Posts Tagged 'We the People'

Student Spotlight: UW-La Crosse’s Katie Svitavsky, City Council Member

By Katherine Kvitavsky, student, UW-La Crosse

Katherine Svitavsky

Where I go to school, everyone is involved in something. From intramural sports to marching band to diversity organizations, students in La Crosse are known for being active and engaged. It is, in part, because of this culture of service that I chose to be involved in our city government, representing a mostly-student district on the City of La Crosse Common Council. A year ago, I had just begun my first semester at UW-L. A year ago, if someone told me that I soon would be an elected official, I wouldn’t have believed them. But here I am, now entering my second year as a student, my first year as a resident assistant, and serving as a city council member.

I first chose to get involved on campus by representing students who lived in my residence hall in our campus Residence Hall Association (RHA). My job, along with my co-representative, was to be a voice for the 400 students living in my building. This experience was unique because it challenged me to think about policy and how it affected not only students living in my building but also all students on campus. Additionally, representing students in this capacity gave me valuable leadership skills, knowledge, and experience to represent them in our City Council, and I can’t give my time working with RHA enough credit for the impact it had on me.

As I meet and work with more people, I constantly am amazed at how driven they are and the  awesome, inspirational things of which they have been a part.  One of the many people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with is Karin Johnson, who I first met in a public administration class during my first semester at UW-L. Representing the campus area on our county board, I first remember being impressed with Karin’s physically being in the position, but as I became more familiar with her, what really struck me was how energetic and passionate she was about local issues.

One day in spring, Karin asked me to take a look at the open City Council position. The person who had the position before me was also a UW-L student who was graduating that year, and had resigned in April, leaving a space in the Council to be filled by appointment to fill out his term ending in April 2013. I was on the fence for a while about whether or not to apply for the position, especially considering the time commitments—trying to balance being a student, resident assistant, and council member is something that is still challenging for me at times. Additionally, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I hadn’t had much experience working with a city outside of the classroom; there was an obvious learning curve associated with the position. After some serious self-evaluation and encouragement from my peers and others, I decided to submit my resume to the Council. I was granted an interview, and then was appointed in May to the position.

As a council member, I attend a lot of meetings. I never understood the concept of “government work being done in committees” until I was assigned to the Finance and Personnel committee, where we work on, examine, and discuss proposed legislation and then bring it to the rest of the council. Additionally, I work with members of the community, non-profit groups, city employees, and other council members to shape policy for the community as well as policy specific to my district. I love the job because I get to see my and others’ efforts come to fruition, and there are tangible results from action the city takes, which is why I am running in April to keep on the council after my appointment officially ends.

When Karin suggested I take a look at the open position, I was skeptical. At first I questioned, “why me?”  when the real question should have been, “why not me?” I think so often young people, especially young women, have difficulty quantifying and articulating their skills—not only to themselves but also to others. Simply put, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for not only what we have done and are doing, but also for what we will be achieving in the future. Even if we don’t have an exact picture of our future, it is important to be energized and confident in what we will achieve.

But with our opportunities and successes comes a great responsibility. Just as I didn’t become involved without the encouragement of others, future leaders also need to have that same support. Just as Karin extended her hand to me, I cannot leave without extending my hands to others.

At times being a council member, in combination with being a student and a resident assistant, is stressful. There are times when I wish I could press “pause” and take the day—or week—off. But the rewards of this job far outweigh the stressful times, and I am constantly energized by the work I am a part of because I truly feel I am making a positive difference in the community. What I learned in this past year, the thing that has been proven to me one hundred times over, the best “tip for success” I can offer, is that there are so many opportunities to be taken advantage of if we can take ownership of the fact that we are worthy of them as well as the challenges they present. It may not always be easy, but it will be worth the effort.

About Katie:

Originally from Neenah, WI, Katherine Svitavsky is a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse perusing degrees in Political Science and Public Administration. She currently represents the 5th district of the city of La Crosse on the city’s Common Council, and is also a Resident Assistant on campus. In her spare time, Katherine enjoys kayaking, hiking, reading, and listening to music.

ADP joins American Commonwealth Partnership focused on Civic Mission of Higher Education

The American Democracy Project is proud to join the American Commonwealth Partnership, a collaborative national effort to advance the civic mission of higher education. In the guest blog post below, longtime ADP partner and civic learning and democratic engagement advocate Harry Boyte describes the initial partners, goals and efforts of this partnership.

