Recently, IDEA, the Institute for Democratic Education in America named Salmonberry a “Showcase School” and invited us to become a member of this organization as well.  This honor has moved me to explore further the meaning of the phrase “democratic education” as well as the work of IDEA.

IDEA was founded a year and a half ago with a mission to “ensure that all young people can engage meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic and sustainable world.”  They do this by employing a wide range of strategies.  The one most relevant to us at Salmonberry is that IDEA “showcases the bright spots.”

“IDEA is committed to showcasing what’s working in education.  Like curators at a museum, we review and spotlight what we think deserves a larger audience.”  And this is where IDEA’s interest in Salmonberry comes in.

IDEA defines democratic education as “learning that equips every human being to participate fully in a healthy democracy.”  This is a few shades removed from the way the phrase “democratic education” has been used by free schoolers, unschoolers and progressives during the last several decades.  It is more in line with a newly emerging sense of democracy being put forth by Parker Palmer in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

In this book, Palmer writes, “(democracy) is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate and justice and mercy can have their day…(it is) rooted in the commonwealth of compassion and creativity.”  Palmer correctly positions the need for community at the center of the democratic “experiment.”  We must recognize and embrace difference and diversity and find a way to elevate humanity for all.

Palmer goes on to point out that at the core of healthy community is the workings of the individual human heart.  “The heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts…(it is) the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”

I see Palmer’s holistic vision of democracy fitting beautifully and seamlessly with IDEA’s clear and pointed activism and with the heart of Salmonberry’s work with young people every day.   Today I am very proud to be closely associated with a school, Salmonberry, that is considered worthy of highlighting to IDEA.  I am beginning to fathom the depths of a “healthy democracy,” and what its implications could be for education.  IDEA is undergirding their passion and change-making activism, with a “soulful” understanding of democracy, and this aligns well with Salmonberry’s perspective on education and wholeness.