Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Interview Series’

We the People Interview Series: UMBC’s Catie Collins

By Jen Domagal-Goldman, National Manager, American Democracy Project

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

Catie Collins is the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC’s) Student Government Association (SGA). In her spare time, she is working to complete her senior year studying Psychology, English Literature, and TED Talks.

American Democracy Project (ADP): How did you get involved in the American Democracy Project?

Catie Collins (CC): I have the incredible luck of being a part of UMBC’s flourishing legacy of civic agency work.  The idea of civic agency is really becoming embedded in both our SGA’s culture, and the culture of UMBC as a whole. Our involvement in the American Democracy Project has really been key in helping to achieve this shift. Attending the American Democracy Project Conference in June 2011 was one of my first acts in office!

ADP: Tell us how you got involved in SGA?

Catie Collins, SGA President at UMBC

CC: In my first year at UMBC, I remember feeling frustrated and powerless. I felt like a cog in the wheels of the university, helpless to change anything, expected to play my role as a student and nothing more. That turned out to be a very large assumption – and a false one – which a friend in SGA soon corrected. They challenged me to step up and create the change I wanted to see myself, rather than waiting for someone to swoop in and save the day. My curiosity was sparked – this was an SGA that didn’t just play politics, it didn’t just play the hero – it worked with students to help them create change and feel true ownership of their campus.  It’s this mission that led me to join SGA, and to eventually run for President.

ADP: What does civic agency and the “We the People” movement mean to you?

CC: Civic agency is such a tricky thing to really define – it’s something often best shared through experience. The definition that really resonates with me is this idea of really breaking down the roles we perceive ourselves to be in – professor, student, administrator – in order to really engage each other authentically. I’ve learned to engage people as partners, to really get to know them as real people, and that has led to far more effective impact than I would have ever expected.

ADP: You’re a student member of the national steering committee of the new American Commonwealth Project – a partnership among higher education institutions and associations, the White House, and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, seeks to further the movement of colleges and universities as agents and architects of democracy – what role do you see yourself playing and what do you hope the project accomplishes?

CC: I’m both excited and humbled to find myself a member of the American Commonwealth Project steering committee. My hopes for both my role and the project are centered on the same goal. I would love to see this project work as a platform for a stronger student presence in the conversations surrounding civic agency. I feel that my contribution to this project will largely be work in facilitating that connection.

ADP: How do you see yourself expressing your civic agency after your graduation in spring 2012?

CC: It’s actually been my very experience with civic agency that has completely shaped my post-graduation path.  My involvement has helped me discover within myself a deep-rooted passion for education. I care so deeply about creating systems of education that promote true engagement, both in terms of the material and in terms of one’s civic engagement. I envision investing my future in exactly this kind of work.

ADP: All our best to you, Catie!

To read more about UMBC’s civic agency work, read this previous blog post, or this one.

An Interview with Cecilia Orphan: Reflections on 5 Years with ADP

Cecilia Orphan’s last official day as National Manager of The American Democracy Project was last Friday, July 29, 2011. As Cecilia heads off to pursue her PhD in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked her to reflect on her five years leading ADP. In this interview, Cecilia demonstrates the insightfulness and passion for the work of civic engagement that we’ve all come to know and love. ADP is thankful to Cecilia for her tireless leadership and wishes her all the best at UPenn!

Cecilia Orphan

Cecilia M. Orphan is a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, Ms. Orphan studies the role of higher education in American democracy. Prior to coming to Penn, Ms. Orphan directed the American Democracy Project (ADP), a multi-campus initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).  The 230 universities involved with ADP focus on higher education’s role in educating informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. As part of her work with ADP, she directed the Civic Engagement in Action (CEIA) Series. The CEIA Series consists of seven national initiatives that serve as laboratories for experimentation with curricular and co-curricular programming that will further institutionalize civic engagement on AASCU campuses. In addition to directing ADP, Ms. Orphan also served as the editor of the Academic Leadership and Change Digest series, a collection of queries about current institutional practices that are used by AASCU provosts as they consider new approaches to campus issues. Ms. Orphan serves on the board of directors for The Democracy Imperative and the steering committee of the American Commonwealth Project. Ms. Orphan was awarded the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement and is currently a PAGE Fellow with Imagining America. Ms. Orphan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Portland State University. As an undergraduate, Ms. Orphan co-founded the PSU Volunteer Resource Center and was awarded the President’s Award for Outstanding Community Engagement two years in a row.

