On April 19, 2012, Winona State University hosted the inaugural civic summit on the National Issues Forum and American Commonwealth Project Deliberative Dialogue Initiative on Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create The Society We Want? The first national conversation using this issue guide was held in honor of WSU’s retiring president, Judith Ramaley, who is a tireless advocate for higher education and its civic mission. President Ramaley serves as a member of the President’s Council for the American Commonwealth Partnership.
Over 110 participants attended the Civic Summit at Winona State University. Individuals came as high school and college students, university faculty and staff, community members, higher education experts, media editors and journalists, local law enforcement, and business people. It was quite the range of participants and they were mixed in groups with WSU students as trained moderators through the Minnesota Campus Compact moderator training series.
When organizing the Civic Summit, we immediately determined the event should be student led, as moderators, participants and organizers. This stems from our rich experience in student organizing and mobilizing efforts. It also reflects our experience with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship’s training led by Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan in the “We the People” series held with the Minnesota Campus Compact in Spring 2011. For many of the fifteen plus students who became moderators, this was a new experience. Despite its unfamiliarity, the students rose to the challenge, prepared their notes, and were comfortable enough to welcome others to their tables. Each group of approximately 10-12 guests had two students—one as moderator and one as recorder. Each group was designed to have a variety of individuals from different backgrounds, however the structure was very minimal to encourage open and honest discussion. With little formality, students forged ahead, were indeed taken seriously by others, and extolled confidence and credibility to members of their groups.
“Seeing the different levels of a university present in one group with community members truly provided unique input regarding the different approaches. Seeing the differences between the views of students, professors, and members of the administration was extremely interesting, however, what was more exciting, was seeing the areas they agreed upon – that higher education does indeed help us create the society we want…” Laura Lake
One particular group that was indicative of the principles behind the NIF process included a local and well-respected business person from the Winona community. Known for his conservative underpinnings and his large contributions (nearly a quarter of a million annually to local grants and scholarships for students and community members), this community member began with strong support of American exceptionalism and Approach One. It was evident of the potential generation gap experienced within the group as the local businessman began the discussion by voicing his stereotype that young people were lazy, took out too many loans, and used the money to go on vacation. As one student shared his personal experience in joining the army (ROTC) to fund his education and his education at MCTC and transferring to WSU, without adequate financial aid and the lack of family support to co-sign loans, group members visibly recall the local businessman becoming more favorable and open to thinking about other ideas and other perspectives, with genuine respect towards the student advocating for and needing more student and financial aid. It became clear the businessman had changed his mind after he heard the student’s personal experience and was open to seeing the other side as the group’s discussion continued. In the end for the local businessperson, Approach II received support to train responsibility through community service. While there was not an overall consensus regarding one approach over the other in this group and many others, this particular experience in the Winona Civic Summit: NIF Forum demonstrated a student and a businessman taking each other seriously and respecting their differences on the shared purpose of higher education.
One aspect of the Civic Summit that makes it so exceptional is that people of all walks of life participate in the democratic process together. Having such a diverse group of individuals discussing a public issue or good can cause participants to feel hesitant about what the outcomes of the dialogue will be. Student-moderator Courtney Juelich, had first-hand experience with this principle within her democracy pod:
“At first many of the students, both college and high school, were apprehensive about talking openly with adults. They were not quick to answer the posed questions and often looked to myself or to the three older members of the group after a question was stated. After introductions and finding common ground on themes and experiences, communication was fluid and respectful between all members in my democracy pods.” Courtney Juelich
Even though participants came from all sorts of backgrounds but with a shared interest and common purpose, in the end the differences we previously used to distinguish ourselves were less important and noticeable than the sense of community, which was established over the shared principles of mutual respect and open discussion. Student-moderators thoroughly enjoyed the process and felt empowered to be taken seriously and welcomed in a group of diverse generations and members. We feel very fortunate to have launched this national conversation on the role of higher education in communities such as ours. We also want to thank all of the participants for thoughtfully contributing to the health and well-being of democracy and deliberative dialogue in Winona. Special thanks are extended to the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forum, and the American Commonwealth Partnership for granting us permission to pioneer this dialogue. We wish President Ramaley the best in her retirement from Winona State University and appreciatively recognize and celebrate her support of the civic mission and the civic responsibility of the university with Winona and beyond.
Courtney L. Juelich is a junior at Winona State University and a major in Political Science and Public Administration with a minor in Economics. She was one of the student organizers of the Civic Summit. Her hometown is Chanhassen, Minnesota. She was the creator and writer of the 2012 Warrior Grant named “The Green Grant”, which after winning the student referendum vote will create a self-sufficient composting system for the Winona State campus to collect organic food scraps as well as to educate the student body on the process of composting and how it is beneficial to the environment.
Laura A. Lake is a junior at Winona State University and a major in Political Science and Public Administration with a Music minor. She is involved in Pi Sigma Alpha, Political Science Association, Student Senate, and National Residence Hall Honorary, and is currently a Resident Assistant, and will be an Assistant Hall director in the following year. Laura was the lead organizer of the Civic Summit. Her hometown is Hillsboro, Oregon.
Kara Lindaman serves as the American Democracy Project Coordinator at Winona State University, where she is an associate professor of political science and public administration. She also serves on the Steering Committee of the American Commonwealth Partnership and enjoys collaborating with civically minded and passionately motivated students such as these.