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The Democracy Commitment: Community Colleges in the Mix

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

I am pleased to announce the creation of The Democracy Commitment (TDC), a new and growing national civic engagement movement for community colleges. ADP has partnered with TDC to help with the launch and early management of this exciting new initiative. I have been serving in an advisory role for the leaders in the TDC, and I couldn’t be more delighted by their progress thus far and their dedication to opening up the civic engagement movement to community colleges and their students. TDC is an idea whose time has come. With the increasing focus on community colleges as engines for workforce development, it is important for their important civic and public purpose not to get lost. TDC provides leadership for community colleges focused on preparing citizen professionals who will improve their communities and build a stronger economy.

My support and enthusiasm for this project is personal – as a first-generation college student, I attended a community college during my second year of college and I have since been a defender and supporter of their mission to provide low-cost, high-quality education to often under served students. I hope that the TDC will create a common, civic thread between the 2-year experience and the 4-year experience for the thousands of AASCU students (like myself) who transfer from community colleges. I also hope that those students who are attending community colleges to gain a professional skill or trade will also gain a sense of public purpose for their work along with a deeper commitment to their role as citizens.

To help explain TDC, one of its leaders, Bernie Ronan, agreed to be interviewed for the ADP Blog. Bernie directs the Maricopa Community Colleges’ Division of Public Affairs, which includes the Center for Civic Participation. Dr. Ronan has been an administrator in the Maricopa Colleges for the past 20 years. He has also served as Deputy Director of the Arizona Department of Commerce, and as Deputy Associate Superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education. Ronan earned his doctorate in public administration from Arizona State University.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): Tell us about The Democracy Commitment (TDC). Why was it created? Who has signed on so far?

Bernie Ronan (BR): The Democracy Commitment is a new national initiative of community colleges, in service to democracy and the future of our communities.

Our colleges play an important role in job training, for which we have received unparalleled national attention. But we also have a vital role to play in educating students for democracy, to be engaged and active citizens in their communities. Our communities need this more than ever, due to apathy and polarization in our politics, and the incredible stresses they face. And our community college students’ ability to exercise their democratic rights and work together in public life, to be generous and tolerant and yet able to advocate for themselves, will help determine the future of our communities.

The Democracy Commitment will provide a national platform for the development and expansion of programs and projects aimed at engaging community college students in civic learning and democratic practice. Our goal is that every graduate of an American community college shall have had an education to democracy. This includes all our students, whether they aim to transfer to university, gain a certificate, or obtain an associate degree.

Our strategy is to reach out to a group of “early adopters,” presidents and chancellors whose colleges are already engaged in and committed to this work. A Founders’ Committee of CEOs who make The Democracy Commitment is being formed, which we think could eventually serve as a national steering committee. They commit a nominal amount to co-fund the start up costs of the initiative, and they name someone to serve on an implementation committee to organize the work.  The initial signatories as of March, 2011 to The Democracy Commitment include:

  • Miami Dade College (Fl.)
  • LaGuardia (NY)
  • Maricopa(Az.)
  • Los Rios (Cal.)
  • Moraine Valley (Ill.)
  • Delta (Mich.)
  • Georgia Perimeter (GA)
  • Santa Monica(Cal.)
  • Riverside(Cal.)
  • Broome/SUNY
  • Lonestar (Tex.)
  • Minneapolis Community and Technical College (Minn.)
  • De Anza College (Calif.)

CMO: Why partner with ADP?

BR: Community colleges have already been working with our AASCU colleagues in the ADP. Our community college colleagues have been involved in local ADP civic engagement projects, participated in regional ADP meetings, and presented at national ADP annual meetings. We know and have worked with the ADP national staff. And the lead organizer of our initiative, Brian Murphy from De Anza College, is himself a former AASCU administrator who was instrumental in the start-up of ADP.

The additional reasons for partnering with ADP are strategic. These are difficult times for American higher education, with budget reductions and loss of programs. The idea of starting a new national initiative for community colleges is daunting, especially when so much else needs attention.

We feel we can create a national community college initiative if we create an alliance with an existing national civic engagement initiative: ADP.  Creating an alliance will provide an extended launch process that conserves resources and leverages the power and connections of this highly successful, eight-year-old national effort.

Community colleges have already been working with our AASCU colleagues in the ADP. Our community college colleagues have been involved in local ADP civic engagement projects, participated in regional ADP meetings, and presented at national ADP annual meetings.  We also know and have worked with the ADP national staff.

In addition, community colleges and state colleges and universities are natural partners, with a shared mission of being “Stewards of Place” for the communities we serve.  Indeed, we share more than a common mission; we are “P-20” partners since we share the same students. More than 50% of the students who graduate from AASCU institutions began their college careers at community colleges.

Beyond our existing collaboration and our natural fit, creating an alliance will offer a number of practical advantages as we develop our own initiative. We can share expertise, resources, networks, project ideas, meetings, and a variety of other products and services which would be time-consuming and expensive to begin on our own.

While our long-range focus will always be on creating an independent civic engagement initiative for America’s community colleges, a collaboration with ADP will offer a powerful pathway to our success.

CMO: How will TDC use the ADP National Meeting as a soft-launch?

BR: We plan to use the ADP National Meeting as a pivotal organizing event – our first chance to meet as collaborators and plan how to launch our initiative.  With the encouragement of the ADP organizers, our faculty and staff are welcome to attend any and all conference meetings. Our plan is to have our community college representatives or teams from the group of signatory colleges in The Democracy Commitment integrated seamlessly into the ADP conference, so we can learn from those who have been doing the work.  We also plan to offer a Featured Session at the National Meeting that will explain The Democracy Commitment to ADP participants, and will also host several concurrent sessions highlighting our civic work. At the same time, we will organize a concurrent session track of organizing conversations among community college reps, to explore the best ways we can launch The Democracy Commitment as a true national initiative.

CMO: What do you hope will come out of the work of TDC?

BR: Our hope is nothing less than having all our students leave our colleges with the skills they need to be active and engaged citizens, and having a resurgence of democratic engagement in our communities. An added benefit would be more vigorous collaboration between state colleges and community colleges across America, which would benefit our institutions in other ways beyond civic learning.

CMO: How can community colleges join TDC?

BR: Participation requires a commitment by the college’s CEO.  To join, the CEO needs to visit the TDC website click the “sign up” link. The link will direct you to an online form that you will need to fill out. We are also working to engage our faculty in this initiative from the outset, and numerous Faculty Senates from our participating colleges are adopting resolutions to support The Democracy Commitment, since they view it as an essential feature of the teaching and learning mission of their institutions.

CMO: Any final thoughts or comments for our readers?

BR: I would personally like to express my gratitude to the myriad faculty and instructional leaders that are working on ADP all across this country.  It is your dedication to democracy that has, frankly, inspired us to undertake a companion endeavor in The Democracy Commitment. And we look forward to many years of collaboration in the work of democracy among our faculty and across our institutions, which will redound to the benefit of our students and our communities.

For more information about The Democracy Commitment, please email Bernie Ronan or visit the TDC website.

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