I’m hoping to make the bus.
You could say that Denise Fairchild led me to the bus stop in Denver. She herself had ridden that bus before—back in the 1960s, just a few years younger than me, from Nashville down to Memphis, Tennessee. Fairchild now helps drive the bus, and she’s making sure that people like me not only get on, but eventually take over the wheel and drive our students to their “generational destiny,” as she so eloquently put it.
For all you literal-minded folk out there, Fairchild did not find me wandering the streets of Denver lost, nor did she plant me at a bus stop in the city. While I certainly would have enjoyed the opportunity to stroll with Fairchild, President and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, through downtown Denver and chat while we waited for the bus, I had no such experience. In fact, the only bus I hopped on was the free 16th Street MallRide that dropped me off just a few blocks from the Marriott as I toured the area during lunch, well within the city limits and leading to a predetermined, physical point devoid of the abstraction complementing Fairchild’s call to ‘get on that bus.’
Last weekend, myself along with my two colleagues—Norma Ramos, Director of Marketing and Communications, and Catalina Nava, Program Coordinator—attended the 2013 American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment joint national meeting in Denver, Colorado. Representing the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), our team was enthusiastic about the theme for this year’s meeting: 21st Century Citizens: Building Bridges, Solving Problems. Three full days were spent listening to inspiring speakers, learning from thought-provoking panels, and interacting with engaged teachers, practitioners, and students about ways the educational experience should be one that comes to once again value the liberal arts for their potential to instill in students the intellectual and practical skills necessary to operate within a 21st century community-centered civic structure; instead of preparing students only for a skill-specific workforce, we must broaden our focus so that students develop the capacity for critical thinking and public participation based upon the learned arts of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and more modern academic areas such as the sciences, literature, history, and even religion. A well-rounded graduate with transferable skills is highly valued not only in the community and in matters of citizenship, but increasingly in the work sphere as well. Adopting such a viewpoint in favor of the liberal arts is indeed critical for creating a national atmosphere in which one’s job is no longer disconnected from civic engagement, the latter of which is typically seen as an ‘after-hours only activity’, always riding the heels of work; we must incorporate the values and lessons of the liberal arts—“the arts of citizenship,” according to Peter Levine, Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Director of CIRCLE, Tisch College/CIRCLE, Tufts University—beyond the classroom so that we come to define ourselves not solely by our job title or degree, but by our actions as citizens, both in the workspace and in the community:
Hello, my name is Katie James and I am a citizen involved in work that helps connect fellow citizens to government.
It’s quite a different approach to the introductory rituals that require us to not just state our name, but to also state our purpose defined by our work when publicly declaring our identities. As Americans, our purpose should be citizenship. Our purpose should be citizenship because, despite where our diverging political preferences fall on the Left/Right spectrum, we all have an obligation to uphold the wellbeing of our individual and communal selves by making good on our promise of democratic citizenship; we have a responsibility to uphold our end of the bargain that requires us to actively participate in the public sphere on matters of governance and social justice and to provide a check and balance on the power granted to those representing our interests at all levels of government. Education in the liberal arts—and consequently education for citizenship—provides us with the social consciousness necessary for our widespread engagement and gives us the values, facts, and strategies that Levine sees as necessary for equipping students in the 21st century with the problem-solving tools needed to improve our communities.
So, our IPCE team came back to Chicago from Denver with notes jotted on notebook pages and ideas stored in mind attending to ways we can move forward with our Institute work of creating a more effective democracy by engaging citizens. With conference sessions ranging from incorporating deliberation and discourse into the classroom to using new media to tell stories of political engagement to expanding the use of twitter on campuses, there were plenty of paths for learning relevant and adaptable to our unique role as an Institute within a university in which we must constantly navigate our interactions among scholars, students, community leaders, and citizens. We’re excited about potentially incorporating some of these ideas in the upcoming year—of which we’ll happily keep you posted.
ADPTDC13 was my first conference as a practitioner in the field of civic engagement and as part of the IPCE team. Coming from an English language and literature background where the work has too easily fallen into an insular slump that makes it difficult for academics and graduate students to substantiate their work in the so-called real world (a statement that I know many of my past colleagues in the English department would take issue with and disagree), ADPTDC helped assign new value to my educational training. I have always put my faith in the fact that, as an English major, I would graduate not only with highly marketable communication skills for the workplace, but also with a heightened consciousness of current social and political issues in my community and country and the capacity to act upon real problems. My experience in the classroom prepared me extensively for the first, but only a handful of teachers here and there really promoted an academic agenda that used the real world as a text to supplement literature, really crossed boundaries in their own work and encouraged students to do the same in order to reframe the discussion so it might be relevant to us as community members, as U.S. citizens, as global citizens. Fairchild and Levine infused the conference with an inspirational call to transform the educational landscape so that it teaches for change, teaches to build a sustainable future, teaches to address challenges and problem solve, and above all, teaches how to be a citizen. We can’t just equip students with the tools and not also provide an instruction manual; educators, practitioners, and administrators at colleges and universities must hand students the tools and simultaneously help them realize the context for the tools’ use, the appropriate practice for such tools, and the necessity of these tools. Higher education, particularly the liberal arts, hands down to students the responsibility to act in the real world as informed and engaged citizens; however, it is likewise the responsibility of their teachers—as Fairchild passionately explained from her own experience as a student in the ‘60s—“to guide us [students] to good outcomes, to get us out of college . . . to nurture our leadership potential, to nurture our intellectual curiosity and capacity, to channel our energies and idealism to productivity and to make sure that we make a real difference.”
So, while I may have missed the bus during my educational career, I found out in Denver that it’s not too late to hop on. I got on in Denver because of Fairchild, and I want to infuse my work with a purpose to help others who may have missed the bus as well. I got on the bus, and now I want to drive the bus. Ambitious, yes. But we all have a responsibility—educators and practitioners alike—to drive students and their adult compatriots in the direction of action and engagement so that they might answer the call of citizenship and work to build stronger communities and a more effective, responsive government.
IPCE Staff Member