"I believe that democracy is not just about protecting one's own beliefs, but also about creating a space where all voices are valued and have the opportunity to be heard."
Joy Agwu is a junior studying philosophy and English, with a minor in constitutional studies. Originally from Bowie, Maryland, Joy has championed democracy with Student Government's National Affairs and Political Engagement Committee and engagement with the Center for Social Concerns.
What does being a "champion of democracy" mean to you?
As a philosophy major with a minor in constitutional studies, most of my undergraduate experience has built off of my deep interest in the ideals of American democracy and finespun my understanding of how these ideals have evolved over time. Furthermore, as a woman of color and second-generation American, I am keenly aware of the struggles and sacrifices made by generations before me – both in America and abroad – who fought for the privileges and rights that I enjoy today. In this context, I see it as both my honor and responsibility to carry on their legacy by advocating for the rights of others, promoting civic engagement, and generally occupying a space as a champion of democracy.
For me, being a "champion of democracy" means not only advocating for others, but also cultivating a deep and nuanced understanding of the complex policy issues that shape our democracy. I believe that democracy is not just about protecting one's own beliefs, but also about creating a space where all voices are valued and have the opportunity to be heard. As a champion for democracy, I strive to understand and inform others about the ever-evolving landscape of American democracy, while also remaining mindful of the diversity of perspectives and experiences that shape our collective understanding of this important ideal. Through the Hesburgh Democracy Fellowship, I am excited to engage with a community of individuals who are committed to protecting and advancing our democracy.
Tell us a bit about your experience working with Notre Dame Student Government's National Affairs and Political Engagement Committee. How did this experience shape your understanding of democracy and what it means to champion it?
As a member of the 2022-2023 ND Student Government's National Affairs and Political Engagement Committee (NAPE), I gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of bipartisan civic engagement in strengthening democracy. NAPE's mission to increase on-campus political engagement was particularly significant in today's polarized political climate. The committee provided students with a monthly newsletter featuring events from clubs across the political spectrum, ensuring that every individual had the opportunity to be involved and informed on policy, regardless of where they stood. Moreover, NAPE's efforts to create events where diverse perspectives could engage in civic discourse promoted informed conversations and encouraged students to remain politically engaged. All-in-all, being part of NAPE was a valuable experience that allowed me to champion student engagement in policy and contribute to a healthier democracy within the Notre Dame community.
How have you championed democracy on-campus and in the local community?
In the local community, I have been able to champion democracy by being involved with Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. In the past, I had the privilege of being a research assistant at the CSC with Dr. Jay Brandenberger. And this semester, I am currently taking a course called Organizing, Power, and Hope, taught by Dr. Michael Hebbeler. The course focuses on teaching students how to garner power and use it to bring about change in their communities. One of the most valuable aspects of the course is that we don't just learn about organizing theory; we practice it by working with local groups like Faith in Indiana. This semester, our work with Faith in Indiana has focused on securing increased funding for mental health care in St. Joseph's County. Since funding decisions are made by local elected officials, I've certainly developed a deeper appreciation for the significance of down-ballot elections and the impact they can have on our daily lives. Overall, by taking this course with the CSC, I've learned that by using one’s voice, collaborating with others, and advocating for one’s needs, we each have the power to bring about meaningful change.
Do you have a favorite course/book that you found helpful for thinking about democracy - either in the US or abroad?
I found Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope to be a helpful read for thinking about democracy. The book emphasizes the importance of community and collaboration as fundamental elements of a well-functioning democracy and a strong nation. Although published in 2006, the book remains highly relevant in today's political landscape. Not only does Obama identify how hyper-polarization can pose a threat to democracy, but he also suggests ways to overcome the threat by engaging in respectful discourse across party lines and building on fundamental American principles. The book also emphasizes civic discourse and American ideals over individual politics, making it a refreshing read from a politician’s perspective. Overall, The Audacity of Hope is a stimulating and inspiring reminder of the potential of democratic institutions to foster the common goods of equality, liberty, and justice for all.
Who is a public leader or historical figure that you admire, or would consider a model 'champion of democracy'?
As cliché as it may sound, I greatly admire George Washington as a model champion of democracy. He was a highly disciplined individual and an exceptional leader who placed the interests of the country above any ambitions. He was committed to the needs of his constituents, and it should come as no surprise that he is the only U.S. President to never take up a political party. Instead, while he did not fix himself on one end of the political spectrum, he actively sought out and valued different perspectives and opinions for his political decisions. He was a man of the people and his nation. While he was not without serious flaws, I respect him immensely for his commitment to democracy and its virtues. Washington's leadership during the founding of the United States and his lasting commitment to democratic principles make him a model for all who aspire to champion democracy.