KC Spotlight: Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement

Sabrina Wienholtz, Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement KC Representative

September 30, 2018

Greetings from your new Region IV-West Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Knowledge community representative!  As the Director of Clubs, Organizations, and Leadership at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, I have always seen myself primarily as a leadership educator.  I work with scholarship groups, student clubs and organizations, and the Student Government Association to develop individual leadership capacity and create community on campus.  Our Student Life department is just beginning a formal civic engagement program.  Imposter syndrome is real, ya’ll.  And I will admit to feeling less than qualified as a relative newcomer to formal CLDE work to write an article about the ins and outs of the field.  Instead, I’d like to talk a little bit about how leadership development really is CLDE work.  And how that work is accessible to all of us.

Early in my career, I struggled to connect with the end result of my leadership development work.  Some of the language around leadership development at the time felt transactional and didn’t necessarily align with my goals and values.  In the midst of my very own mini crisis, a colleague recommended that I attend the CLDE conference.  “I think those might be your people,” she said.  She was right.  I found a conference full of folks dedicated to developing student leaders that wouldn’t only change board rooms, they would have the capacity to engage in our democracy and change the world!  That was an outcome I could get behind.

Fast forward to the 2017 CLDE conference in Baltimore.  The CLDE Emergent Theory of Change was unveiled.  The Emergent Theory of Change provides a framework for thinking about how we might cultivate campus environments (civic ethos) as well as individual and collective capacities (civic literacy & skill building, civic action, and civic agency) to advance civic learning and democratic engagement.  If building individual and collective capacities sounds a lot like leadership development, then cultivating a civic ethos sounds a lot like using one’s influence to build systems, processes, and policies that reinforce the value of putting those skills to use in the public arena and for the public good. 

In considering how to go about this work, particularly from a position that isn’t directly responsible for CLDE efforts, I am reminded of something Dr. Brené Brown shared in her popular book, Daring Greatly.  The following is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in the Republic.”

              It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong

man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is

marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who

comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and

shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows

great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy

cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,

and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that

his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know

victory nor defeat.

As is true in leadership, we don’t need to be perfect.  Indeed, we cannot be perfect!  We just need to be willing to step into the arena.  So, what can your average student affairs practitioner do?

Get Involved – As with all other elements of leadership, students can’t be what they don’t see.  As student affairs folks, we need to model the public mindedness that we want to see in our students.  We are all busy – often challenged to negotiate families, and weird schedules, and a variety of other elements of daily life.  Our students are similarly challenged.  Show them that its possible.  Join staff or faculty governance at your institution, help support a voter registration project, or attend a service learning day. 

Encourage your Students to Get Involved – We’re pretty good at this one.  We know that involved students are successful students.  Make sure the students you work with are aware of public service opportunities, on campus or in the community.  A student wants to talk about the evils of parking on campus?  Hear them out.  Then ask them if they want to join the parking committee.

Advocate for a Spirit of Public Mindedness in your Spheres of Influence – Are students involved in decision making at your campus?  How about faculty and staff?  Has your campus made any sort of statement about free speech and civil discourse?  In some cases, we might be in the position to frame how decisions are made and policies developed, in some cases not.  When and where you can, are you speaking for democratic processes that engage everyone in the campus community? 

Consider joining the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Knowledge Community – Or, if CLDE doesn’t seem like a fit, join another KC that is.  I’ve been very involved in my campus community.  Joining the Region IV-W board as the CLDE Knowledge Community representative is my way of “getting in the arena” in a broader way.  I’ve learned along the way that a person doesn’t need to be an expert – just interested and willing to get involved.  Engaging in a community of professionals is a great way to start.

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