I encourage American Democracy Project students, faculty, staff and community partners to consider submitting short videos or ideas for guest blog posts for the social media campaign that Harry outlines below. I’d love to see ADP efforts spotlighted in this endeavor to ensure that higher education is preparing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy and embracing our role as stewards of place. Please email me directly at with any materials you’d like me to pass on to the new DemocracyU website that will be launched next week as part of these collaborative efforts.

All my best,


Jen Domagal-Goldman, National Manager, American Democracy Project

American Commonwealth Partnership For Democracy’s Future: A Coordinated Effort to Reclaim the Civic Mission of Higher Education

By Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship

American colleges and universities attract millions of students from across the world. As Anthony Grafton writes in New York Review of Books (11/24/11), “at every level…dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.” Yet Grafton’s review of recent books with titles like Academically Adrift and Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life, also tells a sobering tale. These books detail declines in teaching, detachment from communities, and re-branding of higher education as a ticket to private wealth not public contribution. “The hordes of forgotten students who leave the university…uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard.”

On January 10th, the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) will hear these students. ACP is a broad alliance of higher education, P-12 schools and educational groups, philanthropies, businesses and others, part of a coordinated effort with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Department of Education, to begin a year of activity called, “For Democracy’s Future – Reclaiming Our Civic Mission.” ACP’s role is to “deepen the civic identity” of educational institutions, moving engagement from activities to strong commitments to education as a public good.

The American Commonwealth Partnership, launched on September 7th in New York at a meeting hosted by Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, grows out of the American Democracy Project, as well as work with the National Conference on Citizenship, The Democracy Commitment among community colleges, Campus Compact, Imagining America, NERCHE, the Anchoring Institutions Task Force and other engagement efforts. It stresses the role of colleges and universities as stewards of place and anchoring institutions within diverse local ecologies of civic learning. ACP was organized over the past six months by Harry Boyte working with Cantor and other presidents, including Brian Murphy, President of De Anza College, M. Christopher Brown, President of Alcorn State University, Tom Ehrlich, President Emeritus of Indiana University, Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, Paul Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College, and Judith Ramaley, President of Winona State University. It is coordinated by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, a long time partner with ADP in its Civic Agency Initiative.

The launch will showcase “champions of change” across higher education and among P-12 partners, including leaders in Public Achievement, a youth civic empowerment initiative, from Western Kentucky University and Northern Arizona University. The launch will also release a report, Crucible Moment – Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future, which AAC&U and its advisors have prepared for the Department of Education. The report calls for civic learning to become a “pervasive ethos,” not a marginal activity.  ACP activities will unfold in the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act which created land-grant institutions, once “democracy colleges.” ACP champions the democracy spirit for all of education. Three initiatives are already underway:

Social Media Campaign:  Working with JumpStart Productions, producer of NOW on PBS, ACP is developing a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, beginning December 7th, with the DemocracyU website on CIRCLE, the youth civic research center. ACP will sponsor a national competition of student/faculty-produced short (5-min) videos, each profiling a civic initiative. Coaching for video teams will be provided using an interface on YouTube. Finalists will be chosen by a distinguished panel, and online voting will determine the winner. ACP will leverage connections made through the project to cultivate vigorous dialogue on its website and through social media platforms. The social media will also support the deliberative dialogue campaign.

National Deliberative Dialogues: ACP will organize deliberative dialogues in partnership with the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation on higher education’s role in American society, building on research by Public Agenda, about public opinion on higher education. The deliberative process will include an easy to use toolkit; online and onsite training and work with schools and associations in advance; a designated time period in Spring 2012 for discussions, and many ways to report back the results to the nation.

Civic Science and STEM Education: Planning is underway with the Delta Center at the University of Iowa, Molly Jahn with the College of Life and Agricultural Sciences at U-WISC and former deputy undersecretary for education at USDA, and Joel Thierstein, Senior Advisor on STEM initiatives at DoED, for a Civic Science STEM initiative, promoting curricular and co-curricular reform that combines STEM and civic agency education.

For a more detailed description of the goals, aims and contexts of the American Commonwealth Partnership, take a look at this Word document: For Democracy’s Future Star Diagram.

