic affairs, dean and department chair. She has received grants from national agencies for 20 continuous years. She earned a doctoral degree in communication and philosophy from the University of Utah and master and bachelor degrees in communication from Brigham Young University.

W. Neil Evans is the president of Capitol U, a nonprofit civic education association, and holds the Thomas Bahnnson and Anne Bassett Stanley Professorship in Ethics and Integrity at the Virginia Military Institute. In his work with Capitol U, he has helped students from around the country better understand law- and policy-making processes and the critical role citizens play in those processes. From 1997 to 2002 he was program manager, assistant counsel and legislative counsel to the National Parks Conservation Association. He earned a juris doctorate from the Washington and Lee University School of Law, a master's degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, and a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Utah.

David R. Keller is director of the Center for Ethics and associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. He has taught in the philosophy, humanities, integrated studies, and environmental studies programs at UVU since 1996, and has served as director of the Ethics Center since 1999. He earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Georgia, a master's degree in philosophy at Boston College, and a double English-philosophy bachelor's degree at Franklin & Marshall College. He served as editor of "Teaching Ethics" from fall 2005 to fall 2007.

Will M. McKinnon is the director of studios and engineering at UVU. He has worked in the television production field for the past 14 years in various roles, including video and audio engineer, writer, director and producer. As a freelancer he has worked for major television networks, including NBC, FOX and ESPN. At UVU he leads a team that produces over 200 hours of video annually. Will earned an associate degree in electronic communications technology and digital media from UVU.

Michael Minch is the director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program and associate professor of philosophy at UVU. He is the co-editor of "Living Ethics" (Wadsworth, 2008) and the author of "The Democratic Theory of Michael Oakeshott" (Academic Imprint, 2008). His doctorate in political thought is from a program co-owned by the political science and philosophy departments at the University of Utah. His primary sub-field is in international relations. He holds a master's degree in theology and a bachelor's degree in history. He works in the relationships among democratic theory and politics, green political theory, theology, and theories of justice and peace-building.

Karen Mizell is associate professor of philosophy at UVU. She received her master and doctoral degrees in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma and her bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to teaching at UVU, she taught at Brigham Young University and Clayton State College in Atlanta, Georgia. Her current research interests focus on philosophy of childhood, philosophy for children, and service-learning, and she has presented papers at UNESCO-sponsored conferences in each of those areas. The state of Utah awarded her its 2007 Campus Compact Faculty Award for excellence in service-learning.

Jeffrey S. Nielsen is founder and director of the Democracy House Project, a nonprofit educational initiative to educate citizens in political literacy. He is a trained moderator and issue framer for the Kettering Foundation's National Issues Forum Institute, which convenes and moderates public dialogues on public policy issues of importance and interest to elected officials and ordinary citizens. He is an organizational consultant and author of the book "The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations," which offers a new paradigm in peer-based management. Currently he is an adjunct professor in the philosophy departments of both Westminster College and UVU. He is currently completing his doctorate in philosophy at Boston College, where he earned a master's degree in philosophy. He double majored in economics and German at Weber State University, where he received his bachelor's degree.

Utah Democracy Project