Cecilia in Madrid

Jen Domagal-Goldman (JDG):  Share with us what you’ve learned during your time working with the American Democracy Project.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO):  We have learned so much about how to deepen and institutionalize civic engagement in higher education during the last five years. Below are some of the most important lessons that I will take with me into my graduate program.

Student Leadership

When ADP began, we worked primarily with provosts and faculty members. Through the launch of the eCitizenship initiative, we learned that for many students, the ADP felt “top down,” and like something, “administrators dreamed up while playing golf and slapping themselves on the back” (quotes from a focus group held at Wayne State University). We now include students in the implementation of the initiative, and we have learned to include them in a non-hierarchical and collaborative way.  We now have a student on the ADP Implementation Committee. The student has offered wonderful insights into what works well in getting undergraduates engaged. We also invite students to attend all of our events and make presentations to attendees. Their presence and passion has profoundly enhanced the work of ADP.

National Partners

National partners are critical and enrich our programs and initiatives by providing content and strategies we would otherwise lack. We would not be able to do all that we do if it weren’t for our partners.

Making the Work Relational

Many of our campus coordinators are at the early stages of their career. This means that they are working hard to advance and earn tenure and promotion; they have limited time to devote to anything that won’t fit into their tenure and promotion efforts. Therefore, we try to find ways to frame ADP activities in ways that “count.”

We have been deliberate about building powerful relationships with faculty members who serve as campus coordinators. If we propose an initiative, or propose a new direction in an ongoing initiative, our campus coordinators are frank in their assessment of the success of these proposals. Additionally, because the work has become “personal” for them, they are more impelled to contribute to the national movement.

Initiatives as Laboratories for Democracy

Because it’s important to develop ideas for programming before you go to scale, we’ve developed the Civic Engagement in Action Series. Each initiative provides us with an opportunity to develop partnerships at multiple levels with campus representatives, experiment with strategies for increasing civic engagement on the part of undergraduate students, and partner with leading national organizations. The strategies and programs we field test in those environments then get disseminated broadly across the 230 participating ADP institutions.

The Role of the Provost

We initially worked primarily with the chief academic officers (CAO) of AASCU institutions because our Academic Leadership and Change division conducts substantial programming for them, including two national meetings each year. As the president of the university increasingly becomes an external actor, it is the provost who is in charge of the day-to-day operations and agenda setting for the university, particularly for academic matters. We have found that provosts are key in institutionalizing civic engagement programming.

As budgetary circumstances become increasingly more complex and difficult, the provosts who have been engaged in ADP are now sheltering these programs because they see them as integral to the life and success of the university, and to the health of their student body.

The Role of the President

Presidents are able to use their bully pulpit to call the university’s attention to issues of civic engagement. They can be a powerful voice with trustees, donors, and legislatures.

Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom

AASCU institutions reflect the vast diversity found in American higher education. Our institutions are located in both rural and urban settings, they are small and large, they span six Carnegie Classifications, and have very different institutional circumstances. With these unique circumstances in mind, we have not been prescriptive. Our campuses have been able to create a robust and innovative set of activities and projects and we have been able to spread these good lessons throughout the AASCU network.

Institutional Intentionality

Institutional intentionality is a signature concept of the American Democracy Project. We believe that the majority of students at an institution will not develop important citizenship skills unless civic engagement programming exists broadly across the campus, not in isolated islands of innovation. We also believe that institutions must be intentional in order to develop a broad commitment to civic learning. In the most intentional institutions, civic learning reaches most students, in student affairs programming, in requirements for the major, in general education, and in student and resident life.

Civic learning is enhanced and institution intentionality emphasized when there are administrative structures and budgets that are specified for civic learning. Civic learning is also increased when there are rewards and recognition for faculty and staff that undertake civic learning work: e.g., promotion and tenure guidelines, release time for faculty members, awards and public recognition.


For all the obvious reasons (students live tech-heavy lives) and non-obvious reasons, we’ve found that technology is integral to our work. It allows us to collaborate, share best practices, and provide a national stage for our work.

JDG: What lessons/memories will you hold closest to you as you embark on your Ph.D.?

CMO: More than anything, I have learned that the relationships that we create and build are central to this work. It is through the relationships that we’ve built with our partner organizations and with our faculty members, students, administrators and staff that we’ve been able to accomplish so much with so few resources.

My fondest memories have been created through these relationships. I will always remember the phone calls I would receive from faculty members, students, and provosts eager to share the good work they are doing. These calls served as reminders to me of why I spent hours toiling away in an office. Indeed, these calls inspired me to keep working hard.

