By Jeffrey Abelson, Founder of Song Of A Citizen
Ask any expert what civic engagement means, and you’ll hear mostly about voting and volunteering. Both big V’s are obviously vital to a healthy democracy and good society. But by themselves they’re insufficient to solve the growing list of crises and challenges our
country and communities face. There’s a missing third leg of civic engagement that we need much more focus on.
What is that third leg? It starts with acknowledging that we each have a serious job to do as citizens that goes beyond what we’ve been led to believe. That job entails not only staying well informed on the issues of the day, but being actively engaged in hands-on political decisionmaking and problem-solving.
But most Americans feel there’s no way to make their voices heard in an effective manner. The good news is that there is. There are proven methods and processes that empower ordinary people not just to be heard, but to have a direct impact on public policy. And do it in a way that neutralizes polarization. Study up on deliberative democracy to learn how it works.
And then give it a try. Join or stage a deliberative forum on your campus, or in your community. Experience first hand what it’s like to be in a facilitated dialogue with other students, and/or faculty, or fellow citizens — where you learn about an issue together, and sort through the tough trade-offs involved in addressing it. And do it in a way that results in 70 to 80 percent agreement.
Imagine that. Not 51% Not 60%. But 80% agreement! Sounds nuts, but it actually happens time and again in these serious citizen forums.Okay, now imagine them happening everywhere, all the time. Imagine a country, and a Congress, that can agree on transformational cross-partisan fixes that 80% of us can understand and support. On
issue after issue.
Like the sound of that? You can make it happen. In fact, you’re probably the only ones who can. As college students, you have the opportunity to learn about and get inspired by the deliberative process. You can then lobby your schools to stage such forums on
campus — by and between students, and faculty, and community members.
And then you’ll be ready to take the critical next step. To lobby your parents and grandparents to get in the game as well. Because as much as we need today’s college students to immerse themselves in the never-ending work of the serious citizen — to prepare to run the country down the line — we can’t afford to wait another 10 or 20
years until you take the wheel. We need today’s grownups participating as well. Right now.
And nobody’s in a better position to inspire inter-generational partnerships than you are.
So the cliché is true. The future is literally in your hands. And in the sounds of your voices.
“The American idea is a beautiful idea.
It needs to be preserved, served, protected — and sung out.”
Happy Holidays from Song Of A Citizen.
Jeffrey Abelson is a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Song of a Citizen. His most recent PBS film was Drawing Fire, about Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad (narrated by Tom Brokaw).
Song of a Citizen is a non-profit, non-partisan collaboration of prominent thinkers and artists producing innovative films and web videos designed to spark a much-needed upgrade in how we-the-people view our role as citizens — and to demonstrate proven methods for transforming ourselves from passive civic spectators into hands-on political problem-solvers.
Jeffrey is also a contributing blogger to The Huffington Post.
By John de Graaf
It’s an honor to blog for DemocracyU and the American Commonwealth Partnership, another much-needed organization in the quest for engaged higher education. In the past year, I’ve been delighted to work with The American Democracy Project and Inspire America to introduce faculty and students to The Happiness Initiative , a project launched to let communities and campuses alike ask deeper questions about where we wish to go as a nation, how we get there, and how to measure what we achieve.
Since I spoke about the Initiative at the ADP meeting in Orlando last June, interest in the project has already come from about a hundred colleges and universities throughout the United States. From Western Washington University to Western Kentucky, from San Jose State to Middlebury College, students are taking the 12-minute “happiness survey” on our site (developed with the help of hundreds of faculty and student volunteer hours from San Francisco State University’s psychology department), thinking about their happiness in much broader terms than money, and beginning to engage with their communities to measure and improve wellbeing.
With guidance from campus civic engagement director Don Mowry and several other faculty members, students at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire are working with their city government, chamber of commerce, public library, local non-profits and other groups to conduct a community-wide happiness initiative. They will be taking the survey to underserved populations and are conducting a random sampling of the Eau Claire population and of their fellow students.
The Happiness Initiative—measuring wellbeing in ten “domains” of life—economic satisfaction and security; mental health; physical health; time balance; access to education, arts and culture; social connection and community participation; work satisfaction; confidence in government; environment and quality of place—offers an opportunity for broad inter-disciplinary learning and civic engagement.
Many colleges will be joining with The Happiness Initiative to celebrate “Pursuit of Happiness Day” on April 13, 2012—Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Dr. David Gould of the University of Iowa is collecting materials for colleges to use in a possible national happiness teach-in that day.
I am reminded that January 11, 2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most significant acts of civic engagement in American history. On that date in 1912, thousands of workers, most of them women and most of them immigrants, left the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to march in its snowy streets for better pay and shorter working hours. Singing as they faced bayonets, imprisonment and physical violence for two months, they won America’s sympathy and their demands.
Historians have come to refer to the event as “The Bread and Roses strike,” because observers remarked that a few young women in the Lawrence textile strike carried a banner which read: WE WANT BREAD, AND ROSES TOO.
