DemocracyU and the Happiness Initiative

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:

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.

Improving the welfare of animals in Baltimore City

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.

Kelly Cyr is a senior biological science major at UMBC and plans on applying to veterinary school. She also plans on continuing to volunteer at BARCS after graduation.

Democracy then and now

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.