Two KSU Professors play a lead role in ‘Growing Democracy’


Growing Democracy Project

Izzy Stewart Reporter

Ashley Nickels and Casey Boyd-Swan not only spend their time educating Kent State students but have also created an educational project that reaches local and national populations. 

They launched The Growing Democracy Project officially in 2019 which aims to bridge the boundaries between academia and the community while also breaking down barriers between local residents and governing institutions. 

Before the project was established, Nickels and Boyd-Swan realized crossovers in their work and research that complemented each other. 

“We both are trained in the field of public affairs which encompasses public administration, public policy and nonprofit spaces,” Nickels said. 

Nickels is an assistant professor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State and also has a Ph.D. in public affairs with a specialization in community development. Boyd-Swan is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at Kent State and has a Ph.D. in public administration and public policy.

Boyd-Swan realized the opportunity to use their expertise and the connections they had made along the way to educate the local community about what democracy entails. 

“A big motivation for starting The Democracy Project was the really cool area of expertise we both have but more than that, we know some really cool people that do awesome things,” Boyd-Swan said. 

While both are trained in public affairs, Nickels’ area of research includes urban politics, local governance and community-based organizations/nonprofits. Boyd-Swan focuses on public policy issues related to parental employment, early education labor markets and child and family well-being. 

The American Political Science Association, a funding institution, recognized the work of both Nickels and Boyd-Swan and offered funding, which led to the launch of The Growing Democracy Project. 

The project started as a co-created online civic engagement curriculum with community engagement workshops and teach-ins that used the modules they had developed. During their second year, the pandemic caused them to take a different route. 

“We decided to pivot and instead of doing the in-person deeply engaging workshops, we launched a podcast,” Nickels said.

The podcast launched in June of 2020 and was going to be a 10 episode series about governing during a pandemic. After both co-founders realized their excitement about the podcast, they received the go-ahead from their funder to keep creating more episodes. 

Currently, the Growing Democracy podcast has 54 released episodes and includes interviews with people across the United States but mostly focusing on Northeast Ohio. The podcast focuses on topics like civic engagement, community building and growing democracy. 

The Growing Democracy Project’s goal is to amplify the narrative and the work that others are doing to create an impact in communities. The curriculum, workshops, teach-ins and podcasts are there to help people find a way to get involved in civic engagement and continue fundamentally growing democracy.

“The people who come to us are the ones dipping their toes into civic engagement,” Nickels said. 

With both co-founders also being professors at Kent State, they also have advice for students who are looking to create change in their communities. 

Boyd-Swan believes that there are two characteristics most important in life: curiosity and perseverance. “Be willing to push forward with the thing that you think is the right thing to do, even when things get awkward and uncomfortable,”  she said. 

Nickels said the importance of listening actively and being present in the conversation. “Listen for those moments where someone is looking for solidarity. If you are someone who is privileged, use that privilege when invited to do so and when you can,” she said. 

Both Nickels and Boyd-Swan look forward to getting back into in-person events post-pandemic. 

“I do get a sense from our in-person events that there is comradery and shared experiences that come out of it so I do look forward to that,” Boyd-Swan said. 

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Izzy Stewart is a crisis and recovery reporter. Contact them at [email protected]