Not In It to Win It, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Problem

By Rebecca Katz, Recent Graduate, Western Kentucky University

Polarization is rampant in America. The news anchors and political pundits demonstrate this state of affairs every day, bringing us stories of elected leaders refusing to budge on ideas, and demonizing the other side’s solutions. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort even looks at how Americans are self-segregating themselves into neighborhoods where many people think and act alike. It is easy to ignore other perspectives in these black and white homogenous bubbles. Have we forgotten the gray area? Does the other side have to be wrong?  In a time of late capitalism, Americans understand most things as zero-sum games and find it difficult to see anything else.  But if we continue relating to each other in black and white terms, we will push each other farther away.

Western Kentucky University is a relatively typical state school. However, WKU features a small gem among orthodox academia: the Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility (ICSR). The ICSR is a free space for civic engagement that promotes democracy and social change for the common good.  It is also where I have shaped my worldview and have learned how to be a problem solver.

One morning I arrived at the ICSR to see sullen student faces. “We have to leave. They’re kicking us out,” my friend said.

Moments before, the ICSR was informed that it would be displaced so that another department could take over its space. This department’s home was being renovated, so it wanted the ICSR’s space as its temporary home. However, the ICSR was not included in the decision-making process. I was devastated. This place inspired my entire academic career and, as a senior, was preparing me for my future. I felt like the university was about to take everything I worked for away from me.

It was clear that the leaders of the university could not solve this problem, so we students decided to solve it ourselves by organizing to salvage ICSR’s space and legacy. While we were concerned about the prospect of losing our space, we were excited for the opportunity to put to practice the very organizing skills we had learned in the ICSR.

After conducting many one-on-ones with students on both sides who would be affected by the move, the group concluded that it was definitely possible for both departments to share the ICSR space. We could share broaden our outreach, and collaborate on initiatives that no one had considered before. It would be innovative and unprecedented. We decided to ask the administration to create a student task force to determine how both departments could co-exist in the space.

In the end, we did “win.” The ICSR was allowed to retain its home. But this conflict was not about winning or losing. We were handed a crisis, but there was an opportunity to create something innovative from that situation. The ICSR shows us how to develop creative and sustainable solutions for the common good. This was a very formative experience for me. It was my first real opportunity to sincerely practice the organizing skills I had been refining for years.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

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