Lesson Plans

Video Discussion: Exploring Democracy with Formerly Incarcerated People

Lifeline for Success member Will raises questions about the electoral college. Lifeline is a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated men and women in Memphis, Tennessee. Most members of the community are disenfranchised. Video still by Lorraine A. Ustaris for Andrea Bruce's Our Democracy project. 


Through Our Democracy, documentary photographer Andrea Bruce aims to engage audiences in an open study of democracy while also democratizing journalism itself. She hopes to empower individuals who represent today’s biggest changes or challenges to democracy to tell their own stories.

She invites Americans across the country to document democracy’s effects in their own lives and communities and contribute to the project’s Instagram feed @ourdemocracy. She also endeavors to create a multimedia map that showcases this community reportage alongside her own photography over the next two years.

Her project moves to a new location each month. The first city she visited was Memphis, Tennessee, where she spent time with Lifeline for Success, a community of formerly incarcerated men and women.

The following lesson offers ideas for utilizing video documentation of Andrea’s discussion about democracy with Lifeline community members as a means to begin a classroom conversation about incarceration, the American voting system, and the relationship between community and democracy.

Teachers who are interested in challenging students to produce their own journalistic work for Our Democracy can explore this project-based unit: Teaching Journalism through Our Democracy.



Pre-teaching Notes:

  • Before teaching this lesson, teachers should develop a working definition of democracy with students. Students’ experiences of this lesson will be most meaningful within a unit in which they have already explored the fundamentals of democracy and democratic theory and application.
  • Teachers should preview the video, consider their classroom contexts, and plan to introduce the perspectives and topics featured in this video however they deem most appropriate for their student population.
  • This video features only one of a range of disparate communities that Andrea will be visiting over the next two years. It is important for teachers to review with students lenses for processing information—fact, opinion, and anecdotal evidence—shared by individuals from different standpoints.

Warm-up Questions:

Review: What is democracy? How would you explain democracy to a foreigner? What definition would you provide? What examples of democracy would you share? (These review questions require pre-teaching.)

Reflect: Do you think voting matters? (This activity will give students a chance to check their personal beliefs before learning more about the U.S. voting process.)

  • Imagine you lost your right to vote. How would you feel? How might it impact elections, if at all?
  • Imagine everyone in America who shares similar beliefs and cultural experiences with you lost their right to vote. How would you feel? How might it impact the elections, if at all?

Discuss: Life after incarceration

What psychological, emotional, social, political, and economic challenges might a formerly incarcerated person face after being released? And, in your opinion, what is our responsibility in helping them through these challenges?


What do you think you’ll learn about democracy through this discussion with formerly incarcerated people?

Watch and Discuss 

Take notes: Viewers are encouraged to complete the following graphic organizer, before or after the watching the video.

For those who wish to complete the worksheet after viewing, here is a transcript of the discussion.

Share out: After teachers help students unpack their initial reactions to the video, classes could begin the post-viewing discussion by sharing out from the notes on their graphic organizers: the quotes/ideas recorded from the discussion and explanations of the democracy-related themes or issues they associated with them. (Students could also relate quotes/ideas from Lifeline members to course readings previously assigned by the teacher.)

Classify, analyze and synthesize: According to Lifeline members, what does the experience of American Democracy look like for the individual, community, state and nation? What do their lives and perspectives reveal to us about democracy’s impact and improvements that could be made? What is the relationship between democracy and community? And how has democracy affected the lives of Lifeline members? Teachers and students can use one or both of the following graphic organizers to help them make meaning from the experiences and opinions Lifeline members shared in the discussion.

Extension Activities:

Option 1. Explore additional video sources: The following PowerPoint contains links to more videos featuring the Lifeline community and viewing questions through which classes can learn more about the lives and beliefs of select Lifeline members.

Option 2. Inquiry based on Bronfenbrenner’s Theory of Identity Development

The graphic organizers for the final discussion activity are based, in part, on Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory of Identity Development. Teachers who wish for their classes to begin analyzing their own lives in the context of democracy could invite students to chart their own experiences.

Option 3. Reporting activity

The discussion video presents only the perspectives of Lifeline Community members. In order to learn more about what members of their own communities might feel about incarceration, voting, and democracy in America, students could conduct person-on-the-street interviews. Post-reporting discussion could involve comparing and contrasting the experiences and opinions of the residents in their own communities with the viewpoints of Lifeline members.

Teachers who are interested in challenging students to produce more in-depth journalistic work for Our Democracy can explore this project-based unit: Teaching Journalism through Our Democracy.

Option 4. Research on voting rights

Voting rights for formerly incarcerated citizens vary state to state. Students can research legislation in their state and across the country.

Option 5. Research on community change

Andrea asks the Lifeline members to consider how they would change their community. Change can feel intangible and inaccessible. Often times citizens don’t know where to start. Challenge students to create a plan of action for an aspect of their community they desire to change.

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