By Eugenia Kim
Rethinking Communities is a new project launched last year by the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network (RICN), a national student-run public policy think tank founded in the belief that students have the power to make serious change in their communities. Rethinking Communities challenges students to proactively improve university policy. Specifically, it aims to make universities aware of their economic impact as anchor institutions—large nonprofit entities that, by virtue of their mission and location, are tied to the communities in which they sit—and embrace their responsibility to those larger communities.
As students, we know that that there is a disparity in wealth distribution in this country, and that this disparity is made worse by the fact that many people have no say in their own economic futures. We also recognize that waiting on the federal government to create sweeping national change is futile. Therefore, the Rethinking Communities initiative challenges students to take action in places where they live, places they know—the communities where they go to school. The progress we hope to achieve is systematic, it’s long-term, and it attempts to build on the permanent relationships between communities and universities rather than apply simple, short-term Band-Aid solutions.
Currently, students who want to become engaged in politics and policy are told to volunteer, canvass, or help with voter registration. In other words, we are not asked to address systemic issues and fix the root problems. By channeling the economic and social power that universities have over the communities they reside in, we hope to tackle local issues of wealth inequality, disempowerment, and apathy born of a sense that people have no agency in their own lives.
While this initiative is largely student-led, with students researching, organizing, and writing policy suggestions, it can’t succeed without the support and cooperation of administrators, professors, and university presidents. There are many untapped, gifted students who do not know about the work we are doing. We need the help of faculty and administrators to connect RICN with other students who are also civic-minded and interested in bringing this project to their campuses.
Students also need validators once those connections are made. I never really had any interest in or thought about what a person’s civic duty should be until I was asked for my opinion in school and in Roosevelt. Until I was given a seat at the table, I didn’t feel like I had any right to be talking. We need professors, administrators, and university presidents to push the Rethinking Communities initiative and invite students and other community members to participate.
Start by asking students the question: what do they think? Show them their voices and opinions matter by giving them the tools to truly address inequality in their local communities. Equip them with the Rethinking Communities toolbox, which can be downloaded here. Combat apathy by giving students an avenue to demand more of their universities as anchor institutions. Rethinking Communities needs your help to be a truly meaningful initiative that implements concrete change.
Eugenia Kim is a student at New York University and a member of the Rethinking Communities Project brain trust, a group of six students working to make the project run.