The bread symbolized higher wages—money, stuff, as we use the term colloquially today. But the roses represented shorter working hours—time to smell the roses, or as the beautiful song about the strike, “Bread and Roses” (there are many versions on You Tube) puts it, time for “art and love and beauty their drudging spirits never knew.” The roses symbolized all those non-material things that go beyond Gross Domestic Product as measures of the good life, the non-material things which The Happiness Initiative calls attention to.
In the years after World War Two, as America became the world’s richest consumer society, the roses were left to wilt. We came to believe we could live on “bread” alone and measure our success by economic power alone. In the past generation, the percentage of students whose after-college goal was to “make a lot of money” rather than find work that serves others has doubled.
But The American Commonwealth Partnership and The Happiness Initiative, drawing from the wellsprings of our history and our hopes for greater justice, sustainability and quality of life, can nurture the gardeners who will water our roses once again.
For more information about doing a happiness initiative on your campus, email Andrew Cozin: firstname.lastname@example.org.
John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, and producer of fifteen prime time national PBS documentaries. He is the co-author of Affluenza: the all-consuming epidemic and What’s the economy for, anyway? John is also the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and the Outreach Director of The Happiness Initiative. He has taught at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
By Kelly Cyr
I started volunteering at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) in the fall of my sophomore year in college. I was enrolled in the 096 Practicum, and picked BARCS as the site to get my 30 hours of service. I attended an orientation at the site in September, but due to a short amount of dog walking trainers and conflicts between my schedule and theirs, I wasn’t able to start volunteering on my own until November. Because of this, I was stressed out trying to cram my 30 hours into a month. The site also didn’t benefit from regular service on my part throughout the semester, because I had to cram it all into one month.
During the fall of my junior year, one of the Shriver vans became free on Saturdays and was offered to me to drive students to BARCS (prior to this, transportation had never been provided to the shelter). I agreed to drive students, and the site allowed me to train the UMBC students to walk the dogs there. Because I was now able to train students to walk the dogs and provided transportation for them once a week, students were able to get their training in earlier and could volunteer on their own for a longer period of time. This benefitted students because they no longer had to worry about getting into trainings in time and having to cram their 30 hours into the last month of the semester. It also allowed students who don’t have their own transportation to be able to volunteer at the shelter. It benefitted BARCS because they now had about 8 volunteers committed to coming to the shelter once a week and able to volunteer for the entire semester.
BARCS is now one of the most popular sites for UMBC students to do service at. I now drive about 18 students to the site two days a week. I’ve streamlined my trainings so that I can get students volunteering on their own as quickly as possible. This has been very helpful for the site. Every day I bring students there, all of the dogs get walked and most if not all of the cats get socialized, which greatly increases their chances of being adopted.
I am very glad to be able to bring this many students to the shelter. BARCS is doing great work in improving the welfare of animals in Baltimore City, and I love that I can be a part of that. I also enjoy knowing that the students who come to BARCS are being educated on the importance of improving the welfare of animals. This experience has greatly improved my leadership skills and confidence in my ability to create change on my campus and in my community.
By Harry C. Boyte
Today is the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Proposed by
Congress on September 25, 1789, the Bill of Rights – otherwise known
as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution — went into effect
after its ratification by Virginia, on December 15, 1891.
The Bill emerged from a fierce debate between “Federalists” and
“Anti-Federalists” about whether to ratify the Constitution itself,
which the historian Pauline Meier described as a national “dialogue
between power and liberty.” The dialogue continues in today’s
tempestuous arguments about the role of government, the dangers of
centralized power — and how to develop the authority and capacities
of the citizenry.
Supporters of the Constitution like Benjamin Franklin argued that
while “there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not
approve,” its adoption was necessary if the nation were to survive. It
seemed unlikely that anyone would be “able to make a better
Constitution.” Opponents warned of the dangers of centralized power,
citing examples through history. Brutus (most likely Robert Yates)
cautioned of the tendencies of government to produce “an absolute
state of vassalage.”
The Bill of Rights broke the impasse. It embodied civic agency in
content and process.
In the first instance, the amendments not only limit the powers of
government, but also, positively, enumerate and protect methods
through which citizens express and develop their civic capacities —
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of
association, and freedom of the press, among others. These freedoms
also allow powerless groups like African Americans, the poor, women
and others to challenge the severe exclusions built into original
understandings of “citizen.”
In the second, the debate itself, taking place in taverns, homes and
congregations, schools, colleges, local governments and local media,
created a wide experience of ownership in the fledgling nation.
Discussions gave substance to the Constitution’s Preamble, which had
declared that “we the people” establish government as the instrument
of common labors and common purposes.
In the Information Age, colleges, universities, schools and
educational groups of all kinds have crucial roles to play as civic
centers in the life of communities. They are schools for citizenship
through which people develop the knowledge, dispositions, skills and
habits necessary for a flourishing democratic society while tackling
real world problems and making a common life.
The American Commonwealth Partnership, like the debates which produced
the Bill of Rights, puts citizens on center stage. It aims to
strengthen the capacities of education to help create a democracy “of
the people and by the people,” not only “for” the people.
ACP continues the dialogue between power and liberty.
Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is director of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
If you think students’ participation in civic engagement is important to higher education and our democracy at large, we want to hear from you.
