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Democracy at Risk – 2023

Washington, DC
Dates May 19 - July 16, 2023
Program Focus

Working with organizations across the political spectrum in Washington DC that are fighting to preserve and defend American and global democracy.

Program Leaders
Program Themes
  • Ethics
  • Human Rights
  • Public Policy



Information Session:

  • Wednesday, November 9, 5:00 PM – West Duke 08A


Two out of three Americans believe that American democracy is under threat. Thirty-five percent of Americans believe that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election. And many supporters of President Biden believe that everyone who opposed him undermines American democracy.  Never before in our modern political history has the viability of our liberal democracy been more threatened. Notions of American exceptionalism – that somehow our democracy is more vibrant and resilient than all others – have become harder to maintain. Political polarization is at an all-time high, and bipartisan cooperation between the major political parties is increasingly rare. Our nation’s capital is both the site of so many major threats to our democracy as well as the organizations and people that continue to work to defend our democracy. Students in this program will be afforded a front-row seat at the current crisis of American and global democracy and will be able to bring their energies and skills to work to defend democracy. It is not hyperbolic to say that there has never been a more important time for this work.

During their eight weeks in Washington, students will work with government agencies, think tanks, or nonprofit organizations (both Democratic and Republican) committed to the preservation and strengthening of American Democracy by working on such issues as voting rights, free elections, truth, free speech, equality under the law and other related issues. Students will also take advantage of the rich array of programming in DC that will expose our students to academics, policy makers and other who are working to preserve democracy. Duke also has a vast alumni network interested in these issues that will support our learning in a variety of ways. We will meet weekly as a group for dinner to discuss work-related concerns and the future of American Democracy, including perspectives from a wide variety of viewpoints.


Community Partnerships

Here are some examples of the kinds of organizations we worked with in the summer of 2022:

  • Politifact
  • Vote Early Day
  • Campaign Legal Center
  • The League of Women Voters of the US
  • Freedom House
  • Defending Democracy Together

We hope to add other organizations for summer 2023.

Professor Mlyn will work with community partners to arrange student placements after acceptance into this program. The nature of student work will vary according to the placement and needs of the partner.  Most work will take place in an office setting and could involve research, writing and policy analysis. Students with specific placement ideas should feel to ask about those in their DukeEngage interview.

In applying for this program, students must understand that placement could be at any one of the community partner organizations, or others that later become available. Students need to be aware that: (1) some placements may require a separate application process or further interviews, and (2) final decisions will be made by partners and the program director, not by students.


Program Requirements

Coursework: Political Science, Public Policy and American government courses are recommended, but more important than this is an interest and commitment to public policy issues.

Skills: Good writing skills, knowledge of history and American government, some political experience would be of benefit.

Personal Qualities: Students with a deep sense of their own role as citizens or a desire to strengthen those roles for themselves will benefit most from this program and contribute most to the organizations they are working with. Students need to be organized and self-motivated, and be willing to work in teams. To succeed in the placements in Washington, students will need to achieve a high degree of professionalism. Emphasis is placed on building a strong cohort and learning community, in which everyone is fully engaged. The program director hopes to recruit students with a wide range of political views and values.



Housing, meals, and transportation: Students will live together in a university or apartment-like setting with kitchen facilities. Bedrooms, kitchens, common rooms, and bathroom facilities may be shared. Students will have a meal allowance. This meal allowance will cover groceries to prepare their own meals. Students will get a SmarTrip card, which can be used on Metro trains and buses for transportation to and from their placement sites. Cars are not permitted.  Students will also have access to the Duke in DC offices for meetings, virtual work and enrichment.


Academic Connections

This program is open to all, and might especially appeal to students taking courses in political science and public policy. Whether through course work or experience, students should have a basic understanding of how American government works, how citizens organize to achieve social change and the current political environment.

Students who participate in this program might go on to pursue work in political science and public policy and might be interested in working with programs at Duke like POLIS: The Center for Politics, Bass Connections, and the Hart Leadership Program.

Potential program cancellations

DukeEngage cannot guarantee that any program will occur. Programs may be cancelled for various reasons, including COVID considerations.

Student Reflections from 2022