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Creating Space for Democracy

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
November 2, 2017 Natasha Begin Bellarmine University

“You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”  Grace Lee Boggs

I am fortunate to work at a mission driven private liberal arts institution with a President that believes in the value of sustained and responsible community engagement.  Our institution holds a Catholic identity with a social justice lens.  Though an office of one, I am fortunate to work with colleagues who value social responsibility.  We have a student body that most would characterize as smart, caring young leaders.  And yet, like most other institutions we are wrestling with deep questions:

 “How are we increasing civic agency among our students?”

“Where is our real place of impact in the context of social issues both local and national?”

“How are we preparing our graduates to live lives of meaningful contribution?”

While I can point to programs, projects, initiatives, speakers, and classes that independently address issues of civic responsibility and agency, I, like others, often go home feeling disconnected from the heart of our democracy, from the work being done on the ground in our city to improve the lives of individuals and the health of our community. 

This academic year, much like the beginning of our last academic year opened with our nation facing difficult challenges.  We prepared to welcome students back to campus in the wake of Charlottesville and the Presidential administration’s announcement of the Military Transgender Ban.  We knew that many of our students were impacted, we knew that our community was impacted.  We wanted our students to arrive on campus knowing that we were prepared to enter into deep and challenging dialogue with them; dialogue that is driven by historical context, knowledge, and authentic care. 

In the face of pressing social issues, it is critical that we navigate how we will ready ourselves and our institutions to re-connect with the heart of our democracy, with the work that is being done.  We cannot support and guide our students to think critically about the contribution they are committed to making if we as professionals, as faculty, and as mentors have not thought critically about the issues or our own civic agency.  How we do this may certainly look different depending upon one’s position and certainly the culture of the institution.  While I am certainly no expert, and my campus is absolutely still working through how we commit to cultivating a culture of democracy on our campus, I’m going to propose that like the community organizer, Grace Lee Boggs once did, and we ask each other some intentional questions that may guide us in our pursuits:

  1. What am I (not I as my role, but I as a full authentic person) willing to commit to actively create a space of living democracy on my campus? 
  2. What is it that I (or my office, or my division) can offer to our students and the campus?
    • What does my office do well? 
    • What are the strengths related to civic literacy, understanding, and agency?
  3. What is the need? 
    • What is happening in our community or our nation that our students are wrestling with that deserves time and attention?
  4. Who could my partners be?
    •  What faculty might be able to bring expertise?
    • What community partners are doing the ground work?
    • What student groups might add voice, time, talent?

Here is where this line of questioning led us on our campus –

We knew that our students and community were struggling to decide what Charlottesville meant for our nation and certainly for ourselves.  We knew that we needed to cultivate space for faculty and staff to come together to process and dialogue prior to our students coming to campus.  We felt it important that this dialogue was timely and semi-structured to provide folks with the ability to reflect both personally and professionally.  Lastly, we knew that one of the strengths that Student Affairs brings to our campus is our ability to program to a need and to facilitate meaningful dialogue.  So we did just that. 

We initiated Community Conversations on our campus.  All were invited to attend.  Our first in the series focused on Charlottesville.  In the room were full time faculty, student affairs professionals, adjunct faculty, staff, cabinet members, and the President.  In the course of a little over an hour we dialogued, we learned from each other and we reflected on how to impact change both personally and for our students.  Most importantly, we shared space for one of the first times specifically focused on a social issue, not the state of the University or agenda items, but on deep issues impacting our national and local community. 

We came together again after the Presidential administration announced the move to end DACA.  This time we were joined by students as they were back on campus by this point.  There were calls to action and a separate working group began. 

While I’m not suggesting that dialogue is THE answer.  I am suggesting that our ability to cultivate intentional space for deliberate democracy, allows us to create connections and build generative ideas in ways that we have lost sight of due to our busy schedules and consuming work.  Intentional and shared spaces allows us to wrestle with complex issues and draw attention to the idea that we are all activators of our democracy and each bring wisdom to the table despite rank or title. 

I can’t tell you where all of these Community Conversations will lead our campus.  I can tell you that when I leave them I feel a little less disconnected from the heart of our democracy and a little more committed to taking responsibility for it.