Giving students the power to make change 

Students in a group during the democracy in action session

Students at Essex are passionate about making the world a better place. But with all the challenges in today’s society, some feel they don’t have the skills, confidence or power to make change happen.  

Five years ago, we set up a course called Democracy in Action, which supports students to work together on important issues they feel passionate about, and encourages them to make positive change in their community. 

Our ground-breaking and award-winning initiative is giving students a unique learning experience, and changing lives locally. From making the streets safer to ensuring care workers receive the living wage, we’re helping our students to make a real difference.

Students in a group during the democracy in action session

A unique educational experience

The University of Essex is a place where students are encouraged to make change – not only for themselves but also for the world they live in.

A shining example of this can be seen in the University’s award-winning course which encourages students to work closely with the local community to make a positive, and immediate, change.

Democracy in Action was set up to offer students the chance to learn skills in community organising and to give them the opportunity to put theory into practice.

Presentation during a Democracy in action workshop

A partnership was built with Citizens Essex, an alliance of community-based organisations in Essex, which forms a chapter of the national organisation Citizens UK. The course offers the students training in community organising skills focusing on five steps: organise, listen, plan, action, and negotiate.

After learning these practical skills, students work in groups to develop real-life campaigns, and have the chance to work alongside local organisations including, for example, YMCA Essex, the Salvation Army, and Colchester Foodbank.

“Democracy in Action is about students finding out what they are passionate about. It’s about them looking at these issues close to home and seeing how they can make a change for the better. It’s about helping them to make change happen.”

Picture of Dr Rebecca Warren

Dr Rebecca Warren
Director of Democracy in Action

Students in a group during the democracy in action session Students in a group during the democracy in action session

The inspiration for Democracy in Action 

Dr Rebecca Warren, a senior lecturer in accounting in Essex Business School, is passionate about making change and she wanted to come up with a way to give students an educational experience which would encourage them to do the same.  

She wanted to provide them with something practical, which would help them find their voice, as well as their feet, boost their confidence and make a difference out there in the real world 

Together with colleagues from Essex Business School, the Department of Government, and the School of Health and Social Care, she built upon a programme previously offered by the University – called Democracy in Schools – which encouraged university students to go into partner schools to bring the teaching of democracy to life.

Funding and training 

Rebecca and team received funding from the Education Strategic Fund in 2019 to pilot the module in 2020 and it was then offered to undergraduate students in their final year of study, across all departments, in the academic year 2021-22. 

Students who applied for the pilot project were invited to attend an interview, and then 25 were offered a place on the course.  

Following their training with Citizens UK, the students listened to the stories of rough sleepers, youth workers, the elderly and many other groups, to achieve a better understanding of community matters and concerns. 

Through listening to these stories, they identified areas of concern and then went about looking into how they could make improvements. 

For example, one area they identified was the Greenstead underpass – a walkway used by the local community and students alike – which people felt unsafe to use due to the lack of street lighting. Students approached the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner about their concern and the outcome was that the lights were fixed, and people then felt safe to use it. 

After a successful pilot year, the project ran again for the following two years, and the most recent cohort started at the beginning of this academic year (2023-24).

Picture of Dr Rebecca Warren
Democracy in Action group with the police
Presentation with 3 individuals standing behind a computer and presentation screen
Student Agatha Lithgow
Student Matthew Mason

Positive feedback

Democracy in Action received a collaborative Excellence in Education award from the University in 2021, and it continues to go from strength-to-strength.

Juliet Kilpin, senior organiser from Citizens UK, who has worked closely with students on the programme, said:

“By putting community organising principles into practice, students learn skills that not only leave a legacy in Essex but build their confidence and skills to address issues of social justice wherever they live and work in the world.

“The delivery of this module shows the increasing potential the University has in being a force for good across Essex, for both students and residents.”

Student voice

Students themselves praise the course for being one of the “most rewarding parts of their degree” and describe it as “incredibly stimulating” and “uniquely positive”. They talk about its life-changing impact. There is an appreciation for how it teaches them about the real world and offers them skills for their future.

Some students report that is has changed the course of their career path, and some have secured jobs thanks to the experience they gained.

“The experience of working on Democracy in Action changed the trajectory of my career. By working on the mental health project, I realised that mental health is my passion. I am now studying to be a therapist at Essex.”
Agatha Lithgow, who graduated with a law degree in 2023, is now studying psychodynamic counselling.
“Participating in Democracy in Action developed my professional skills; provided me with the skill-set necessary to engage within the community; and secured me a job within community development. Above all else, it provided me with a sense of purpose.”
Matthew Mason, a philosophy graduate in 2022, now works in community development and is doing a PhD in community organising.


Inspirational teaching

Rebecca’s commitment to both the course and her students has also been recognised. She was nominated – and shortlisted – for The Most Innovative Teacher Award in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023. And all the students on the course praise her for her dedication and inspirational teaching.

“It was an honour to be shortlisted for the award,” Rebecca said. “I love doing what I do, and teaching Democracy in Action is one of the highlights of my career to date.

“Access to transformative education is very close to my heart – it can change someone’s whole life,” she added, “it changed the trajectory of mine.”

Open to all

The course continues to be available for final year undergraduate students, and a different version of it is also being developed, which will be open to all students at Essex.

It will be offered as part of the Essex For All programme, which gives students the chance to learn skills alongside their main degree subject such as a new language, how to focus on health and wellbeing, or valuable data skills.

Over the next year, Rebecca will be developing this strand of the course, called Democracy and Citizenship For All, so that students from all years, and from any subject, can learn how to make meaningful societal change.

Not only will this allow students to learn more about their community, and to stand up for issues they believe in, but will also encourage more students to engage with the local community, making the bond between community and university even stronger.

It is courses like Democracy in Action, and Democracy and Citizenship For All, which show that Essex is a place where change matters. And, ultimately, where change really does happen.

“Students here at the University are making a difference – they are not just learning the theory of community organising, they are actually putting it into practice and making Colchester, and Essex, a better place.”

Juliet Kilpin, senior organiser from Citizens UK

Find out more

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