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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.”


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