Western Kentucky University Hill House Students Politically Engage Community
By Terry Shoemaker, Program Coordinator, Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility at Western Kentucky University
The Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility (ICSR) in conjunction with Western Kentucky University’s ALIVE Center for Community Partnerships developed an opportunity for four graduate students to apply their academic knowledge to enhance the quality of a neighborhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (For more information regarding the program check out http://www.wku.edu/alive/hillhouse.)
As part of the program, the Hill House students are required to develop a group project each semester. In the past, Hill House students have adopted many approaches to engage their neighborhood over the last few years. Community engagement has included hosting neighborhood cookouts, documentary viewings, and Sunday evening dinners.
This fall, the current Hill House students centered their neighborhood engagement on the national election. In essence, the students wanted to discover if the neighborhood could unite around politics. Or as Kyle O’Donnell, Hill House Graduate Assistant majoring in Business Administration, noted, “Our hope was to answer the question, ‘Can Politics Bring Us Together?’ With the maturation of segmented media and internet filter bubbles, the need for in-person, substantive dialogue with those who have different opinions from us is all the more relevant.”
The students’ engagement plan was three-fold. First, they created a survey instrument to ascertain the issues that were most important to the members of the neighborhood. Students went door-to-door administering the survey. Analysis of the results determined the economy, social security, and social issues were at the forefront of the residents’ priorities. The students then hosted a gathering at the Hill House to have a discussion on these issues. The gathering included a cookout and some local experts from WKU and the community to discuss the issues with neighborhood residents.
Finally, the WKU Hill House students hosted an election night results gathering at the house. Approximately twenty neighborhood members from varying ages attended the viewing party. Students reported that the evening was a success. Samantha Burnett, a Social Work student, indicated, “The night of the election, we had quite a few people stop by the house to eat and talk with other members of the neighborhood while watching the results of the election. I think the recent events at Hill House really brought members of the neighborhood together and demonstrated the importance of community.” And Hill House Graduate Assistant Collin Steiner, who is studying Applied Economics, stated, “Big ‘P’ Politics can be divisive at times, but daily our lives are surrounded by little ‘p’ politics. The event showed that we may not always agree on certain national election issues, but we all have a desire to be accepted. In reality, we need each other, and the neighborhood gathering affirmed that sentiment.”
With all the national discussions of a divided Red State versus Blue State nation, the Hill House students discovered in their neighborhood a group of people that are less blue or red and more local citizens willing to come together over national politics.