A Gathering of Hopes and Stories: Organizing for a Thriving Democracy

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:

  • Civic work that is not (yet) named as such, and the people who do that work. Notwithstanding the myriad challenges of the present day, the work of building a thriving democracy is happening all around us, though it can be hard to see. It takes place in departments, centers, programs, organizations, committees, and physical locations across our institutions. The difficulty is that it goes by names other than “civics” or “democracy,” or by no name at all. It occurs outside the lines often drawn around recognized “civic” activities such as voting or providing voluntary service, including in classrooms where faculty members show up as vulnerable human beings rather than dispassionate conveyors of expertise and analysis; in the modeling, advocacy, and mentoring done by members of marginalized populations in non-traditional roles; and in forums where students, faculty, and staff work in genuine collaboration to create institutions’ policies and programs. Even the people engaged in such important work may dismiss or devalue its civic dimensions, believing that they are simply being helpful, acting in accordance with their values, or making stylistic choices. What changes could those people produce if their civic skills, commitments, and contributions were appropriately illuminated and organized?
  • Democratic threads in institutions’ stories. The stories colleges and universities tell about themselves often depict linear ascensions from humble beginnings, accomplished largely through the contributions of heroic, visionary individuals in formal leadership positions. Such stories can obscure the messy, grassroots, collaborative, and contested work behind many aspects of institutions’ built environments, programs, cultures, and practices. Those messier stories may be hiding in plain view, disconnected from the larger campus narrative. For example, stories from the time of UMBC’s opening in 1966 often reference the fact that campus planners waited to install sidewalks until people’s footsteps had created paths across the grounds. Understood in one way, this anecdote makes vivid the institution’s humble origins, and attests to the resilience of the campus pioneers: they pressed onward with dirty shoes. Yet the story is also about democracy: students, faculty, and staff collectively chose the pathways and created them with their feet, literally making the roads by walking. When the paving story and other democratic aspects of campus history are assembled and linked to campus attributes that already inspire pride, they become a powerful cultural resource: a way of opening new ground for collective path-making in the present day. What will our assembled stories empower us to create together?
  • The widely felt yearning for consequentiality and connectedness. People are not merely the roles they play within institutions. Nor can they be reduced to the accommodations they have made to fit comfortably within cultures that valorize individual achievement, technical rationality and expertise, control, and efficiency. Behind a student’s seemingly narrow careerism may be a partially suppressed, hard-to-name wish to do something that truly matters to others. Behind a faculty member’s professional distance and adherence to protocol may be feelings of vulnerability and the hope of being valued by students and colleagues. The challenge for an organizer of cultural change is to make these aspirations to consequentiality and connectedness safely visible, link them with the values of a thriving democracy, and help people to act on them together. What new relationships can emerge when people in different roles connect around their common desire to live with purpose and matter to their communities?

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.


David Hoffman is Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative. His work is directed at fostering civic agency and democratic engagement through courses, co-curricular experiences and cultural practices on campus. His research explores students’ development as civic agents, highlighting the crucial role of experiences, environments, and relationships students perceive as “real” rather than synthetic or scripted. David is a member of Steering Committee for the American Democracy Project and the National Advisory Board for Imagining America. He is an alum of UCLA (BA), Harvard (JD, MPP) and UMBC (PhD).

Jennifer Domagal-Goldman is the national manager of AASCU’s American Democracy Project (ADP). She earned her doctorate in higher education from the Pennsylvania State University. She received her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester. Jennifer’s dissertation focused on how faculty learn to incorporate civic learning and engagement in their undergraduate teaching within their academic discipline. Jennifer holds an ex-officio position on the eJournal of Public Affairs’ editorial board.

Stephanie King is the Assistant Director for Civic Engagement, Knowledge Community, and Social Justice Initiatives, formerly the Assistant Director for Knowledge Communities and Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Initiatives at NASPA where she directs the NASPA Lead Initiative.  She has worked in higher education since 2009 in the areas of student activities, orientation, residence life, and civic learning and democratic engagement. Stephanie earned her Master of Arts in Psychology at Chatham University and her B.S. in Biology from Walsh University. She has served as the Coordinator for Commuter, Evening and Weekend Programs at Walsh University, Administrative Assistant to the VP and Dean of Students for the Office of Student Affairs, the Coordinator of Student Affairs, and the Assistant Director of Residence Life and Student Affairs at Chatham University.

Verdis L. Robinson is the National Director of The Democracy Commitment after serving as a tenured Assistant Professor of History and African-American Studies at Monroe Community College (NY). Professionally, Verdis is a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Seminar on Citizenship and the American and Global Polity, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Faculty Seminar on Rethinking Black Freedom Studies: The Jim Crow North and West.  Additionally, Verdis is the founder of the Rochester Neighborhood Oral History Project that with his service-learning students created a walking tour of the community most impacted by the 1964 Race Riots, which has engaged over 400 members of Rochester community in dialogue and learning. He holds a B.M. in Voice Performance from Boston University, a B.S. and an M.A. in History from SUNY College at Brockport, and an M.A. in African-American Studies from SUNY University at Buffalo.

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