Curious students wandered the heart of the Kent State University campus at noon on May 4th, 1970. The unseasonably warm, sunny weather and the spectacle of Ohio National Guard Jeeps maneuvering around campus made that Monday morning seem anything but normal. The preceding weekend was filled with unrest, as President Nixon’s April 30th announcement of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia—an expansion of the Vietnam War—had been met with intense protest. Protesters shattered storefront windows in downtown Kent Friday night; the campus ROTC building burned to the ground Saturday night as the National Guard arrived at the behest of Kent’s mayor; on Sunday night, Guardsmen dispersed students staging a sit-in at an intersection near campus, chasing them back to their residence halls with bayonets. Students milled around The Commons that Monday as a previously planned rally—suddenly deemed illegal by campus and local authorities—began, repeatedly interrupted by orders for students to disperse shouted through a PA system. After volleys of teargas canisters were sent back and forth over the hilly terrain between the National Guard and protesters, Guardsmen fired in the direction of the protesting students at 12:24 p.m., sending 67 bullets into the crowd. Four students died. Nine more suffered wounds.
The events of that day permanently separated young adults from their families and forever ended or altered the lives of those shot or who observed the tragedy. They also left an indelible wound on the university itself that continues to heal. As our university community prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of May 4th, we look back on our own institutional journey of processing this painful history, moving through different stages of grief: forgetting, acknowledging, memorializing, and now, owning the tragedy and honoring the entire spectrum of perspectives it contains. Our university’s resolve to reflect on these tragic events leads us to find power in the role of “Wounded Healer”—on the lookout for opportunities to put our wound to work and apply the lessons we continue to learn from this tragedy to this moment in American life.[i]
So, what can the events of May 4, 1970 mean for our civic learning and democratic engagement work? The strained communication and the sense of division that was present nearly 50 years ago also exist in today’s civic and political discourse. Political rhetoric can feel like it is at a fever pitch, and human nature often leads us to join with other like-minded people instead of genuinely resolving differences between differing points of view. At Kent State, the wisdom from our institutional wound collected over time, combined with the steadfast work of members of our campus community, has forged an institutional ethos based on several key civic priorities:
- Challenging any and all dehumanizing conversations or practices
- Managing thoughtfully crises that carry the potential for violence
- Defending every person’s First Amendment right to self-expression and encouraging people to share their voice respectfully
- Convening conversations that are more civil, braver, and more productive
Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies (SPCS) is an institutional symbol crystallizing this ethos. Founded in 1971 as the Center for Peaceful Change in the wake of the shooting, the School of Peace and Conflict Studies allows students to practice negotiation, mediation, workplace conflict management, dispute systems design, and nonviolent action in SPCS classes, preparing them for civic action-filled lives.[ii]
As we look forward, both from an institutional perspective and from the vantage point of a CLDE movement equipped with the CLDE Theory of Change, one of our most important tasks is to commit to developing civic agency among every student with whom we work. Civic agency—the capacity of everyday people to work collaboratively across differences like political ideology, faith, race, income, and ethnicity and to view the world around them as fluid and open to transformation[iii]—is vital to a college education that aspires the students with whom we work to graduate as informed, purposeful citizens living lives of impact. It is also critical to the CLDE Theory of Change, as we need students to be able to create and build the thriving democracy we seek, not merely reproduce the world as it is.
The story of Dean Kahler, one of the Kent State students wounded on May 4th and paralyzed from the incident, exemplifies civic agency. After the hard work of rehabilitation and finishing his degree, Kahler graduated and pursued a political career, campaigning for and getting elected to public office and advocating for wheelchair accessible spaces across Ohio. If Kahler could not find a way into a county courthouse, he insisted on meeting with county officials outside to illustrate the injustice. Kahler’s belief that he could work with others to transform the world around him led to the installation of accessibility ramps across the state and access to social services and Board of Elections offices for Ohioans in wheelchairs. Describing his own civic agency, Kahler says, “In this country, with a little bit of effort, with a little bit of work, you, too, can do something about the political environment.”[iv] If we are to repair and renew our civic and political environment, the students with whom we work must not only learn specific civic skills but also develop the capacity to see the environments around them as transformable.
In preparing for the 50th anniversary of the events of May 4th, Kent State University is a renewed institution, looking backward and forward, remembering the pain and loss of the past and resolving to co-create a brighter future for all of us. Playing the roles of convener and “Wounded Healer,” we are putting our wound to work, dedicated to raising our voices in a convening spirit and creating inclusive and peaceful environments. We look forward to joining and learning from other institutions as we work together to build the thriving democracy we seek.
[i] [Chautauqua Institution]. (2018, Aug 16). Beverly Warren at Chautauqua: ‘Kent State beyond the shootings: journey of the wounded healer’ [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWdjZetqqgM&t=
[ii] Kent State University (2018). About SPCS. Retrieved from https://www.kent.edu/spcs/about-spcs
[iii] NASPA. (2017, June). CLDE emergent theory of change. Presented at the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting, Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from http://apps.naspa.org/files/CLDEEmergentTheoryofChange.pdf
[iv] [Chautauqua Institution], Beverly Warren at Chautauqua: ‘Kent State beyond the shootings: journey of the wounded healer’