Posts Tagged 'Civic Agency'

UMBC’s Sparrow Point Project

baltimore sunThe University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Sparrows Point Project was recently featured in the Baltimore Sun. David Hoffman, UMBC’s ADP Campus Coordinator and Assistant Director for Civic Agency spoke to the Sun about how the project — and UMBC’s larger Breaking Ground initiative  (see previous blog post) — are advancing the university’s efforts to prepare students for informed, engaged citizenship:

“How can we prepare students to work together and see the world as open to transformation through their actions?” said Hoffman, one of the program’s leaders. “Every experience students are having reinforces the sense that they can take responsibility for recognizing problems and initiating solutions in their communities.”

Read a segment of this front page story below, and find the full story here.

Excerpt from the Baltimore Sun:

UMBC students use new media to document a dying industrial past

They are preserving Sparrows Point history through website, film

By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
8:00 p.m. EST, February 11, 2013

Now, with the  [Sparrows Point steel] plant closed and machinery being sold for scrap, Bartee and other steelworkers are teaming with University of Maryland Baltimore County students and professors to record their stories. The students are making a website and helping with a documentary to preserve the history of the plant….

Much as pieces of massive machinery have been carted away from the plant in recent weeks, the history of the mill — once the region’s economic hub — is in danger of disappearing. But two UMBC professors and their students aim to preserve the stories of 20th-century manufacturing using 21st-century techniques….

The project is part of the university’s Breaking Ground initiative, which aims to empower students to develop and implement solutions to challenges that surround them. David Hoffman, UMBC’s assistant director for civic agency, said the university wants to shatter students’ conception that citizenship occurs in discrete bursts in the voting booth or volunteering projects….

The Sparrows Point project, Documenting Cultural Heritage in Partnership with Communities, is a collaboration between an American studies professor, Michelle Stefano, and a new media studio professor, Bill Shewbridge. The students in their two interwoven courses use traditional methods for exploring the past, such as transcribing oral histories, while employing the latest technology to record and share those stories.

Read more.

The Power of Public Narrative: Harry Boyte in the HuffPost

This is a re-post of Harry Boyte’s recent opinion piece in the Huffington Post. Harry has been a long-term partner of ADP’s civic agency initiative. Here Harry writes eloquently about the power of campus-community partnerships and the need for colleges and universities to be participatory citizen-agents in their communities — conceiving themselves as part of a community, rather than standing apart as “partners with,” yet other than (better than?) the community.  Plus the piece talks about my hometown — Utica, NY! — Jen Domagal-Goldman, ADP National Manager

Re-posted from:

Hope and Higher Education — The Powers of Public Narratives

By Harry Boyte

What happens when colleges become “part of” communities, not simply “partners with” communities, overcoming the culture of detachment that took hold in higher education after World War II, described by Thomas Ehrlich, a pioneer of civic engagement?

Such a shift means colleges and universities act as anchoring institutions, part of the “barn raising” which Nancy Cantor recently called for. In barn raising, colleges help communities to address challenges ranging from economic development to school reform.

In some cases re-integration of colleges, their staff and students into places can lead to even more expansive change. When colleges and universities and their members take on the role of “agents and architects of democracy,” envisioned in The Wingspread Declaration in 1999, the process can generate new public narratives through which communities are able to re-imagine their futures.

There is a rich if largely unknown history which shows the potential. And there are examples today, like a consortium of colleges and universities in upstate New York, working with towns to spark a renaissance of the region, using the rubric “Rust to Green.”

In years of researching effective citizen action, I have often been struck by the powers of public narratives. In Brooklyn in the 1980s, East Brooklyn Churches, an African American community organization, launched the nation’s most ambitious low-income housing effort. The key was a new public narrative.

Community residents, using the story of the Old Testament leader who led the people in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, named their effort Nehemiah Homes. “The story connected our work to something real, not something bogus,” explains Mike Gecan, the local organizer. “It got it out of the ‘housing’ field and the idea that you have to have 35 consultants to do anything. It made it more than housing.”