JDG: ADP is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. What hopes do you hold for the ADP in the next 10 years?

CMO: ADP was only supposed to be a three-year project. Next year we will celebrate our 10th year. We thought the project would last three years because that’s the lifespan of many projects in higher education. What we found was that there was sustained and growing interest and enthusiasm for the work. It is exciting to think that this energy will continue for another 10 years. While we’ve learned a lot, I know we still have much to learn. Below are a few things I hope ADP will accomplish in the next ten years.

I would like to see better assessment metrics and tools for understanding the impact of our work, both on students and in the community. I know it’s difficult to measure something like civic agency and community/university impact, but we need to be able to understand our impact so that we can refine and improve our work.

Much of our work is still marginal and celebratory which serves an important purpose, but stops short of reaching and educating each undergraduate student. I also hope that ADP campuses continue to drive civic engagement deeper and deeper into the core of the university. This includes the breaking down of silos on campuses where pockets of good work are going on and are not connected to one another.

Finally, I hope that students continue to be a major force in shaping and directing the work of the American Democracy Project. I truly believe that students know best what will inspire and engage them. If we are hoping to transform students, we must make their leadership central to our work.

I will always look upon my time at AASCU and directing ADP with great affection. We have done a lot of important work together and I look forward to seeing what will come next!

Interview with Neesha Tambe, intern for The Democracy Commitment

The American Democracy Project is helping to launch a new partner and parallel civic engagement initiative for our community college colleagues called The Democracy Commitment, or “TheDC.” TheDC debuted at the ADP 2011 national meeting in Orlando last month, and currently has 24 member institutions, representing over 40 individual campuses. Neesha Tambe is helping to get TheDC off the ground while serving as an intern here at AASCU. This interview introduces Neesha as she offers her perspective on TheDC and its important role in ensuring that higher education assists all students in becoming informed, engaged citizens.

Neesha Tambe

Born and raised in the Silicon Valley/Bay Area, Neesha A. Tambe has spent her entire life in California in one of the most diverse communities in the nation. She graduated in June from De Anza Community College and will enroll as a junior at Georgetown University, studying sociology with a concentration in social justice. Having been heavily involved on campus at De Anza, Neesha served Executive Vice President of the Student Body representing roughly 25,000 students of varied backgrounds and experiences. She also spent six months as a Congressional Intern for her Representative (Honda, CA-15) and was the lead student organizer for a local campaign to support the Foothill – De Anza (FHDA) Community College District.

Neesha Tambe

Although she is not sure exactly what the future holds for her, Neesha plans to synthesize the many voices and needs of the people to create policy that better serves the youth in the country, with an emphasis on the use of dialogue versus debate. In addition to her organizing and activism, Neesha is a classically trained Pointé dancer and has practiced more than 10 different styles of dance, Indian and Western. Neesha is very excited to be working to launch The Democracy Commitment this summer, and looks forward to empowering the next generation of informed and engaged citizens.


American Democracy Project (ADP): How did you get involved with TheDC?

Neesha A. Tambe (NAT): I walked into an Introduction to Sociology lecture on the first day of college at De Anza College, only to hear the professor bluntly state, “The American Dream does not exist.” As a native Californian, born to immigrant parents who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, I was floored by his statement. Soon, however, I began to understand that many people – especially young people – experience a great disconnect with our government, and I became seriously concerned about the future of our democracy.

In an effort to participate in the system and protect the interests of my fellow students, I decided to run for and was elected as the Executive Vice President of the De Anza Associated Student Body Senate. Along with the Student Body President and the student leaders before us who laid the foundation, we worked through the year to foster sustainable activism throughout the student body, organizing both in the college itself as well at the statewide level.

After my experience as a lead student organizer for a campaign to locally fund the FHDA Community College District, my training in Wellstone Action, and my participation in Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute (APALI), I learned about the American Democracy Project and the intention to found a parallel national initiative that would foster community colleges’ efforts to cultivate informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. When Dr. Murphy, the President of De Anza College, asked if I would be interested in interning in Washington, DC for The Democracy Commitment, I jumped at the opportunity to do my part in ensuring the health of our democratic nation.

ADP: Tell us more about what you’re working on as the Summer Intern for TheDC?

NAT: This summer, will be a very busy time for The Democracy Commitment as we launch the national community college initiative to foster community and civic engagement on campuses. Over the course of six short weeks, I will be working to develop the organization’s internal and external communication structures and processes; produce a basic social media toolkit and plan; delineate and identify key project processes (including a welcome process); generate a formal expansion plan; create a wiki; and begin to develop national networks and partnerships. Also, I will be preparing for the TheDC’s National Signatory Event on November 4, 2011 at The New York Times.