We the People Interview Series: UMBC’s Catie Collins

By Jen Domagal-Goldman, National Manager, American Democracy Project

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are conducting a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we interview intriguing people with different perspectives on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the fifth of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Catie Collins is the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC’s) Student Government Association (SGA). In her spare time, she is working to complete her senior year studying Psychology, English Literature, and TED Talks.

American Democracy Project (ADP): How did you get involved in the American Democracy Project?

Catie Collins (CC): I have the incredible luck of being a part of UMBC’s flourishing legacy of civic agency work.  The idea of civic agency is really becoming embedded in both our SGA’s culture, and the culture of UMBC as a whole. Our involvement in the American Democracy Project has really been key in helping to achieve this shift. Attending the American Democracy Project Conference in June 2011 was one of my first acts in office!

ADP: Tell us how you got involved in SGA?

Catie Collins, SGA President at UMBC

CC: In my first year at UMBC, I remember feeling frustrated and powerless. I felt like a cog in the wheels of the university, helpless to change anything, expected to play my role as a student and nothing more. That turned out to be a very large assumption – and a false one – which a friend in SGA soon corrected. They challenged me to step up and create the change I wanted to see myself, rather than waiting for someone to swoop in and save the day. My curiosity was sparked – this was an SGA that didn’t just play politics, it didn’t just play the hero – it worked with students to help them create change and feel true ownership of their campus.  It’s this mission that led me to join SGA, and to eventually run for President.

ADP: What does civic agency and the “We the People” movement mean to you?

CC: Civic agency is such a tricky thing to really define – it’s something often best shared through experience. The definition that really resonates with me is this idea of really breaking down the roles we perceive ourselves to be in – professor, student, administrator – in order to really engage each other authentically. I’ve learned to engage people as partners, to really get to know them as real people, and that has led to far more effective impact than I would have ever expected.

ADP: You’re a student member of the national steering committee of the new American Commonwealth Project – a partnership among higher education institutions and associations, the White House, and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, seeks to further the movement of colleges and universities as agents and architects of democracy – what role do you see yourself playing and what do you hope the project accomplishes?

CC: I’m both excited and humbled to find myself a member of the American Commonwealth Project steering committee. My hopes for both my role and the project are centered on the same goal. I would love to see this project work as a platform for a stronger student presence in the conversations surrounding civic agency. I feel that my contribution to this project will largely be work in facilitating that connection.

ADP: How do you see yourself expressing your civic agency after your graduation in spring 2012?

CC: It’s actually been my very experience with civic agency that has completely shaped my post-graduation path.  My involvement has helped me discover within myself a deep-rooted passion for education. I care so deeply about creating systems of education that promote true engagement, both in terms of the material and in terms of one’s civic engagement. I envision investing my future in exactly this kind of work.

ADP: All our best to you, Catie!

To read more about UMBC’s civic agency work, read this previous blog post, or this one.

We the People Interview Series: Interview with Stephanie South

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are conducting a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we interview intriguing people with different perspectives on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the fourth of many interviews that will be included in this series.

A Colorado native, Stephanie South was born and raised on the beautiful Western Slope and finished a B.A. in political science at the University of Northern Colorado in May 2010. She minored in journalism and legal studies and was actively involved on campus as a member of Student Senate, Greek life, the President’s Leadership Program, and the Honors Program. She also studied abroad in the south of France. During her third and final year of college, Stephanie focused her efforts largely on her undergraduate thesis and recently had a portion of her work published as “Making the Move from Shouting to Listening to Public Action: A Student Perspective on Millennials and Dialogue” in the Journal of Public Deliberation.

Stephanie’s collegiate experiences were both broad and diverse, instilling in her a passion for service, Middle Eastern politics, civic engagement, community, and travel.  She spends her free time taking photos, planning trips, working out, and reading Time magazine.  Stephanie is currently exploring overseas volunteer opportunities with hopes of pursuing a year of service post-Fellowship. She eventually plans to attend law school and is extremely interested in advocating for social justice issues.

Stephanie South

American Democracy Project (ADP): Why were you interested in civic engagement?

Stephanie South (SS): In my three years at the University of Northern Colorado, I was a part of the University Honors Program. During my second year of college, the Center for Honors, Scholars, and Leadership, which houses the program, was in the midst of a transition and beginning to shift its focus to incorporate civic engagement more fully. The then director of the University Honors Program, Kaye Holman, and the director of the Center, Michael Kimball, encouraged me to explore the concept of civic engagement in higher education for a possible thesis topic, but at the time, as I was wrapping up classes and preparing to move to Washington, D.C. for the summer, I was not fully enthusiastic about identifying the subject for my thesis, which I had been putting off for a good month or so.

