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Civic Literacy and Skill Building in the Local Context

LEAD Initiative
October 25, 2018 Dr. Robert Bonfiglio SUNY Geneseo

College and university students often find themselves as temporary residents of communities other than their own during the course of their enrollment.  In many cases, these communities are dramatically different than the communities they grew up in.  This is particularly true in the State University of New York, as most of its four-year colleges are located in rural communities, and many of its students hail from the New York City metropolitan area, which is in many cases several hundred miles away.

Geneseo is one such community, a small rural village of about 8,000 residents.  In recent years, the College has made a concerted effort to foster in its students locally-constructed civic literacy and skill building, and civic agency.  In the past two months, this effort has taken several discrete forms, and has been propelled by much greater collaboration between the College and Village officials that was precipitated by the election of a new Village mayor.

To start the new academic year, the newly elected Mayor of the Village of Geneseo, Margaret Duff, sent a letter of welcome to every College student, which specifically included an invitation for students to attend Village Board meetings, and to stay informed about community issues.

Shortly thereafter, the Village- and College-sponsored Healthy Campus and Community (alcohol and drug abuse prevention) Coalition, which has been moving forward with renewed vigor in the past year, embarked on its first Welcome Your Neighbor Campaign.  As part of the campaign, Coalition members, along with community leaders and landlords, created and distributed welcome bags for 150 Geneseo students living in off-campus residences in late August through early September.  The bags, which included information on community and College resources, including relevant ordinance and zoning information, were intended to foster students’ knowledge of local laws related to such things as noise, parking, and trash disposal.  The contents of the bags have proven to be helpful conversation starters between students and landlords and students and Village officials about their rights and responsibilities as Geneseo residents.

The Healthy Campus and Community Coalition also offered a presentation to 200 of the College’s student-athletes living in the Village of Geneseo early in the fall.  The workshop covered topics including Village laws and codes and what it takes to be a good neighbor.  The Chair of the Healthy Campus and Community Coalition; Mayor Duff; the Deputy Mayor; the Village Chief of Police; and a Town of Geneseo Board Member all took part in this presentation.  Based on the feedback from those in attendance, this workshop will be offered to other student groups in the coming months.

These educational efforts were complemented by a weekend of student community service events that saw students volunteer at 13 different sites throughout the Geneseo community, to exemplify what can happen when, as stated in the CLDE Theory of Change, “citizens work collaboratively across differences such as class, geography, race, and ethnicity to solve problems and create common ground.”

In the short period of time that these events have occurred, both students and Village officials alike have remarked about how the proactive efforts of the Village officials have resulted in an enhanced student understanding of how to address and resolve students’ personal concerns that may arise during their time as Geneseo residents.

These efforts have brought to life the words of the educator named William Cronon, who wrote that  “Liberally educated people understand that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by making the success of others possible.”

In the Foreword of Creating Campus Community:  In Search of Ernest Boyer’s Legacy, Parker Palmer wrote of the power of education in forging community.  “We must remember,” he said, “that we have at our disposal one of the greatest vehicles for soul making and community building known to humankind – the one called education.”  Palmer reminded us that the kind of education we want to foster is an education where personal “distance is overcome by (personal) connectedness” and we succeed when we enable learners to be “brought into relationship to, and (assume) responsibility for, the world that their knowledge is about.” 

The initiatives undertaken by Village of Geneseo officials, in collaboration with our college, have been exercises in community building through education; have nurtured “personal connectedness;” and have brought students into relationships that will enable them to better assume responsibility for their actions in our local community.  We have advanced our understanding that it is our duty to help students forge these relationships and connections with others, and come to appreciate more and more that, as John Gardner said,  “The community teaches.  If it is healthy and coherent, the community imparts a coherent value system.”

Together, and with renewed vigor, SUNY Geneseo and the Village of Geneseo have acted on the advice of Grady Bogue that “Orchestrating the tension between individual interests and community interests, between the good of self and the good of the community requires great engagement.”  The engagement that has been cultivated this fall is expected to reinforce the College’s commitment to civic literacy and skill building, and civic agency, and lead to even more significant College-Village collaboration in the months ahead.