ADP:  What do you see as the relationship between TheDC and ADP?

NAT:   As over 50% of the students from AASCU institutions matriculate from community colleges, I see the partnership between The Democracy Commitment and ADP as integral to the sustainable development of students as informed and engaged citizens. Students who have community and civic engagement training from community colleges can get lost in the shuffle as they transition to a four year institution. We plan to build a pathway between community college students and ADP/AASCU institutions so as to continue and build upon the development of the students. I believe that ADP’s experience and network are essential to the successful launch of TheDC, but that through joint programming and information sharing, TheDC will also inform and strengthen ADP.

ADP:  What are your hopes for the future – in terms of TheDC and youth civic engagement more broadly?

NAT:   In terms of TheDC, we hope to change the perception of community colleges from vocational and transfer institutions to colleges dedicated to creating the next generation of informed and engaged citizens prepared to protect and defend the health of our country. It is so essential for youth to know that we do in fact have a say in our country and that our voices matter.

It is my desire to see youth civic engagement integrated into the very core of education. It is often said that youth are apathetic about becoming involved in their communities, but this apathy does not come from the idea that being civically involved isn’t important; it comes from the feeling that what we have to say doesn’t matter and will never make a difference. But it can, and it does. I believe that TheDC can empower students to know that we can make a difference, and that we have the power to change the world.

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

Interview with Nancy Kranich on Libraries and Democracy

“Libraries are… essential to the functioning of a democratic society…libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are launching a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we will interview interesting people with different perspectives to offer on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the second of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Nancy Kranich served as President of the American Library Association in 2000-2001, focusing on the role of libraries in democracies. A tireless champion of the public’s information rights, Nancy has led the library community’s efforts to promote civic engagement, open access, and free expression. I first met Nancy at our Civic Agency Institute. She spoke passionately about the role of libraries in developing student civic agency. Nancy is a great ally and thinker in the “We the People” movement. Here’s what she had to say about libraries and democracy. 

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): What kind of impact can libraries have on democracy? Historically, what impact have American libraries had on democracy?

Nancy Kranich (NK): An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse – discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens. It must ensure that citizens have the skills necessary to participate in the democratic process. It must allow unfettered dialogue and guarantee freedom of expression. All of this is done in our libraries, the cornerstone of democracy in our communities.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first public lending library in the 1730’s. His novel idea of sharing information resources was a radical one. In the rest of the civilized world libraries were the property of the ruling classes and religion. The first significant tax-supported public libraries were organized in the mid-19th century, conceived as supplements to the public schools as well as “civilizing agents and objects of civic pride in a raw new country.” (Molz and Dain 1999, p. 3). Early on, their offerings included unrestricted access not only to shelves, but also to lectures and exhibits. Sidney Ditzion (1947, p. 74) noted that late nineteenth century public libraries continued “the educational process where the schools left off and by conducting a people’s university, a wholesome capable citizenry would be fully schooled in the conduct of a democratic life.” By the 1920’s, Learned (1924) popularized the idea of libraries as informal education centers, followed by an American Library Association (ALA) report establishing a Board on Library and Adult Education. (Keith 2007, p, 244). During World War II, President Roosevelt (1942) equated libraries and democracy, heralding their role in creating an informed citizenry.

After the war, librarians joined civic groups, politicians, and educators to rejuvenate the democratic spirit in the country. The New York Public Library, describing itself as “an institution of education for democratic living” (“Library Bill of Rights” 1948, p. 285), led a nationwide program of discussions about the meaning of the American democratic tradition and actions on issues of local concern. These programs were described by Ruth Rutzen, Chair of ALA’s Adult Education Board, as ideal opportunities for libraries to assume a leadership role in their communities, proclaiming, “Let us all make our libraries active community centers for the spread of reliable information on all sides of this vital issue and for the encouragement of free discussion and action” (Preer 2008, p. 3). In 1952, ALA joined a national effort to increase voter turnout by distributing election information and organizing discussion groups and other activities in public libraries. The Ad Council created a campaign slogan, “Listen, Read, Look, Talk, Argue, Think and Vote” that was well suited to libraries (Preer 2008, p. 12).  As civic programs evolved in libraries, “the group setting offered an experience of democracy as well as a consideration of it” (Preer 2001, p. 151). Just as important, libraries defined themselves as community spaces where citizens were encouraged to discuss important matters.

