In the lead up to the 2012 election season, California Humanities embarked on a two-year initiative called Searching for Democracy, aiming to engage Californians in a statewide conversation about the past, present, and future of our democracy. In partnership with organizations throughout the state, including the California State Library and Zócalo Public Square, and supported by a major National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, Searching for Democracy presented hundreds of programs across the state throughout 2011 and 2012. Programming included book discussions and author talks, community-based storytelling projects, panel discussions led by journalists and scholars, pedagogical tools for teaching K-12 students about democracy, and a travelling exhibit on the history of civil rights in California. 

“The humanities have the power to pose perennial questions that are important for a society to ask itself,” says Ralph Lewin, Executive Director of California Humanities (2008-2014) who led the project. An important and challenging task in the face of an increasingly polarized electorate and the dissolution of civic discourse, Searching for Democracy used the occasion of a national election to engage Californians in reflecting and discussing the nature of democratic society and the meaning of citizenship in conversations across the state.

These conversations registered at the local and even the national level. While author Daniel Alarcón attracted a large crowd to talk about the meaning of democracy at the Imperial County Free Library in the state’s remote southeast border region, the initiative also attracted bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. For Lewin, “California Humanities is one of the few institutions that has the will and the capacity to pose these questions and foster important conversations around them.” By presenting high quality programs focused on the meaning of such political concerns as diversity, immigration, and freedom of speech, Searching for Democracy brought citizens together to consider the value of these issues in terms of the common good.