However, before I got on the road for D.C., Mike gave me a copy of Harry Boyte’s The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference to read on the 25-hour road trip; not long after starting it, I was hooked. In the months that followed, I worked with Mike to narrow my topic, and somehow he convinced Harry to sign on as an external advisor, which I was both honored by and thrilled about.

My passion for civic engagement and my interest in the nearly yearlong project I undertook for my University Honors Program thesis were a direct result of Kaye’s and Mike’s willingness to mentor and push me and, of course, Harry’s book.

ADP: What did you learn about public work as a way to shift Millennials from “shouting” to “co-creation”?

SS: Boyte’s work was extremely influential not only in my writing but in my own life as a student. I found his take on democracy—his public work philosophy—a perfect expression of how I thought humankind should function, of how I thought students at a university should function. I remember a piece Boyte once wrote where he quoted a student he had interviewed, and the student said something about an essential missing piece in the lives of Millennials, a disconnect from their communities.

As a student who was actively and perhaps overly involved in my campus, I did not identify with this, but I saw so many students around me that did. They were simply passing through their college experience, and for most of them, despite popular opinion, it was not the result of apathy. It was disengagement perpetuated by a broken system of higher education. The break I speak of, although I know there are more, is in regard to how students are taught in the classroom and what they are taught about. Students I conducted focus groups with, as well as interviewed one-on-one, were not being engaged by teachers talking to instead of speaking with them. They were tired of one-way conversations had by PowerPoint. They were disappointed with the lack of real world application and context they were learning with their subject matter.

It began to dawn on me that students were being treated like consumers with all sorts of propaganda simply being shouted at them. What they really wanted and what America really needs is for students to be treated like citizens; for students to become stakeholders in their own lives and communities, to translate their professional purpose into one that exists for public benefit, to become problem solvers and co-creators and co-producers of public goods.

ADP: What did your experiences and what you learned at UNCO have to say about the broader movement for civic empowerment and educational change?

SS: If American colleges and universities want to get back to their roots and truly make higher education about more than getting students in and out the door with a degree as fast as possible, then they must answer the call for community. Our institutions must work not only to educate students on how the collective can be created and on the power of it, but they must foster opportunities for the intentional conversations that allow community to thrive. And, if this generation, the Millennials, is to truly reach its potential and make a return to the commonwealth, then higher education must give them the proper instruction to be citizens. They must not only teach them how to utilize their collegiate experiences and chose career path to contribute to their communities, but they must empower students to do so by giving them a voice, and, therefore, a stake in the commonwealth.

However, this is a two-way street, and if higher education institutions are willing to give students the stage, students have to step of to the mic[rophone]. This conversation cannot be a monologue; both parties have to add their voice to the exchange. As a result of my thesis and the conversations I had with students, professors, and administrators during the course of my research, I believe that higher education reform in the sense that I see it is entirely possible if both university professionals and students commit to making the move from “shouting” to “listening.”

State of the Student Union: Reclaiming Student Unions as Civic Spaces

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

What if there was a physical place on every college campus available for people to do public work? What if this place provided resources for students and university leaders to organize for positive change on campus and in their communities? What if this place educated students about civic life and engaged them in political activities?

Lately I have been thinking about the physical structures on university campuses and their various uses. Perhaps it’s because I am reading a book that criticizes many of the non-academic structures on campus (Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids). The argument in the book is that universities should be places for academic inquiry – not student recreation – and that university budgets should only allocate funds to structures and activities that reinforce education. While I believe there is some merit to this argument, I think that there is an important role for university student unions to play in fostering a healthier society and in educating informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. On far too many college campuses, though, student unions are only meeting the recreational needs of students and are doing very little – if anything – to enhance campus civic life.