Please submit a brief blog ( 300-400 words, along with your photo, a brief bio and any relevant links or images you want to share). You can shape your post around the following question/s:
- Do you think it’s important for students to get involved in civic work on campus and in their communities at large?
- How can civic engagement benefit our democracy as a whole?
- What’s the biggest problem that needs solving where you are and how can students make a difference?
There is no right or wrong answer, we just want to hear from people like you and what you think about students’ participation in civic engagement and its’ impact on our society at large.
Our goal is to spread the word about the campaign and to show deep student interest ahead of January 11, 2012, when “For Democracy’s Future” will be launched at the White House.
It is critical that we can bring your voice to the White House and to the Department of Education to show that fixing our democracy is something that young people care deeply about, and have much to contribute to.
Please help us spread the word about this campaign with your community.
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @ DemocracyU
By Sarah M. Collier, PhD
I recently completed my doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. This is a field of science that revolves around better understanding how plants work at the most basic level, and then applying this understanding to enhancing plants’ suitability for human uses such as agriculture. It is a field well-suited to addressing, through research, some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including food security, environmental health, and the ultimate goal of agricultural systems that are truly sustainable in the long term. The importance of focusing the power of scientific inquiry on issues such as these cannot, in my opinion, be overstated.
However, over the course of my graduate training I have become increasingly aware that all of the well-designed, well-intentioned research in the world will not cause the changes we need to happen as fast as we need them to for the sustainability of global food systems. While science must provide a crucial foundation upon which the discussion for our course forward can be based, scientific research alone cannot alter the world, nor does it provide the only kind of important knowledge that needs to be part of the solution.
Knowledge that comes from balancing different interests and understanding power relationships, and knowledge that grows from traditions and life experience, are also of crucial importance. The efficient sculpting of scientific research into real-world applications and changes thus requires engagement and cooperation between not only scientists, but also between students, farmers, policy-makers, and everyone else in between. Agricultural research will only lead to improvements if it is both relevant to the farmers who would act upon it while also acceptable to consumers. Significant progress in agricultural sustainability depends on well-informed, respectful discourse and collaborative work between the scientific community, the agricultural industry, and the public at large. We must all take note and take action to address this challenge together.
As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin I am happy to find myself working at the intersection of agricultural and civic sciences. As I strive in my own small way to bring agricultural research into alignment with needs and values of producer and consumer communities, I know that others are doing the same from many different positions around the common challenge of sustainability.
Sarah Collier is a postdoctoral research associate working in agricultural sustainability with the Jahn Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a BSc in Botany from the University of Washington and a PhD in Plant Breeding from Cornell University, where she studied the functional mechanisms of plant disease resistance proteins. Her current focus is on animal agriculture sustainability in Wisconsin, with emphasis on the transition of large-scale research investments into on-farm applications.
By Caitlyn Leiter-Mason
On the last weekend before classes ended, I wasn’t in the library studying or out celebrating before finals began. Instead, I was interviewing candidates for Maryland’s student regent position as part of the University System of Maryland (USM) Student Council.
When I was first appointed to the council, I had no idea what my role would be. But after a year of involvement in student government at UMBC , where students act as partners with the administration in creating change on campus, I was intrigued by participating in shared governance on a larger scale.
The University System of Maryland consists of 12 public universities in the state. We’re led by the Board of Regents and our Chancellor, Brit Kirwan. The system is also advised by four councils: the Councils of University System Presidents, Faculty, and Staff, as well as the USM Student Council.
We meet monthly to deliberate the higher education issues that Maryland faces, covering everything from the role of regional centers to a proposed merger between two schools, to parental leave for graduate assistants to budget and tuition issues. We discuss our institutions’ concerns and share new ideas and initiatives. When the annual Joint Council meeting occurs, student members meet with their staff and faculty counterparts to discuss higher education issues. We present our ideas and findings to the chancellor, right alongside the professors and staff.
Our council also has another important task: selecting student candidates to be considered for a full-voting position on the Board of Regents. No other council has such a representative. But the students do, and we take the responsibility of helping the chancellor and governor pick someone to represent every student in the university system very seriously. We ask questions about their previous experience, how they would balance the sometimes conflicting interests of students and the system administration, and what new ideas they would bring to the system. We then carefully evaluate how each of the candidates would represent us.
Being a part of the student council has taught me a lot about our university system, the schools within it, the politics of higher education, and the way that shared governance works on a state level. I’ve also learned that the decisions and recommendations we make aren’t our only, or even most important, contribution. We’re actively practicing democracy, not just to gain experience, but to help govern our schools.
I’ve also learned that civic engagement isn’t just about going into an outside community and making a difference. Civic engagement is also about taking ownership of the places where we are now. It’s about stepping up to participate in leadership within those places and making sure our voices are heard. As students we have an important perspective and it’s time for us to embrace civic engagement to create change in our university and campus communities.
Caitlyn Leiter-Mason is a Sondheim Public Affair Scholar, studying gender and women’s studies and political science at UMBC. She is passionate about student governance, civic engagement, feminism, mangoes, and service-learning.