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Dennis Donovan at Castleton College: The Frontlines of Civic Agency in Education

Dennis Donovan conducted a training at Castleton State College in late October

Dennis Donovan conducted a training at Castleton State College in late October

“Castleton College has all the ingredients to become a higher education ‘democracy demonstration’ site for us and a leader in Public Achievement and the We the People movement,” said Dennis Donovan after his visit to the American Democracy Project Civic Agency Initiative school in Vermont.

Over the course of three days in October, Donovan conducted trainings and workshops for Castleton students, faculty, administrators, and community members. In the campus-wide event, titledInstitutionalizing Civic Engagement through Organizing, participants learned to “understand and distinguish between three ways of conceptualizing democracy and what it means to be a student, faculty, or community leader, and also began to practice community organizing skills.”

Castleton College first became involved in civic engagement through the leadership of its Academic Dean Joe Mark in the 1990s and eventually began sending a core group to the American Democracy Project’s annual conferences on “educating citizens” from 2003 onward. In 2008, Castleton was invited to join the American Democracy Project’s Civic Agency Initiative, which “seeks to further develop and operationalize the concept of civic agency” by “producing a series of national models for developing civic agency among undergraduates.”

The concept of civic agency involves developing the capacity of citizens to collaboratively solve problems. It entails a marked change in culture to adopt “practices, habits, norms, symbols, and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.” Castleton is unique in that as opposed to having one center or project designed to spread concepts of civic agency, its focus is infusing ideas into the whole campus.

“The institution is designed with so many opportunities and experiences that students will naturally bump into things,” says Academic Dean Joe Mark. “The college will never demand outright that people do civic agency, as this approach doesn’t work. Civic agency is not a graduation requirement — we want it ubiquitous, but not mandated.”

And ubiquitous it is. Concepts of civic agency have been incorporated into Castleton’s orientation practices, RA program in campus dorms, student government and other student groups, curriculum on service learning, education department curriculum, and interactions between faculty members, as well as Castleton projects with the broader community.

“Castleton has made a conscious effort to ‘graft’  civic agency concepts onto a lot of different programs to create culture change and a tipping point,” says Dean of Students Dennis Proulx. “The goal of Dennis’s training was to unite all of the grafts and expose bigger themes and it worked.”

Changes are already afoot in Castleton’s work with the Slate Valley Teen Center and partnership between the athletics department and a local elementary school. There has been a greater shift in thinking to considering the teens and elementary students as “co-creators” within these two initiatives, and allowing them to have a greater participatory effort through use of the Public Achievement model. People are getting excited.

Academic Dean Joe Mark also noted the progress of the student government after Dennis’s visit. Ryan Badinelli, the treasurer in Castleton’s student government, was first exposed to civic agency from attending an American Democracy Project conference and did not know what to expect. He describe civic agency as changing both Castleton and himself.

“The college has grown in prestige, academics, diversity — growth from community engagement and the idea that everyone has the ability to succeed,” says Baldinelli. “In the push for civic agency, students are beginning to realize that Castleton is there for them. Dennis Donovan was able to bring more understanding to people about what is going on in this movement. People need to meet Harry and Dennis, who have powerful ideas.”


What about Students?

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

Yesterday I had a wonderful phone conversation with Martin Carcasson and Jack Becker of Colorado State University. Martin is a Communications Studies professor and Jack is one of his students. Jack is planning a student civics conference in Oxford, Ohio, March 16-19, 2011 (details below), and we spent a lot of time talking about this event. The theme of the conference is “The Citizens’ Toolbox: What’s in Yours?” and it will be a follow up to last year’s “Connect the Dots” student conference. I was inspired to hear Jack talk about his work with planning the conference. It was clear to me that Jack had ample opportunities throughout his undergraduate experience to take leadership roles in civic engagement projects. Because of these experiences, Jack is able to use the skills he’s gained to plan this national student conference on civic engagement. For me, he is a perfect example of what a student can do when they have acquired a robust set of civic and professional skills. And he has these civic skills in his tool box because faculty members like Martin believe in the power and importance of working with students.

I have spent the last four years as ADP Manager pushing for increased student involvement in our programs. It is my belief that without student involvement, we will not be successful. It has to be a top-down, bottom-up movement if it’s going to work. Administrators are very important. They are key to institutionalizing civic engagement programming, they offer strategic vision, and they hold the purse strings. It’s important to get faculty to buy into civic education because they are the ones who are teaching students and, more importantly, are often the sources of inspiration for students. But it’s equally important to get students involved because they have the energy, passion, motivation, and ideas that we need in order to design programs that will appeal to and shape students.

