We the People: Update on the Civic Agency Initiative

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

In light of the increased attention on the part of the Department of Education and many philanthropic organizations on college completion and workforce development, leaders in the American Democracy Project have found ways to tie their work to these goals. Most notable in this effort is the work of the Civic Agency initiative which seeks to develop and operationalize the concept of civic agency. Within this initiative, we deliberately emphasize the connection between developing a strong set of skills that are both civic and professional in nature. To describe this connection we use the phrase “21st Century Skills.”

Participants at the 2010 Civic Agency Institute.

The notion of civic agency involves the capacities of citizens to work collaboratively across differences like partisan ideology, faith traditions, income, geography and ethnicity to address common challenges, solve problems, and create common ground. Civic agency requires a set of individual skills, knowledge, and predispositions. Civic agency also involves questions about institutional design, particularly how to constitute groups and institutions for sustainable collective action. Over the last three years of our partnership with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship led by Harry C. Boyte and Dennis Donovan, we have experimented with strategies for developing a strong sense of civic agency on the part of undergraduate students.

What we are finding is that the programs that produce strong civic outcomes for students also help prepare them for the workforce. Additionally, I have observed anecdotal evidence that suggests that students involved in Civic Agency activities tend to persevere to graduate attainment. While the data is still anecdotal, I’m sure that with a little more digging we’d be able to find actual statistics to support this evidence. This has helped leaders within the initiative demonstrate their commitment to degree attainment and workforce development while developing student civic skills.

The challenges facing American democracy are too complex and deep-rooted to rely simply on elected officials to solve. Indeed, we need a concerted search for solutions that involves everyday people, business leaders, students, non-profit leaders, and governmental officials. This realization gave birth to the new phase of the Civic Agency initiative called “We the People.” In the We the People (WtheP) vision, government is our meeting ground, partner and common instrument in addressing our problems and building a shared life. Students in the Civic Agency initiative are beginning to use their civic skills to foster partnerships with business and NGO leaders and local government with the goal of solving public problems. We launched We the People last fall and many of our campuses have started experimenting with strategies to encourage partnerships between students and elected officials.

What follows is a set of updates about We the People and Civic Agency.

Western Kentucky University (WKU) by Terry Shoemaker

Western Kentucky University’s Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility (ICSR) is dedicating the entire month of April to WtheP activities. These activities will include a “Wii the People” civically-minded bowling league, a four-week league that uses Nintendo’s Wii bowling game, that will gather together groups from around WKU’s campus including the Young Republicans, Young Democrats, African-American Studies, WKU Americans for an Informed Democracy (AID), and FeelGood to participate in civic dialogue on contemporary issues while Wii bowling. The league runs through April with the Wii Bowling Championship game set for April 12th.

The ICSR will also bring two guest speakers to WKU’s campus in April.  First, author, activist, and public theologian, Brian McLaren will speak to students and community members on “Being the Change” on April 11th.  McLaren, who published the book, Everything Must Change in 2007, has been instrumental in creating an emerging social justice initiative among evangelical Christians.  He will challenge WKU students to become change agents.

Second, Jon DeGraaf, co-author of Affluenza and National Organizer for Take Back Your Time, will be at WKU’s campus on April 28th. DeGraaf’s work on consumerism and society has been influential in recognizing over-consumption as a systemic issue in America. He will challenge WKU’s students to recognize their time poverty and consumerism, and imagine another way of being. In addition, ICSR will show John DeGraaf’s film Affluenza on April 14th. Third Tuesday Tea, ICSR’s regular monthly meeting to discuss contemporary topics with WKU students, faculty & staff, will be dedicated to the topic “Consuming Democracy.” This timely event will be a precursor to John DeGraaf’s visit and will bring energetic conversation to the topic.

Other organizations are also centering their events around the idea of We the People on WKU’s campus. A group of students will visit the Highland Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. Another group is participating in a poverty/hunger simulation. Still another is working to cater all these events raising money for the Hunger Project.

For more information visit this website.

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University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) by David Hoffman

In the fall 2010, a third annual cohort of 30 students completed our Civic
Imagination and Social Entrepreneurship course, in which students work in groups to envision, develop and prepare to launch campus and community change projects. Among the projects developed in the class were an online networking space for campus activists, a campaign to discourage distracted driving, a program to inspire K-12 students with visits from collegiate scholar-athletes, and an organization dedicated to addressing incidents of injustice on campus.

We’re also in the process of developing an initiative tentatively entitled UMBC’s Civic Year. The concept is to deepen and make more visible UMBC’s support for civic agency through a year of themed activities, including courses, contests, art exhibitions, online discussions and community-building events.  These activities are likely to encompass recurring programs that might not otherwise emphasize civic agency, including research conferences, book discussions, service projects and speaker series. Our intention is that much like a successful Olympic games, this intense period of themed activities will produce lasting (civic) infrastructure improvements and make civic innovation and agency even more central to our campus culture.

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San Francisco State University (SFSU) by Gerald Eisman

Over the past two years, the Civic Agency project at San Francisco State University has centered around the development of a consortium of local universities who have partnered with neighborhood stakeholders (residents, city agencies, nonprofits, merchants, faith-based and secular community-based organizations) to co-create resilient communities – those rich in social capital and optimally prepared to respond to, and grow from, both short and long term challenges and opportunities.

Founded and coordinated by the Institute for Civic and Community Engagement (ICCE) at San Francisco State, the consortium, named the Neighborhood Empowerment Network University (NENu), serves as a hub for community-engaged scholarship in the Bay Area by facilitating connections among and between local academic institutions and neighborhood stakeholders in support of the larger NEN network. In order to facilitate those connections, NENu engages in three core activities:

  1. recruiting and retaining academic institution partners and neighborhood stakeholders,
  2. providing linkages to city agencies and other asset managers, and
  3. providing the infrastructure to facilitate communications among all NENu partners.

Target neighborhoods (called Engaged Learning Zones – ELZs) are selected for focused NENu activities by the agreement of each of the three dimensions of the partnership – neighborhood leadership, city government representatives, and academic partners. Currently four ELZs are underway – in San Francisco’s Ocean/Merced/Ingleside (OMI) district, North Beach, Polk Street, Western Addition, and we hope to soon launch activities in the neighborhoods Northwest of Twin Peaks.

Initial activities involved stakeholder interviews, identifying assets, public forums, prioritizing issues, and directed action through service learning. Students in varied disciplines such as Urban Studies, Instructional Technologies, Geography, Art, Broadcast Communication, Public Administration, Marketing, Communication Studies and others have contributed to ELZ activities. University students are currently assisting in the development of inclusive online tools for neighborhood leadership development, research on indices for measuring community resilience, GIS mapping of community assets, cohort mapping of leaders and their organizations, and internships in the offices of city supervisors.

One immediate outcome has been the creation of a database of community service opportunities that will be shared by NENu universities to help direct students to community sites. The database will utilize contemporary social media tools on top of traditional listings of community organizations.

Of central importance to NENu is the development of bridging and bonding social capital in a city whose neighborhood demographics are both diverse and changing dynamically. The strength of these bonds will provide a platform for addressing a wide range of issues and help the city as it prepares its residents to respond to and recover from any natural disaster including, as predicted by geologists, a major earthquake in the next 20 years.

For more information about the Civic Agency initiative, please visit this website. For more information about We the People, please visit this website.

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