The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is an alliance of community colleges, colleges and universities, P-12 schools and others dedicated to building “democracy colleges” throughout higher education. A Presidents’ Advisory Council, composed of distinguished college and university presidents who have long been leaders in engaged higher education movement, offers continuing counsel and wisdom (see list below).
Launched at the White House on January 10th, 2012, the start of the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act which created land grant colleges, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, ACP uses the concept of democracy colleges from land grant and community college history. Democracy colleges convey the idea of colleges and universities deeply connected to their communities, which make education for citizenship a signature identity.
The work of building democracy colleges draws on a rich tradition, dating back to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency:
The White House meeting, “For Democracy’s Future – Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission”, marked a new stage of coordinated effort to bring about a commitment to civic education and education as a public good. It was organized in partnership with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Department of Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.
At the White House, the Department of Education released its Road Map and Call to Action on civic learning and democratic engagement, described in remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released A Crucible Moment, a report to the nation on the need for a shift in civic learning from “partial” to “pervasive.”
ACP highlighted institutions that have taken steps toward becoming democracy colleges, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, state colleges and universities, and research institutions. ACP continues to consult with Undersecretary for Higher Education Martha Kanter and her Office of Postsecondary Education on policies to strengthen higher education’s public engagement and is also helping to organize state level policy initiatives on the topic.
The ACP coalition promotes several initiatives including:
The Deliberative Dialogue Initiative, in partnership with the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), is organizing a discussion on campuses and in communities on higher education’s role in America’s future. It is to be complemented by a communications effort to convey the potential of higher education in teaching skills, such as listening, deliberation, teamwork, negotiating different interests and views, to work across differences on public problems. Research by NIFI suggests that the public is largely unaware of higher education’s contributions to such skill development – seen as an urgent need by citizens of many views and backgrounds in order to turn around the growing divisiveness and polarization in America.
Citizen Alum Initiative, directed by Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, aims to change the framework of alumni relations, partnering with alumni as “do-ers” as well as donors. Citizen Alum aims to find the hidden treasure—the creative, civic, intellectual, and social capital of alumni – especially recent “gap alums” and alums who opt out of conventional roles, supporting them as contributors to their home communities and as allies in education.
Student Organizing Initiative is a campaign to deepen the civic identity of college students, develop skills of deliberative public work, and strengthen the DemocracyU social media campaign and website as resources for students to share their stories and address their concerns for America’s democracy. This initiative is also exploring strategies for putting cross partisan citizen-centered politics back at the center of the highly polarized election campaign of 2012.
Pedagogies of Empowerment and Engagement Initiative is an organizing effort spearheaded by Blase Scarnati of Northern Arizona University. It will identity and collect the details of effective pedagogies of empowerment and engagement across the country that teach skills to work across differences. The group will also recruit new sites and partners.
Public Scholarship Initiative is organized by Scott Peters of Cornell University, Tim Eatman of Imagining America at Syracuse University, and John Saltmarsh of NERCHE (UMASS Boston). The team have began a participatory research project with various institutions on the work of building democracy colleges in the 21st century.
Campus-Community Civic Health Initiative, coordinated by the American Democracy Project in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, is developing ways to assess the impact of colleges and universities on community and campus civic health.
Civic Science Initiative is organized by John Spencer at the University of Iowa, Scott Peters at Cornell University, Molly Jahn at the University of Wisconsin, Rom Coles at Northern Arizona University, and Harry Boyte at Augsburg College and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Civic science is a framework for understanding scientists as citizens, working with other citizens in ways that respect different ways of knowing, deepening collective wisdom on public questions, and developing civic agency.
ACP Policy Initiative, building on policy discussions with the Department of Education in 2011, focuses on state level policies strengthening engagement, and is consulting with the DOE on an ongoing basis about policies to strengthen engagement.
Presidents’ Advisory Council
Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University
Brian Murphy, President, De Anza College
M. Christopher Brown, President, Alcorn State University
Thomas Ehrlich, President Emeritus, Indiana University
Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland Baltimore County
David Mathews, President Emeritus, University of Alabama
Paul Pribbenow, President, Augsburg College
Judith Ramaley, President, Winona State University
Inaugural Host Institution
Augsburg College, Minneapolis
Harry Boyte, Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship
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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.