Too often, I attend events in the civic engagement world that are mainly attended by people in senior positions and I always ask myself, “Where are the students?” We all sit around and talk about students in a way that makes them seem theoretical to our work, and yet we don’t engage them. I have become a nuisance at these types of events because I now ask, “Where are the students? You want to do important civic engagement work that will affect students, but you’re not inviting their participation in meetings like this.” If we really want to change higher education, if we really want to design programs that will inspire and engage students, if we really want to do substantive, community-based work that has long-lasting impacts, we must partner with our students in equitable and meaningful ways.

Thankfully, I am not alone in my belief that student leadership and collaboration is central to the success of the American Democracy Project. My shared passion for student involvement has been evidenced by the increasing number of students that are working with faculty members in ADP chapters all over the country. It is also evidenced by the number of students that are attending our various events. Last week, 25 students attended the Civic Agency Institute. At last year’s ADP National Meeting, 75 of our 370 participants were students. This year, I anticipate even more students will be in Orlando for our National Meeting. Students are now leading sessions at our Institutes and Conferences, providing valuable ideas and input for faculty members about civic engagement programming, and they are rolling up their sleeves and working in partnership with faculty members, staff, and administrators to do the difficult work of institutionalizing civic engagement on campus.

For those of you who already work with students in your civic engagement projects, kudos! As many in my generation would say, “you know what’s up!” For those of you who don’t yet, I encourage you to find passionate students on campus to work with (trust me, this will not be hard!). Give them responsibility. Ask for their input. Seek their expertise and knowledge when developing programs/events/community-university partnerships, etc. Not only will you be giving them an opportunity to develop their civic and leadership skills, but you will be astounded by how much richer your civic engagement work will be because of your students.

Check out Jack’s upcoming student conference, “The Citizens Toolbox: What’s in Yours?” It will take place in Oxford, Ohio, March 16-19, 2011. For more information about this exciting student conference, please visit this website.

Question: How have you collaborated with students on your campus to do civic engagement work? And, students, how have you worked with faculty members?

Georgia College Gets Political

By Gregg Kaufman, Georgia College ADP Coordinator

The Georgia College American Democracy Project collaborated with university/community partners, Digital Bridges and the Union Recorder newspaper to sponsor local, state, and federal candidate forums during the 2010 election season. The Digital Bridges Knight Innovation Center is a Georgia College initiative, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to assist Milledgeville, Georgia, a wireless community, by providing the public and local business community with technology resources.

The candidate forum series used candidate social network media and created video interviews that were placed on the Digital Bridges website.  Georgia College Political Science faculty and students helped record “person-on-the-street” interviews where local citizens and university students posed questions for the candidates. The national Ten Questions website was also used to solicit questions for the U.S. Congressional District 12 candidate forum. The Congressional primary and general election forums, as well as the local school board and state representative and senate forums, were streamed live via the Internet and recorded for re-broadcast on local cable television and the Georgia College iTunes University page.

Georgia College faculty members helped moderate the forums, and in the case of the local school board races, convened a post-debate open forum among the candidates and the audience at the Knight Innovation Center to discuss educational issues.

The mid-term election collaborative efforts advanced beyond conventional media outlet political coverage by providing citizens additional access to their political candidates through the use of digital media and face-to-face encounters.   The collaborators anticipate learning from the experiment and building on their experience for the 2012 election cycle.

Call for Proposals: ADP National Meeting, June 2-4, 2011, Orlando

This is a Call for Proposals for the American Democracy Project (ADP) National Meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 2-4, 2011.

Proposals are due Monday, March 7, 2011.

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

Please join us in Orlando for our Ninth Annual National American Democracy Project (ADP) Meeting being held at the Renaissance Orlando Hotel at SeaWorld. The meeting begins on Thursday, June 2nd and ends with a reception on Saturday night, June 4th. We have negotiated a hotel room rate of $139 single/double plus 12.5% tax.

The theme of this year’s meeting is, Beyond Voting: Active Citizenship in the New Era. In a recent post for the ADP Blog, Harry Boyte wrote that, “We need to rise to the occasion of citizenship. The American Democracy Project can take the lead. In the words of the civil rights song, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’” Indeed, there is no better time than now for us to do the work of engaging and activating college students for meaningful lives of citizenship. During this meeting, we will be exploring the idea of “Active Citizenship,” as framed in the following set of questions: What does it mean to be an active citizen? How does online technology shape our citizenship behaviors? Are there generational differences in how we think about citizenship? What are key citizenship behaviors and skills that students should graduate with? How is citizenship being expressed in both virtual and face-to-face settings? What are the signature pedagogies and practices that encourage students to become active citizens?

THIS IS A CALL FOR PROPOSALS. We are interested in presentations that address both theoretical and practical issues: concepts of citizenship; civic engagement and democracy in higher education; and descriptions of programs and practices. When submitting proposals about programs and practices, please be sure that you address analysis as well as description: what worked and what didn’t; what were the issues encountered during implementation; how were partners brought in; etc. We are particularly interested in topics that focus specifically on institutionalizing citizen preparation. This is not a traditional academic conference. We are interested in sessions that go beyond merely presenting a set of activities and instead describe step-by-step strategies for doing civic engagement work on college campuses.

We are seeking PRESENTERS for concurrent panel sessions and workshops. To submit a proposal for presentation:

  1. Review the suggested list of topics and the description of the sessions.
  2. Go the “Submit a Proposal” section at the end of this form and complete the online proposal entry form.

Proposals are due Monday, March 7, 2011.  However, proposals can be submitted immediately. We use a rolling admissions process, which means that proposals will be evaluated and decisions made weekly, so the earlier the submission, the earlier you will know if your proposal has been accepted. This process of early notification may provide you with an opportunity to identify a source of funding sooner, as well as help clarify your summer plans.

If you have questions about the submission process, please contact Cecilia Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project, at (202) 478-7833 or For logistical information about the meeting, please contact Jill Gately, Program and Meetings Manager, ALC, at (202) 478-4668 or


CATEGORY 1:  Beyond Voting: Active Citizenship in the New Era

We are seeking presentations that explore the conceptual and theoretical dimensions of civic engagement. What are the defining issues of citizenship in the 21st century? What are the new frameworks for thinking about citizenship in this global era? How are perspectives about citizenship mediated by gender and ethnicity? What are the different generational perspectives on citizenship? How is citizenship being expressed in both virtual and face-to-face settings?


We are seeking proposal submissions that address this important and often overlooked aspect of our work.  Each proposal should address the following: How can we be more inclusive of diverse populations in the civic engagement “movement?” What specific events and strategies have you used to engage diverse students in civic and political efforts on and off campus?  How has the election of the first African-American president affected your work with students? If you are a member of a minority community, how (if at all) has your identity been important to your work in the civic engagement field?


We are seeking presentations about the high-impact practices that you have developed to encourage students to be active citizens. Which signature pedagogies and practices have you used to inspire students to deeper levels of political and community engagement? Signature pedagogies and practices include such things as Democracy Plazas, Naturalization Ceremonies, campus-wide events, in-class deliberation strategies, community-based learning experiences, etc.


Students are absolutely indispensible to the success of the American Democracy Project. Without student collaboration and input, there is no way to know how to design successful, high-impact programs. How have you worked directly with students to design and implement American Democracy Project activities?


We are seeking presentations on topics such as how to infuse civic engagement across campus, organize a project, find funding, publicize your project, work with community partners and community colleges, collaborate between academic and student affairs, secure faculty buy-in, nurture and sustain institutional attention, etc. We are also particularly interested in faculty promotion and tenure strategies, as well as recognition and reward.


We are seeking presentations on assessment strategies, assessment tools, and assessment results across the broad range of institutional life: assessment of courses or programs, assessment linked to institutional outcomes, or assessment that evaluates the effectiveness of specific strategies. We are particularly interested in the assessment of civic skills as one dimension of civic outcomes.


We also seek proposals from those campus representatives involved in national ADP initiatives:

  • America’s Future
  • Civic Agency
  • Deliberative Polling
  • eCitizenship
  • Political Engagement Project
  • Seven Revolutions
  • Stewardship of Public Lands


Based on your comments and feedback from last year’s meeting, this year we’re trying something new. We’re hosting a series of exchanges that will explore big-picture topics and philosophic questions about citizenship and civic engagement, theories of diversity, models of political efficacy, etc. Propose a topic for one of these sessions.


If you would like to make a presentation on a topic not already listed, submit your proposal in this category.

Please note:  Some presentations may fit into several categories. When submitting your proposal, use the category that best describes your presentation.


The presentation sessions are 1 hour and 15 minutes in length, with a moderator/presenter and approximately 3 presentations. Individual presentations should not exceed 10 minutes. Handouts are encouraged. LCD projectors for PowerPoint presentations will be available. Internet will be provided in each of the concurrent sessions. There will be a time keeper in each session.

Please note: If you submit a presentation where you are the sole speakers and your proposal is accepted, you will be placed in a concurrent session with other presentations on the same topic.         If you would like to link your presentation to another proposal(s) (from your institution, from colleagues at other institutions, community partners, etc.), please note this in the online proposal form.

Once you submit a proposal, you are agreeing to present during any of the timeslots allotted June 2-4, 2011. We will notify you of your exact presentation time no later than March 21, 2011.

The purpose of these sessions is to get a substantial number of strategies and ideas presented in a short period of time, leaving time in each session for discussion and dialogue. Please note: For those presentations that focus on campus practice, the presentations should not be simply a description of a program or project. Instead, please discuss the program or project, but then focus on how the project or activity was organized or developed, funded, assessed, what issues and concerns arose, and how those issues or concerns were addressed.


1) Review the suggested list of topics and the description of the sessions.

2) Complete this short online survey.

Proposals are due by March 7, 2011.  However, proposals can be submitted immediately. We use a rolling admissions process, which means that proposals will be evaluated and decisions made weekly, so the earlier the submission, the sooner you will know if your proposal has been accepted. This early acceptance process may provide you with an opportunity to identify a source of funding support sooner, as well as help clarify summer plans.

If you have questions about the submission process, please contact Cecilia Orphan at (202) 478-7833 or


We the People Part 3

By Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

“Something is stirring,” Cecilia Orphan wrote on the ADP blog, Thursday night of the Civic Agency meeting held last week, November 11th and 12th, at the state college and university building in Washington DC. More than 60 people discussed their work over the last year and made plans for a “We the People” (WtheP) effort to change customer service government – government which mainly does things for the people — into government of the people and by the people. In  the We the People vision, government is our meeting ground, partner and common instrument in addressing our problems and building a shared life.  Teams from 18 colleges and universities joined with representatives of Rock the Vote, Sojourners, the White House Office of Social Innovation, community colleges,  the American Library Association, National Issues Forums and Strengthening our Nation’s Democracy network, among others.

Among many important steps forward, I want to highlight three:

  • Empowerment gap. A focus on the empowerment gap needs to replace the achievement gap. Rom Coles, Director of the Community, Culture and Environment Center, Miguel Vasquez, professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, and other colleagues described the remarkable organizing work in the area around Flagstaff on issues ranging from weatherization and sustainable environments, to immigrant rights, water, and youth empowerment through Public Achievement. Against a tide of fear-mongering politics, Vasquez won a seat on the Flagstaff board of education on the platform of “the empowerment gap.” His focus on the empowerment gap highlights that the deepest problem in our education is that young people – especially children and teens of low income, minority, and immigrant backgrounds – feel “acted upon,” not agents of their education. A We the People movement will have as a central emphasis closing “the empowerment gap,” empowering young people to take leadership in developing the kind of education they need to be shapers of their lives, agents of change, and co-creators of healthy communities and the democracy.
  • Public knowledge: There were many examples of a deepening in what Nancy Kranich, former president of the American Library Association and head of its new Center for Public Life, called “public knowledge.” Public knowledge involves developing ways to continuously learn from our mistakes, our successes, and our ongoing work. I was struck especially by the innovations in Public Achievement in many settings – Georgia College, Northern Arizona, Central Connecticut, Lincoln, and elsewhere. Many other examples emerged as well — “Tuesday Teas” at Western Kentucky, which offer ways for the campus and community to exchange and discuss experiences every week; debriefings of student weatherization efforts in Flagstaff, which help students learn from their community experience, the efforts of students at Lincoln and Florida A&M University to develop new forms of community service which empower, instead of provide charity. As Gary Paul pointed out in his concluding remarks, learning from the gritty, real, everyday work of making change is the way people develop “political sobriety” and a “prophetic imagination.” These point beyond the givens, allow us to work with people who make us uncomfortable,  and cultivate a long term perspective.
  • A new public narrative: We the People is not something in the future – it is emerging all over the place, as our colleagues, students,  staff, and faculty rework relations with elected officials and other decision making bodies to be partners in public work, not mainly providers of services. The outstanding example is at University of Maryland/Baltimore County, where Yasmin Karimian and her fellow students have fundamentally reworked student government (the SGA) into a center for activating the public work of students and creating a different, more collaborative and respectful relationship between students, faculty, and the administration. One of the highlights of the organizing conference for me was the interconnection between these local examples of public work and large scale change – a connection which Paul Markham at Western Kentucky argues will be the centerpiece of the emerging movement. In the session on “Creating a Citizen Demand for ‘We the People’ Democracy, with Norm Ornstein, one of the nation’s leading political analysts, and Marta Urquilla, senior policy analyst with the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, we pointed to UMBC student government as a model for governments at every level to learn from – a return to government of and by the people.

Overall, many agreed that the challenge of American revitalization depends upon developing a new public narrative in which all participate and help to craft. It will be full of argument and difference on issues ranging from immigrants to the nature and content of education for the 21st century and the meaning of “the good life,” in a culture in which many students feel we’ve gone too far toward consumerism and “the rat race” (as students told me recently about their parents’ generation, at Lone Star community college in Houston Texas). But it will also be full of rich local stories of citizens shifting from complainers, victims,  consumers, and supplicants of government to “owners of the store,” makers of change, agents and architects of the democracy.

The Civic Agency/We the People working meeting in Washington convinced me, yet again, the state colleges and universities will provide crucial leadership.

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