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We the People Interview Series: Interview with Jason Lowry

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 third of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Jason Lowry is a Master’s student in the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University (NAU). For the past two years, he has been a Public Achievement coach and the coordinator of Public Achievement at NAU, a leader of the weatherization and community building action team and an apprentice organizer in the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council. During his graduate studies he is researching strategies for integrating Public Achievement and community organizing into schools.

During this time of great political unrest in the state of Arizona, Public Achievement and Civic Agency have helped provide citizens in Flagstaff and beyond with the hope that they can work together despite political and ideology differences to solve community-based problems and create cultures of civic agency and engagement. What follows is a synopsis of his inspiring story as well as advice for faculty and students about how they might use a “We the People” ethos to create positive change in their own communities.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): Students at Northern Arizona University have been working to make “We the People” a reality. How are they doing this?

Jason Lowry (JL): NAU is seeing a huge surge in its student engagement throughout campus. Students I work with are at the forefront of organizing in the Flagstaff and NAU communities around immigration work, Public Achievement (the student democratic engagement and leadership initiative) in two different elementary schools, and as well as extensive student and community organizing around energy efficiency and renewable energy.

I am also engaged – and have been engaged for a couple of years now – in Public Achievement and the energy efficiency organizing. These two pieces have been some of the most powerful and empowering experience for me and the other students I work with. We have worked with elementary schoolers on food drives, community gardens, new books for their old library, and community health programs. We have also organized to build support and energy for the creation of a $2.7 million dollar energy efficiency revolving loan fund for the Flagstaff area!

CMO: Have you noticed any changes in the students you are working with? Do they conceive of themselves and their communities any differently after engaging in public work?  

JL: I feel a difference in the students. They come in with wide eyes yet they leave seeing possibility. Many of the students I work with are now assuming leadership roles within the project and creating innovative organizing strategies on their own. At first this was a slow process that required gently nudging the students forward. Now I can stand back as they take projects by the horns. For many students, organizing on the ground and seeing tangible results has helped them feel that they can and are making a difference. Subsequently, many are planning to stay engaged in their communities for years to come.

These students are reviving my hopes for Arizonan democracy by stepping up to the plate and asserting their leadership in a democratic way. Even though the situation is grim with budget cuts to the universities, attacks on immigrants, and a continued reliance on unsustainable energy sources, students are embodying the idea of ‘We the People’ and making their community their own. They are tired of waiting and are finding meaningful ways to get engaged and seeing possibility for change in places I would not have ever looked.

CMO: Have you noticed any changes in yourself because of this work? If so, what kind of changes?

JL: Wow, I absolutely have. First and foremost, I have a renewed faith in people and our communities. After seeing so many people come together to work for humane ends and understanding that they are the ones that will make it happen, it has rekindled my belief that people, when they work together for a common goal, can and do accomplish great ends.

I have also begun to see many seeming crises as opportunities for engagement. Where I once saw the issues at hand as limiting, I know see them as opportunities and I understand at some level how to work to make the change.

CMO: How might we communicate the “We the People” spirit to students around the nation?

JL: Students are tired of politics as usual. They are tired of being written off as disengaged and apathetic. It seems as though many of them just don’t know where or how to begin. The spirit of “We the People” has to be talked about as it relates to possible opportunities for organizing or what is already going on.

The message is simple. What we have won’t work. We need something new and we can’t wait for others to fix it. Let’s organize and make something happen understanding this is a lifelong endeavor, not a onetime fix.

CMO: How might we use social media tools to help build the “We the People” movement?

JL: Hmm… social media is not my forte. However, I know it can be a very powerful tool to augment the work we are doing on the ground. Too often people see social networking tools and technology as the cure-all for the problems we are facing. I would caution that the use of social media tools need to be connected with that relationship and community building that face-to-face organizing provides. One without the other is greatly limiting. But social media can make organizing efforts more united and broader in scope as we share information of what is going on in our own communities and quicker to react.

Social media tools can also create powerful public stages by translating local organizing efforts into a larger context of what’s going on in our states, country, and the world. I believe that these tools will play a key role  in helping the “We the People” movement gain ground and will also help local organizing efforts find energy and a sense of possibility.

CMO: What advice would you give faculty members who are hoping to awaken this same civic spirit in their own students?

For me, this type of student civic spirit comes from a few places. First, find student leaders on your campus. John Paul Lederach[1] writes about critical yeast; those people that are able to expand energy and engagement throughout their communities and spaces. Find these students and mentor them in the art of democratic engagement and public work.

Second, give them the reigns and let them take charge. One of the main differences I have seen between those groups that are really engaged and those that are not is that successful faculty provide guidance but let the students run the show. I think the Industrial Areas Foundation’s Iron Rule is important here: Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Lastly, help them find possibility and the skills to make things happen. If we don’t help them form a broader vision, our efforts may lead to a continuation of the status quo. Don’t push them that way, just sew the seeds of possibility and try to nurture them the best you can!

CMO: What advice would you give students?

JL: Find a mentor. Get to know someone, preferably many people that are passionate about something similar to your own interests and invest time and energy in creating a solid relationship. My own work has mostly turned into mentoring students through individual meetings, visioning, and strategy sessions. I believe mentoring relationships are so important because I know the effect they had on me personally.

Also, laugh a bit. Make fun of the hard times we’re in. Humor might provide a light of possibility that seriousness would otherwise snuff out.

[1] Lederach, J. P. (2005). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press, USA

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