April 19, 2018
This is the fifth in a series of posts addressing the emergent Theory of Change being developed by higher education institutions that participate in the annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting network, which includes a network of colleges and universities affiliated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and NASPA LEAD Initiative. The first post described the CLDE Emergent Theory of Change and the process by which it is being developed; the second post identified key features of the thriving democracy higher education’s CLDE work seeks to support; the third post proposed a set of learning outcomes to which this work should be directed; and the fourth post described pedagogies through which these outcomes could be achieved.
The vision animating this series of essays on higher education’s role in supporting a thriving democracy is fundamentally about culture. What would a thriving civic culture look like, and be like? How would it feel to live and learn in that culture? How would people interact, support each other’s growth, work through and across differences, make collective decisions, and pursue life, liberty, and happiness together? How can colleges and universities support the development of that culture through both structured and unstructured learning experiences, and through campus practices that embody the thriving democracy to which we aspire?
Responding to the strategy prompt -- How can we build the institutional culture, infrastructure, and relationships needed to support learning that enables a thriving democracy? Photo credit: David Hoffman
Cultures are notoriously difficult to change. From the vantage of a person immersed in any particular culture, alternative aspirations, arrangements and practices can appear irrational and impractical if not outright threatening. People working to support a thriving democracy by changing higher education from within have to contend with narratives, relationships, decision processes, reward structures, and communication practices rooted in the values and assumptions of the status quo (Hoffman, Berger, & Bickel, 2015).
Many also have to contend with a sense of isolation. We have spoken with any number of colleagues and students who harbor deep democratic aspirations for their institutions but feel misunderstood, marginalized, and unable to gain real traction. So many of us were inspired by A Crucible Moment, the influential 2012 report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement that called for moving teaching and learning for democracy from the margins to the core of our institutions’ work. We want to see colleges and universities respond to that call by enacting the values and practices of a thriving democracy in every department and program. Yet we live in a time of scarcity, in which institutions of higher education have increasingly defined their value proposition to students in terms of customer service, career preparation, and future monetary compensation. It can be difficult just to secure colleagues’ understanding and support for preserving existing spaces in which students have opportunities to experience and enact democracy.
Despite being sobered by the magnitude of the challenge, the four of us are optimistic about the possibility of initiating meaningful changes in and through institutions of higher education. Our hope is grounded in experiences with community organizing and long-term change strategies, and in the recognition that champions of the democratic values and practices described in our previous essays in this series (links provided in the opening paragraph, above) have extraordinary assets on which to build. Successful strategies for institutional change are likely to hinge on recognizing, cultivating, and leveraging the following assets, among others:
Beyond these important assets, the sheer boldness of A Crucible Moment’s vision, encompassing changes in purposes and practices throughout higher education, makes almost every resource at institutions’ disposal a potential source of support for a thriving democracy. While it will take time and work to bring about the changes, in the long run it should not cost extra for faculty, staff, and students to pursue more inclusive approaches to fulfilling their current responsibilities, relate to each other in more democratic ways, and tell new stories about the meaning of affiliation with their institutions.
Intersecting walkways on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) campus. Photo Credit: David Hoffman
Utilizing and leveraging these assets will involve applying tools long used by community organizers. These include asset maps (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2018), one-to-one relational meetings (Avila, 2010), and story circles (O’Neal, 2018). In addition, we will need to develop some new tools, building on promising work already underway, to help assess current practices and enact the values of a thriving democracy in everyday settings (course syllabi, advising appointments, student orientations, hiring processes, and many more). Those new tools will help identify and link hidden democratic aspects of institutions’ stories, and help institutions develop powerful local languages to support a thriving democracy in terms that resonate with their constituents. Adapting and creating the tools together will be among the most important next steps for our collective work.
Other next steps will include reviewing and refining the Emergent Theory of Change framework we have developed in this series of essays, and making its visionary elements tangible and actionable. That work will take place at the 2018 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting hosted by the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and NASPA LEAD Initiative (June 6-9, Anaheim, California), and in subsequent conversations among participants in those networks and other stakeholders. When added to those taken by creative, caring people over decades to align higher education’s practices with its public purposes, those steps will create promising new paths to the thriving democracy we envision but have not yet achieved.
What other assets would you add to our list? What thoughts has this series of essays sparked for you, and how would you like to be involved in the work ahead? Add your thoughts in a comment, or contact the authors: David Hoffman ([email protected]), Jennifer Domagal-Goldman ([email protected]), Stephanie King ([email protected]), and Verdis Robinson ([email protected]).
Avila, M. (2010). “Community organizing practices in academia: A model, and stories of partnerships.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 14(2), 37-63.
Hoffman, D., Berger, C. and Bickel, B. (2015). (2015, Winter). Democratic agency and the visionary’s dilemma. Diversity & Democracy 18(1), 18-19.
National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
O’Neal, J. (2018), Story circle process discussion paper. Accessed April 9, 2018 at http://www.racematters.org/storycircleprocess.htm.
UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (2018). Asset mapping. Accessed April 9, 2018 at http://healthpolicy.ucla.edu/programs/health-data/trainings/Documents/tw_cba20.pdf.
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