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Students Embracing Democracy: Democratic Engagement and Difficult Dialogues at GVSU

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
January 18, 2017 Melissa Baker-Boosamra Grand Valley State University

Throughout 2016, Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, saw a robust, campus-wide voter engagement effort take shape. The GVSU Votes! campaign led by GVSU Student Senate, the Division of Student Services, and the Division of Inclusion & Equity included a broad and coordinated voter registration campaign resulting in the registration of nearly 3,000 new voters. Other programs included Student Civic Assembly Week, a Rock the Vote! concert, Debate Watch parties, and GVSU Voter Vans –which provided more than 800 students with transportation to the local polls. Ella Fritzemeier, Student Senate President says “It was inspiring to see the number of students who turned out to vote, many for their first time”.

Ella and her Student Senate colleagues were up late the night of November 8th, picking up the last of the student voters who had stood in long lines to cast their ballots. On the morning of November 9th, many were surprised at the election results. Student leaders and GVSU staff quickly saw the need to provide space for the campus community to process election results.  In response, the bi-weekly Post-Election Town Hall Series invited our campus community to come together, process election results and discuss moving forward. Trained student facilitators guided these conversations.

Relando Thompkins-Jones, Social Justice Educator at GVSU co-facilitated Town Hall sessions. According to Relando, “There were mixed emotions that surfaced. Some students were stunned and outraged at the election results. Others seemed resigned. It was a striking comparison to hear students share serious concerns about being targeted politically for aspects of their identities, while others just wanted to ‘move on’.”

Themes that emerged during the sessions included:

  • Fear of “the other”
  • Media literacy
  • Desire to better understand “how the system works”
  • Lack of civility in public discourse
  • Impact of political climate on GVSU campus climate
  • How to “come together” and what to do next?

As a result of the space that was created by the student facilitators, participants were able to communicate across differences, remain in difficult, but necessary dialogue, and listen to understand one another’s belief systems and politics.

Town Hall sessions have been well attended by the campus community. According to Nikhil Watsa, Student Senate VP for External Relations, “We’ve heard that there is an interest in carrying these conversations forward. People still feel strongly about the political state of our country and the best way to engage with those feelings and concerns, both positive and negative, is to talk about them.”

The final Post-Election Town Hall meeting will take place January 23. Currently, the Community Service Learning Center, Student Senate and other campus units are developing a series of programs entitled “Democracy 101” to provide students with space and information for meaningful civic learning and democratic engagement as we move into 2017 and beyond. A campus-wide website with resources for civic learning and democratic engagement has been created as a resource (www.gvsu.edu/service/democracy).