I remember my early encounters with my first university’s Student Union (at Oregon State University). It houses a large emporium of food vendors, the student book store, a bowling alley, a recreation facility, and a ballroom with large, ancient couches. I spent a lot of time in the student union, usually studying or taking naps between classes, buying food or university merchandise, and – being in touch with my blue collar roots – bowling. I  was also able to attend many political events in the union and learn about civic opportunities in my community thanks to OSU’s dedication to using the union as a hub of civic life. The stated mission of OSU’s student union is below:

At the heart, our organization is about building community.  We believe that community contributes fundamentally to the quality of life of individuals and campus society.  We have a responsibility to create community that facilitates civic engagement and interaction.  The Memorial Union is an integration of three main units and goes about creating community in different ways: the Union through physical space, Student Leadership & Involvement through Events and Programs and Student Media through student run publications.  Within each of the three main units there are several subsections.

From what I learned during my limited research on the history of student unions on American colleges campuses, my civic experiences with the student union are somewhat unique. OSU’s student union falls in line with a long history of student unions whose primary purposes are to serve as recreational facilities for students.

The first American student union, Houston Hall, was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896 and was modeled after the University of Oxford’s Student Union. Houston Hall houses UPenn’s student government and, as is outlined in its constitution, “the object of Houston [Hall] is to draw together students, officers, and alumni of all Departments of the University in a wholesome social life, and to provide for them suitable amusements and recreations.” Indeed, the founders hoped that students would pass “their leisure hours in harmless recreation and amusement” (taken from UPenn’s website). Though Oxford’s Student Union was used as a model for Houston Hall, what is interesting about Houston Hall’s stated purpose is that it is somewhat of a departure from the foundational purposes of Oxford’s Student Union.

According to its website, Oxford’s Student Union can be traced back to the 13th Century and was created to help ease tensions between students of various nationalities who were fighting on campus. Such fighting at times resulted in student fatalities. The modern mission of Oxford’s Student Union is “to represent Oxford University students in the University’s decision-making, to act as the voice for students in the national higher education policy debate, and to provide direct services to the student body.” As you can see from reading its mission and visiting its website, Oxford’s Student Union pays close attention to civic life.  Since the establishment of the first student union at UPenn, almost every American university has followed suit and created student unions. Unfortunately, the original political and democratic purpose of Oxford’s Student Union is not often mimicked throughout this network of student unions.

Most American student unions are home to their Student Government Associations (SGA). Far too often, though, SGAs more closely resemble popularity contests than student-run democracy. In an ADP Blog post about student governments, Yasmin Karimian of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) wrote about her experience as student government president. In her blog post, Yasmin helps us think about a new role for student governments as agents and architects of democracy. The students at UMBC reformed the SGA into an organization on campus that works with students to solve community-based problems. To this end, Yasmin believes that “it is the time for student leaders to re-envision the function  of student governments across the nation. Imagine a world where we are all seen as creators of our own communities… Student governments could be the stepping stones to that world.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe that along with reforming student governments around the country, it is also time for university leaders to reclaim their student unions as civic spaces on campus. While I don’t believe that the recreational aspects of the student union should be totally abandoned, I do believe that we should use this space on campus to promote civic engagement.

How can we reclaim our student unions as civic spaces? Nancy Kranich, in her ADP Blog post about Academic Libraries as civic spaces, provides the rough outline for a road map about how this might be done. Arizona State University also offers an interesting example of how student unions may be used as hubs of civic life on campus. Students at ASU are working to “shape the mission and vision for the [Student] Union [as a] future hub for programs related to community service, service learning, AmeriCorps, high impact careers and social entrepreneurship.” Student unions could also serve as the hub of student leadership in civic engagement initiatives on campus.

Would you like to reclaim your Student Union as a civic space? Below are some ideas about how you might do this.

  • Meet with your SGA president and learn about his or her hopes and dreams for the space. Challenge the president to think about how the student union may be used not only to entertain students but to engage them in civic life.
  • Host student civic events in the union.
  • Work with the SGA to establish a Democracy Plaza in the union so students might engage in ongoing conversations about democracy and pressing issues of the day.
  • Host voter education and registration outreach activities in the food court.
  • Host a Community Outreach Resource Fair in the union that will allow students to learn about community engagement opportunities.
  • Establish a room in the student union devoted to public work and use this room for student training on community organizing and public work.
  • Host political debates in the union.
  • Host town halls and forums on important issues impacting your local community.
  • What else? Please use the comments section below to add your ideas about how we might reclaim student unions as civic spaces.
For us to be serious about preparing students as civic agents, it is important for us to leverage every resource on campus to this end. Harnessing the often untapped civic power of student unions is one way we might create an institutional culture that fosters student civic development.

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