Repositioning libraries as informal civic learning agents fits the theory and practice of community inquiry conceived a century ago by John Dewey (1916). Dewey believed that people need the opportunity to share ideas through multiple media in order to understand and solve everyday problems together. To this formulation, libraries bring their role as boundary spanners. Whether face-to-face or virtual, libraries build learning communities that bring people with mutual interests together to exchange information and learn about and solve problems of common concern.

Librarian of Congress Archibald Macleish (1940, p. 388) once avowed that “Librarians must become active not passive agents of the democratic process.” With renewed interest in promoting civic literacy and deliberative democracy around the country, libraries are poised to grasp this cause, build civic space, and reclaim their traditional role. As Dewey once wrote, “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife” (1916, p. 22). If libraries are to fulfill their civic mission in the information age, they must find active ways to engage community members in democratic discourse and community renewal. For, as Putnam has stated parsimoniously, “Citizenship is not a spectator sport” (2000, p. 342)

CMO: How might a university use its academic library to support and promote civic engagement on campus?

NK: While academic libraries are well recognized for their role in promoting access to a diversity of ideas and serving as depositories for government, community and other useful information, many are well-positioned to extend that civic role by facilitating the exchange and sharing of ideas. Numerous academic libraries sponsor talks and lectures in their newly renovated interactive auditoriums. For example, the Rutgers University Libraries recently hosted a leading expert on water resources who explored the intersection of water, gender, security, environment and human rights. Preceding the lecture, students presented poster sessions that represented different perspectives about the topic. Examples of exciting civic programs undertaken by academic libraries include events convened as part of the September Project like one held at the William Madison Randall Library at UNC Wilmington, which partnered with a local non-profit to demonstrate the transformative power of sustainable and appropriate technologies to alleviate poverty.

Academic libraries ensure an informed citizenry and promote civic literacy. Many present thoughtful, engaging, and enlightening programs about problems facing democracy–programs that encourage more active citizenship. These libraries also help students learn how to identify, evaluate, and utilize information essential for the critical thinking necessary to make choices essential to a self-governing society. Beyond serving individuals, academic libraries also provide real and virtual spaces where faculty and students can gather together to solve pressing problems. In short, academic libraries can play a critical role in kindling civic spirit by providing not only information, but also expanded opportunities for dialogue and deliberation as a practice ground for democracy.

Some academic librarians have assumed more of a role in developing the civic capacity of students so they can revitalize communities and strengthen democracy. For example, Kansas State University Libraries help students learn about complex public issues and practice deliberative democracy. Others provide safe spaces, or commons, where students can discuss issues in a non-confrontational, nonpartisan, deliberative manner. Creating civic space through a formal process of deliberation reinforces the academic library’s essential position as the intellectual heart of the campus.

Extending library programming into the realm of deliberation offers students and faculty a chance to learn together, frame issues of common concern, deliberate about choices for solving problems, deepen understanding about other’s opinions, and connect across the spectrum of thought. Since the founding of the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums in the 1980’s, libraries have hosted and some have even convened these and other types of forums like Study Circles, Choices, and Conversation Cafés so they can involve citizens in participatory democracy. Librarians can also teach the theory and scholarship behind public politics, as well as the methods of convening and moderating deliberative discussions. Another role librarians can assume is to guide the research and participatory action of students seeking to frame their own issues for deliberative forums.  Following a model developed at Franklin Pierce College by Joni Doherty of the New England Center for Civic Life, they can partner with faculty to help students use deliberative dialogue to address diversity, build community, learn techniques to deal with public issues, and develop civic leadership skills.

Academic libraries may also engage their communities in civic dialogue by reading a single book across the campus. Similar to the One Book/One Community reading clubs launched by the Seattle Public Library, this idea has caught fire in cities from Rochester, New York, to Greensboro, North Carolina, and is beginning to take hold on campuses as well. For example, the University of North Carolina recommends that entering freshmen read a select list of books for discussion once they arrive on campus and the University of Chicago assigns common readings, then convenes to discuss impressions and ideas. Other institutions offer students shared reading experiences from such sources as the Project on Civic Reflection; Civically Engaged Reader, a diverse collection of short provocative articles designed to inspire contemplation about the central questions of civic life. Such collective, reflective reading experiences are ideal tools for academic librarians to engage their campus communities in an enriching, provocative exchange of ideas.

CMO: How does your work with libraries, deliberation and democracy relate to the We the People project?

