The Space Between Controversy with Civility and Civic Action

Anne Aichele, Director of Student Leadership, Marymount University

July 31, 2018

Two years ago, I accompanied a group of students to a leadership conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (HERI, 1996). The conference sessions included reflection on the original development and application of the theory, but also encouraged participants to push the boundaries and reexamine the original “7 C’s” (Consciousness of Self, Congruence, Commitment, Controversy with Civility, Collaboration, Common Purpose, and Community) through an updated and contextual lens.

Just four days before the conference, Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States after a controversial and divisive campaign season.  Campuses around the country were providing support to students trying to make sense of life altering policy changes, and mounting animosity and violence made more visible through social media (Andrade, 2017; Reynolds & Mayweather, 2017).  Some students managed feelings of anger, fear, disbelief, and objection by engaging in social activism, like public protests or marches (Andrade, 2017).  As the participants of the conference reflected on the Social Change Model within this supercharged political environment, the question arose: When is it appropriate to approach controversy without civility?  Or restated: When does civility impede meaningful social action and change?

As a professional listening to the conversation that afternoon, I was impressed by the insight of the students, and their ability to ask such difficult questions. However, what struck me the most was my own reaction to the suggestion that civility may be counterproductive to change. Most of my professional practice is grounded in the Social Change Model, and I have spent years asking students to intentionally consider their own perspective and experience as a way to prepare them to engage in civil discourse and collaboration for the purpose of positive social change. Had I been wrong all this time?

The CLDE Theory of Change highlights Civic Action and Agency, specifically the ability to work across difference to actively respond to social challenges, which frequently includes taking risks, challenging policy, and questioning institutional practice. It speaks to the diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the significance of recognizing the unique talent, skills, and experience that unique individuals bring to the process of global change. In many ways, the Theory of Change emphasizes the same components of the Social Change Model (collaboration, consciousness of self, commitment, common purpose), however it has the capacity to deepen the application and understanding of these concepts through a more critical lens.

Recent studies in leadership development  (Dugan, 2017; Kelly & Bhangal, 2018; Pendakur & Furr, 2016) have encouraged professionals to consider critical theory and pedagogy in their work with students as a way to deepen the understanding of identity, authority, oppression, and cultural socialization and the role this understanding plays in leadership and social change. Dugan (2017) suggests that personal lens and experience shapes leaders, and is significantly impacted by social norms and systems.  This formation often includes bias and ideology that may not be consciously recognized, and further reinforces destructive social norms and patterns through the leadership process. According to Pendakur and Furr (2016), in programs that utilize critical perspectives, “learning involves a process of addressing power, challenging assumptions, creating a space for honest and authentic dialogue, increasing critical reflection and thinking opportunities, and bringing all perspectives together to create a more inclusive” (p. 47).  Helping students develop and apply a critical lens to their interaction with others and their leadership style provides them with an opportunity to consider these issues and challenge themselves and others in an attempt to create an authentic and meaningful impact.

Although I have been a professional in student leadership development for several years, I admit that I am new to critical theory and its application to the field. However, as I continue to reflect on the questions raised at the conference two years ago, I believe that this framework may hold many of the answers. The Social Change Model encourages common purpose, collaboration, and controversy with civility; however the critical lens asks:  is the group inclusive and accessible, whose voice is being invited and heard, and who creates the definition of civility (Pendakur and Furr, 2016)? The critical perspective creates a space where students can push the boundaries of “civility” and move towards deeper understanding, empowerment, and ultimately, change.  The challenge, for me and many other leadership educators, is to trust our students’ strength, knowledge, and insight, and engage in deeper understanding and reflection to better prepare and situate us to participate in this process. 


Andrade, L. M. (2017). “The war still continues”: The importance of positive validation for undocumented community college students after Trump’s presidential victory. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 1538192717720265.

Dugan, J. P. (2017). Leadership theory: Cultivating critical perspectives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Higher Education Research Institute (1996). A social change model of leadership development (Version III). Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute.

Kelly, B. T., & Bhangal, N. K. (2018). Life narratives as a pedagogy for cultivating critical self-reflection. New Directions For Student Leadership (159), 41-52.

Pendakur, V., & Furr, S. C. (2016). Critical leadership pedagogy: Engaging power, identity, and culture in leadership education for college students of color. In K. L. Guthrie, & L. Osteen (Eds.), New Directions for Higher Education (174), 45-56. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reynolds, R. & Mayweather, D. (2017). Recounting racism, resistance, and repression:

Examining the experiences and #hashtag activism of college students with critical race theory and counternarratives. The Journal of Negro Education, (86)3, 283-304.

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