Many of us within the CLDE community have faced the challenges of small staff, tight budgets, and long to-do lists. Yet, we often bring to the table strong convictions about the necessity and the urgency of our work, for our students and institutions, for our communities and democracy.
At Baylor, we have taken a journey over the last four years to build capacity for CLDE work through our Public Deliberation Initiative (PDI). What started as a couple of stand-alone events has grown into a full and robust campus network and a signature initiative that has shaped the civic ethos on campus, enhanced student learning, and promoted a diverse & flourishing campus community.
As we have connected with other CLDE campuses, we have heard colleagues struggle in the same ways we did to build capacity for this work. We have heard similar frustrations at the lack of resources as well as similar conviction in the value of this work for our students and for our institutions.
Through our journey, we have learned some lessons that have helped us engage others in this work, build support, and increase our capacity. We offer these turning points from our experience as recommendations to other campuses seeking to infuse this work across campus.
- Moving beyond the budget blues – Like many of our colleagues, we started this work with no budget allocations. At first, we saw that as a huge limitation. However, it was not as limiting as we anticipated. Without funds, we focused on creating events of value. We started out using primarily free resources from the National Issues Forum Institute. We scheduled forums before or after dinner, so we did not need to serve food. As students came to participate, they found the experience valuable, and they kept coming back. They became our publicity.
- Building an advisory board – Probably one of the most important decisions we made was to develop an advisory board for PDI. It brought together key partners or potential partners in this work. We reached out to faculty, staff, community members that had shown interest in the work, or that we thought would be interested. The board gave us connection points with different departments across the university, helped us think about ways to grow work in classroom and community, and led to invitations to introduce others to PDI work. Our partnerships have led to several grant collaborations, academic program development, and opportunities to use deliberation in practice for local issues.
- Shifting from campus-wide forums to on-demand – One of the benefits of deliberation is that the model works whether 5 people show up or 50. As long as you have facilitators, you can easily scale it up or down as needed. Early on, we hosted one forum a month to build consistency and name recognition. Sometimes we only had a few students show up. As we kept doing it and had more people participate over time, we had more requests to work with specific groups – student organizations, departmental groups, and classes. Over time, we shifted our model to do less campus-wide events and more of these on-demand forums. That shift allowed us to focus on facilitating the deliberation itself while the hosting group focused on attendance, food, and logistics.
- Showcasing others – While we did not have budget funds, our advisory board gave us connections to faculty, staff, and community members that were engaged in similar work. Instead of competing with other practitioners, we decided to showcase them and to show how collectively we were building a strong civic ethos on campus. Our signature event for the last two years has been our Civic Life Summit, a gathering of campus & community leaders who are working in dialogue and deliberation. We hosted community practitioners doing rich work on racial reconciliation, restorative justice, civic leadership development, cultural humility, and more. By highlighting their expertise, we established ourselves as partners with them in fostering civic life. As a bonus, the Civic Life Summit also served as a revenue-generating event for us and provided some much needed funds to support our work throughout the year.
- Finding value through data – After every PDI forum, we gather post-forum questionnaires from participants. In 2017, we analyzed questionnaires from the first three years of our forums, looking at the impact forums had on civic learning. As Carcasson (2009) indicates, public deliberation has been shown to improve issue learning, democratic attitudes, and democratic skills. Our study confirmed that participants, regardless of the forum topic, reported increased awareness of issues (civic literacy), changed attitudes toward themselves and others (civic ethos), and increased sense of efficacy (civic agency). In addition, the study provided us with rich quotes from student participants who articulated the value of the experience in their own words. We shared the findings with administration and more broadly in our division through assessment presentations and poster sessions.
- Connecting with Student Affairs goals –The CLDE Theory of Change has also helped us connect this work to the national context within the field and to show PDI’s role as part of a larger network of programs and initiatives on campus fostering civic engagement. We have other programs that foster civic action through community service or civic agency through advocacy. This framework helps us show how PDI complements those programs (rather than duplicate) and makes our divisional approach more robust and comprehensive.
These decisions helped us to engage others across campus, which ultimately is the pathway to building capacity. When we can demonstrate the impact of the work, introduce others to the practice, and provide opportunities for them to join in, we build a network of support to champion the work. Budget and resources follow, not necessarily in budget allocations, but in strong partners who are willing to invest in the work with time, talents, and resources. That is when it truly becomes a joint endeavor, a community of practitioners working together to foster a civic ethos on campus, enhance student learning, and promote a diverse & flourishing campus community.
Erin Payseur Oeth is the Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor University. She has over ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As co-founder of Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, she equips students, organizations, and community members to engage across difference in productive dialogue and deliberation on pressing social issues. She currently serves on the Lead Advisory Institution (LAI) Board for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative and is a past fellow with the Kettering Foundation Centers for Public Life. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.