My work with libraries and civic engagement dovetails nicely with the We the People project. Libraries can play a range of roles to empower citizens as civic agents, facilitating interaction between citizens and government officials in order to shape public policy and deepen the national discourse. Libraries provide safe spaces for public dialogue. They disseminate information to the public so they can participate in the processes of governance. They provide access to government information so that the public can monitor the work of its elected officials and benefit from the data collected and disseminated by public policy makers, as well as interact with e-government services and engage with e-democracy opportunities. They serve as gathering places for the community to share interests and concerns.

Libraries also provide opportunities for citizens to develop the skills needed to gain access to information of all kinds and to put information to effective use.  Young people and adults alike must learn a broad range of 21st century literacy skills if they are to become smart seekers, recipients, and creators of content, as well as effective citizens. Teaching students how to find, evaluate and use information effectively is an essential 21st century skill embraced by today’s libraries. Some go further to help students learn the civic literacy skills they need to tackle the problems facing their communities. Milner defines civic literacy as “the knowledge and ability of citizens to make sense of their world and to act as competent citizens” (Milner, 2002, p. 3). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills considers civic literacy,

  • Participating effectively in civic life through knowing how to stay informed and understanding governmental processes;
  • Exercising the rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national and global levels; and
  • Understanding the local and global implications of civic decisions.

Urban Agenda/Civic Literacy Project at Wayne State University describes the elements of civic literacy to include citizen thought as developed through opinions and knowledge and citizen action that depends upon deliberation and participation. The organization goes on to describe the requisites for democratic participation ranging from evaluation, dialogue and persuasion, to organizing, planning and institutionalizing action. All of these civic literacy competencies need addressing at the university level. Libraries are the natural partners in building this knowledge and skill set for tomorrow’s citizens.

CMO: Please briefly describe the American Library Association’s Presidential Initiative on libraries as cornerstones of democracy.

NK: As President of the American Library Association (ALA) in 2000-2001, I led a campaign to articulate and communicate the importance of libraries and librarians to our democratic society. Working together at the national, state, and local level, we advocated for open access for all children, young adults, and adults; fair use, privacy and intellectual freedom rights; and narrowing the growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. We promoted information literacy community partnerships and the convening of public forums in libraries about issues of concern to our democracy. We also promoted democracy in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe by helping improve libraries and access to information. A tip sheet: “Smart voting starts @your library” is still used to inform voters. At the end of my presidential year, ALA published, Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstone of Liberty (2001).

Since that time, I have worked with ALA to expand our efforts to involve libraries with deliberative democracy, launching a membership initiative group to foster civic engagement, a blog, and a training program. During 2010, we established the ALA Center for Public Life in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation. The Center trains librarians to convene and moderate deliberative forums and frame issues of local and national concern. During the first year, ALA formed an advisory committee and began training moderators to convene and conduct local deliberative forums on an issue framed by members: privacy. The Center serves as a hub of a network of active mentors capable of strengthening and expanding their work locally, statewide and nationally, and partnering with other forum conveners throughout the country. Unlike similar centers that exist around the country, ALA provides training to members of a single profession—librarianship, in different locations around the country and documents the growing involvement of libraries with deliberation and other forms of civic engagement. For many years, ALA has worked with libraries to encourage public deliberation, hosting moderator training sessions and other programs related to community building and engagement.

Citations: Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Ditzion, Sidney. (1947). Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850-1900. Chicago: American Library Association.

Keith, William. (2007). Democracy as Discussion: Civic Education and the American Forum Movement. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.

Learned, William. (1924). The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1924.

“Library Bill of Rights.” (1948). ALA Bulletin, July-August, 42: 285.

Macleish, Archibald. (1940). “The Librarian and the Democratic Process.”ALA Bulletin, June, 34: 385-388; 421-22.

Molz, Redmond Kathleen and Phyllis Dain (1999) Civic Space/Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Digital Age, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Preer, Jean. (2001. “Exploring the American Idea at the New York Public Library.” American Studies, Fall, 42 (3), 135-154.

Preer, Jean. (2008). “Promoting Citizenship: How Librarians Helped Get Out the Vote in the 1952 Election.” Libraries and the Cultural Record, 43 (1), 1-28.

Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling Alone, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. (1942). “A Message to the Sixty-fourth Annual Conference of the American Library Association, Milwaukee, June 26, 1942.”ALA Bulletin 36, July: 422.

Milner, Henry (2002) Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Question: How might you use the academic library on your campus to support democracy?

%d bloggers like this: