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New Student Politics and We the People

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

“We discovered at Wingspread, however, a common sense that while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged.” – Excerpt from The New Student Politics: The Wingspread Statement on Civic Engagement

Recently, I re-read New Student Politics and was struck by how timely the document still is even though it was published nine years ago. When I started managing ADP, I was told a story about my generation that was very negative. We were apathetic. We were disengaged. We did not “unplug” long enough to pay attention to current issues. And on and on. This prevailing opinion of my generation did not match my experiences. I had just graduated from Portland State University with an undergraduate education that was deeply infused with student engagement. I was extremely involved with my community. And I was not an anomaly. Indeed, my peers and friends were volunteering in their communities, on voter mobilization drives, and in community problem-solving organizations like the Multnomah Youth Commission, an innovative organization that engages youth in solving community problems in Portland, Oregon.

Part of my work with ADP has been to dispel these negative opinions of Millennials. Another large part of my job has been to explore ways of activating the civic impulses that students already feel in ways that move them along the spectrum of engagement to deeper acts of political engagement. I don’t want to downplay the importance of volunteering. We need volunteers to address immediate community problems, but without political and community organizing, these community problems will remain prevailing forces within our society. In ADP, we are constantly experimenting with ways to get students to develop these political engagement skills so that they can create long-lasting change within their communities.

In our partnership with Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, we have been able to share a very successful model for student engagement with the AASCU campuses. The program is called Public Achievement and through this model, people of all ages work with each others to meet challenges and solve problems. Many of our campuses in the Civic Agency initiative have created their own Public Achievement programs and are graduating students with a deep sense of their own abilities to solve community-based problems.

The dysfunction of this current election gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we interact with elected officials. Harry Boyte, in a series of ADP Blog posts here and here, imagines a world in which citizens partner with politicians in meaningful ways to solve community problems. This is exactly the type of politics that my generation in hungry for. In fact, I strongly believe that many students want something different than the polarized and bitter political culture we now have. That’s why I am heartened by the launch of the “We the People: The Return of the Citizen Voter,” project with Harry Boyte. Harry wrote in one of his blog posts 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.’”

I completely agree. Because of their commitment to the stewardship of local democracy and their work with student engagement, I believe ADP schools are in a unique position to create a new politics for our country. A new politics in which politicians act as partners – not dysfunctional parents – and we are able to solve real community problems through meaningful relationships with them.

Next week, we’ll be hosting the Civic Agency Institute and we’ll be exploring the practical strategies for making real this new politics. Public Achievement and MYC offer examples of how this “new politics” might look (follow along using this hashtag: #CivAg10).  Additionally, we made the theme of the ADP National Meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 2-4, 2011, “Beyond Voting: Active Citizenship in the New Era,” so that we can further the work of “We the People.” During the meeting, we will have a series of conversations about what this new politics will look like. Our campus coordinators will also showcase their work in activating students for meaningful engagement. Over the next two years, ADP campuses will help pave the way for this new politics. This is an exciting time for the American Democracy Project. We truly are the ones we have been waiting for.

Question How have you engaged elected officials in a meaningful partnership to solve real community problems?

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