In a time of heightened political polarization, Stanford junior Megha Parwani is being recognized for her work to strengthen civil dialogue, civic engagement and democracy-building, particularly among young people.

Megha Parwani

Stanford junior Megha Parwani has been selected for the national Newman Civic Fellowship. (Image credit: Courtesy Megha Parwani)

Parwani has been selected as a 2021-22 Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recommended her for the award, which honors student leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to finding solutions for complex social and environmental challenges.

Parwani is double majoring in philosophy and political science, with a particular interest in strengthening the foundations of civic and democratic practice.

She noted, “This work is important to me because I believe building a more representative, effective democracy is essential for making lasting progress on every other social goal—from realizing racial justice to addressing climate change. Robust democracy is the foundation for a more just society.”

For the past three years, Parwani has served as a writer, editor and editorial board member of The Stanford Daily. She has also organized campus events for students to engage in civil political dialogue through the Associated Students of Stanford University’s Academic Freedom and Political Engagement effort.

An important part of Parwani’s Stanford experience has been interning and conducting research with the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD).

“Megha is constantly thinking about how to solve problems related to polarization and engagement. She is one of the most motivated undergraduates I’ve worked with in this field,” said Alice Siu, CDD associate director.

A central question of the center’s work is whether deliberative democracy—an approach based on informed and moderated discussion rather than partisan debate—can depolarize society and strengthen democracy.

Parwani helped organize “America in One Room,” a landmark Deliberative Polling event held by Stanford professors Larry Diamond and James Fishkin with Siu. It brought together 500 nationally representative voters in Dallas, Texas in October 2019. The event, and participants’ subsequent shifts toward the center of the political spectrum, was documented by The New York Times.

Building on the event’s success, Parwani developed a proposal for a Stanford Deliberative Poll, resulting in the creation of a spring practicum course and the “Shaping Your Stanford” event in May 2020. At the virtual event, nearly 200 Stanford undergraduates deliberated over two days on campus issues such as housing and COVID policies, as well as national issues including access to COVID testing and unemployment assistance.

Parwani, who is co-designing a national deliberative democracy experiment on electoral college reform, also serves on the planning team for “Shaping Our Future,” which will be hosted by Stanford University and the Berggruen Institute May 1-2, 2021. The event, hosted in partnership with 36 colleges and universities nationwide, will be the largest national deliberative event ever carried out among young people in the United States.

“Megha has a steadfast faith in the capacity of democratic structures to address long-term social, economic and environmental problems. Her commitment to taking action to address political polarization is at the heart of her democratic deliberation efforts and a significant dimension of her work on The Stanford Daily,” noted Haas Center for Public Service Associate Director Luke Terra, who has worked with Parwani throughout the deliberative polling practicum and events.

A major focus for Parwani has been facilitating dialogue and democracy-building among young people.

Fostering cross-cultural exchange was a key objective for the South Asian Winter Camp, a two-week, online education program for South Asian high school students that she co-founded, as well as her internship with the Civic Health Project focused on reducing geographic and algorithmic polarization.

In a summer 2020 Cardinal Quarter fellowship with Generation Citizen, Parwani conducted research on democratic engagement in higher education. She also worked with then CEO Scott Warren to plan and host a virtual convening for activists, practitioners and scholars across the globe to discuss and plan for youth political engagement during the pandemic and beyond.

The conference served as the springboard to establish Democracy Moves, a nonprofit coalition that builds the capacity of 70 youth organizations in 25 countries to advocate for more just and participatory democracies.

“What our world needs right now is more people like Megha—those who are committed to understanding democracy from many different angles and always looking for ways to engage on a deeper level to move people forward,” said Paitra Houts, director of community engaged learning in education at the Haas Center. She continued, “Megha’s coursework, scholarship, and service all reflect her belief that having a strong democracy will lead to a better world, and that to do that you need to create space to hear different perspectives and to look for commonalities.”

The Newman Civic Fellowship recognizes undergraduates nationwide for their efforts to seek solutions to community issues. The fellowship is named for the late Frank Newman, co-founder of Campus Compact and founding member of the National Advisory Board of the Haas Center. The program provides training and resources to equip students to take leadership roles in addressing public problems and building equitable communities.

“I am honored and grateful to be selected as a Newman Civic Fellow. I am especially grateful for all my mentors and friends at Stanford, who have inspired and taught me how to confront daunting challenges with a sense of possibility,” Parwani said.

She continued, “In the coming year, after this historic election, I am thinking about how we can keep levels of civic engagement high and keep the conversation about how our democracy works going. One way I am thinking through this is by writing a thesis with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society focused on the way digital technologies are changing political engagement.”