The heart of such narratives is a shift in collective identity from victim to agent of change. Such narratives also require skilled organizing to make them come alive — citizen politics attentive to power, diverse interests, and relationship building. Local people need to own the stories, rooted in collective life. Such stories bring together previously divided groups. They counter the idea that making money, hyper-competition, and celebrity status are the ultimate goals, with the vision of a different future animiated [sic] by democratic, egalitarian, cooperative and inclusive values.

Such stories also challenge trends in higher education. On the one hand, colleges and universities tout their role in providing expertise to those seen as in need of answers. Historian Scott Peters has called this the “heroic meta-narrative” of higher education’s role.

On the other hand, social theorists in recent decades have developed what Peters calls the “tragic counter-narrative,” in which higher education is the oppressor. As the anthropologist James Scott put it about land grant colleges, “The unspoken logic… of agricultural modernization was one of consolidating the power of central institutions and diminishing the autonomy of cultivators and their communities.”

Peters has unearthed an alternative to both, what he calls the “prophetic counter-narrative,” in which land grant college faculty and students work as part of communities. In this story, faculty and students as well as other citizens combine practical problem solving with narrative imagination.

Thus, land grant colleges once helped to organize a “Little Country Theater Movement,” local theaters across the Midwest designed to help communities tell their own stories. Alfred Arvold, on the faculty at North Dakota Agricultural College, began the movement in 1914 convinced that “there are literally millions of people in country communities today whose abilities have been hidden, simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents.” The theater projects fed later populist movements.

Peters has been part of the Rust to Green consortium in upstate New York that revives this approach. The consortium, including Cornell, Colgate, Utica College, Hamilton College, and Mohawk Valley Community College, is working in Utica and the Mohawk Valley, with plans to expand to other cities.

Rust to Green holds that stories of community decline in the “Rust Belt,” a stretch of communities which have experienced loss of manufacturing jobs, declining populations, growing poverty and other ills, can be reversed by multidimensional work to build sustainable and resilient communities and economies. The rubric is the brainchild of Paula Horrigan, associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell who identifies with the land grant public work tradition.

Horrigan has long been skeptical of colleges “serving communities” from on high, or simply “researching” their problems. She believes that higher education work should always be in a process of “decentering,” and measures success by the degree to which the work is able to move energy away from academic experts and towards communities. She uses the metaphor of a growing tree in which the center dies out and outer layers grow and thicken, transporting nutrients and becoming increasingly life-filled and generative. She sees herself as “part of” the region and its communities, not “partners with.”

A Brookings Institute study in 2007 identified area towns as having hidden assets and “high potential for renewed prosperity.” Building on this message, Rust to Green began in 2009 with a three year federal grant. Then mayor David Roefaro was enthusiastic. “I want to make Utica one of the greenest cities in upstate New York and our affiliation with Cornell is going to do that,” he said.

The metaphor is highly catalytic. The Mohawk Valley Food Action Network, using the Rust to Green logo, includes dozens of partners — schools, local producers, farmers’ markets, cooperative extension, local governments. It aims to strengthen local farmers and businesses, building on local knowledge and creating a healthy, sustainable food system.

One World Garden in Utica, also part of Rust to Green, is organized by a coalition including immigrants, the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees, artists and others. It combines local food production, a park space, and art, highlighting the contributions of refugees and immigrants, seeking to counter the idea of “threat” with possibility.

Public officials have also broadened their views. “We’re now looking at municipal projects in a new way,” explains Bob Sullivan, former Urban Renewal Agency director and member of the Rust to Green Core. “We’re looking at storm water mitigation, permeable pavement and all sorts of things that could be considered green.”

Rust to Green is only two years old, but the metaphor has shown strong appeal. As one faculty member active in the consortium told Horrigan, “People don’t know much about our campus center, but everyone knows something is afoot in Rust to Green.”

Perhaps most important for democracy in New York and elsewhere is the revival of the “democracy’s college” narrative of democracy, different than either the unbridled market or government-centered action.

As Peters put it, democracy’s colleges aimed not only at “material well-being for all.” They also promoted a “democratic ideal (and practice) of self-rule, through which the common people, functioning as citizens, work as cooperative producers not only of the commonwealth, but also of the culture and politics of their own neighborhoods and communities.

This is the story of democracy as a journey, not a destination. It is needed once again.

Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Read the full post, and other HuffPost opinion pieces by Harry Boyte, here:

Campus Spotlight: Breaking Ground at UMBC

Breaking Ground at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC)

UMBC has been a key campus in the American Democracy Project’s Civic Agency initiative. We’re excited about the new BreakingGround initiative at UMBC which builds on UMBC’s commitment to fostering civic agency; it is yet another example of how institutional intentionality can contribute to cultural change on campus.

BreakingGround is a true campus-wide collaboration: inspired in part by student initiatives, building on a variety of successful service-learning and social change projects, supported by faculty from many disciplines, deeply rooted in UMBC’s culture and history of innovation and entrepreneurship.  BreakingGround features courses developed or redesigned to promote civic agency; incentives to link community service projects with opportunities for deep learning and engagement; numerous opportunities for students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners to collaborate on campus and community change projects; and a blog for sharing stories, launching community discussions and promoting involvement.  Like the most successful social change movements, BreakingGround is inclusive and organic, tapping the talents and passions of the participants and helping them pull together to advance the common good.  In the wake of calls for higher education to become far more creative and effective in supporting democratic learning and engagement, BreakingGround is UMBC’s way of helping to “make the road by walking.”

About the Project

UMBC is helping to lead an extraordinary, new higher education movement toward innovative, energetic campus and community engagement. In a time of widespread skepticism about the capacity of our democracy to respond to society’s needs, UMBC’s initiatives are demonstrating the power of individuals and collaborative groups as agents of meaningful change and renewal. This work is deeply embedded in a campus culture that builds community from diversity and celebrates ingenuity and resourcefulness.

UMBC’s campus and civic engagement projects have developed over the past decade in a variety of departments, programs and student organizations linked by informal networks and conversations. Now, to deepen this work and make it more visible on campus and beyond, UMBC is fostering an intentional and powerful coalescence. This emerging collaboration, known as BreakingGround, launched in August 2012 through innovative courses, community engagement activities and online conversation.

Please visit the BreakingGround website (, and follow/share the initiative on Twitter through #digUMBC.

Read ADP Campus Coordinator David Hoffman’s recent Breaking Ground blog post here.

At the Forefront of Change: The Work of Building Democracy Colleges

Note: The American Democracy Project is a partner in the new American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP).

By Harry C. Boyte, American Commonwealth Partnership National Coordinator

At the forefront of change will be a monthly online newsletter about activities and developments in the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP). ACP is an alliance of colleges and universities, schools and others dedicated to the democracy college ideal for all higher education. Democracy colleges have a signature identity of strong connection to their communities, where students learn skills of working across differences on public problems and discover the democratic possibilities of America.

I’ve just come back from San Antonio. Blase Scarnati, director of the First Year Seminar at Northern Arizona University, and I did a featured session on the American Commonwealth Partnership at the Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). This biannual meeting once simply involved provosts, but in the last several years larger teams have come to help facilitate change in their institutions.

We had intense conversations about ACP, within our session as well as before and after. Overall, the weekend underlined both challenges and opportunities for the sustained work of “building democracy colleges.”

We reported on results from field testing and focus groups organized by the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), ACP’s partner in launching a national discussion on higher education’s role in America’s future. The discussions in communities and on campuses will begin in April and continue through the year. The Department of Education has suggested several ways in which they might help.

Research last year on public views toward higher education and the first tests of the framework to be used in the discussions have generated important findings.

The draft framework presents several alternative roles for people to consider and discuss: higher education as an engine of economic growth; as a path to the middle class for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as a contributor to communities and the democracy. People want to integrate all three, not choose among them.

But most people also seem unaware of ways in which colleges and universities can play this third role. Since the last two decades have seen significant civic engagement work in higher education, this finding suggests a communications challenge, also highlighted by sympathetic participants from outside of higher education at the White House gathering, who commented that phrases commonly used to describe engagement – civic mission, civic engagement, and others – would not be easily understood by broader publics.

When the third option is illustrated with examples of higher education’s helping students and faculty learn skills and habits of collaborative work across differences on public problems, it generates surprise and animated discussions. Few people are aware that colleges or universities can play any role in teaching such skills. But across many differences, Americans are worried that “we are less and less able to work across differences to get anything done,” and fear for the future of the nation. Citizens are alarmed by Congress, but see polarization, inflammatory rhetoric and gridlock extending to every level of society and to all sorts of issues, from local zoning changes to reconstruction of the nation’s electrical grid.

Powerful forces feed the polarizing dynamic, including the formula, with roots in 1970s activism, which dominates most civic and political campaigns: identify an enemy; define issues as good versus bad; and use inflammatory language to shut down critical thought. Talk radio, cable news and the internet are potent operationalizing tools.

At San Antonio, there were strong examples of developing capacities for collaborative work that push back against such polarization. Blase Scarnati described the curricular innovations at NAU which involve hundreds of students in interdisciplinary Action Research Teams as part of the First Year Seminar. Students undertake public work projects on issues – immigration, weatherization, school bullying and others – in ways designed to teach such skills and build public relationships with diverse groups, connected to interdisciplinary learning.  Over supper one evening I heard a rich account from Dayna Seelig, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morehead State University in Kentucky, about her own work over many years in teaching such skills and habits to students, faculty and staff of the university.

But such stories are rarely told in describing engagement efforts, and I believe that most examples of teaching and learning collaborative public work remain invisible. There is a need to shine a spotlight on education for such efforts. There are also strong institutional incentives for doing so in a time of public alarm about the fraying of American society and ebbing public support for higher education.  The initiatives of ACP (deliberative dialogues, student organizing, Citizen Alum, civic science, pedagogies of engagement, community civic health, public scholarship, and policy) all help to foster education for collaborative public problem solving. But it will take sustained effort to make such teaching and learning central to institutional identity.

What might a “Democracy College Morrill Class” look like dedicated to this task? We suggested the possibility of a cohort of colleges and universities that make an explicit commitment for sustained collaborative learning to deepen curricular and co-curricular engagement in civic work. It is now only the seed of an idea, but even without detail there was considerable interest. Several administrators said that their institutions would definitely like to be involved.

Find more information about ACP here.

For Democracy’s Future: Higher Education Reclaims our Civic Mission

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Obama Administration officials and education leaders from across the country – including the American Democracy Project’s George Mehaffy and Jennifer Domagal-Goldman – to launch a national conversation about the importance of educating all students, from grade school to graduate school, for informed and engaged citizenship, which will ultimately strengthen America’s democracy and economy in the 21st century. The event, “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission,” was held in the South Court auditorium at the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

The live stream video of “For Democracy’s Future” has been archived on the White House YouTube channel, and can be viewed here  (part 1) and here (part 2).

Northern Arizona University and Western Kentucky University representing their important civic agency work.

Secretary Duncan remarked on the importance of connecting college, career and citizenship. The efforts of Northern Arizona University and Western Kentucky University – two American Democracy Project schools – were highlighted in the panel presentations. George Mehaffy, Vice President of Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and founder of the American Democracy Project, led a breakout session about building and strengthening community-campus partnerships. AASCU President Muriel Howard was featured in a video that was screened talking about colleges and universities acting as stewards of place.

The event coincided witCrucible Momenth the release of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.  The report, which was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, argues for civic learning across the curriculum and offers a call to action to colleges and universities to renew their long-standing mission to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship.

The event also marks the release of the Department of Education’s own report, “Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action,” and highlights the American Commonwealth Partnership, which brings together schools, colleges, and other civic partners to promote civic education and civic identity throughout American education.

The new American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring together thousands of universities, colleges, community colleges, schools and other civic partners to promote civic education, civic mission and civic identity throughout all of education in the United States.

Campuses and community partners are encouraged to host their own conversations about how higher education can reclaim our civic mission. Institutions are welcome to use the following discussion guide to frame their conversations:

Email to learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to advance education for citizenship and democracy or to share your own ideas about this important topic.

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