Americans of diverse political, social, and cultural perspectives agree that our public life has become dysfunctional. Many citizens feel displaced from the center of self-government, relegated to the role of consumers accepting or rejecting proffered solutions to their problems or enhancements to their lifestyles. The result has been polarization, with policy questions presented as zero-sum contests to constituents, who lack opportunities to engage civilly across their differences.
Building Partnerships Between Universities and Communities
For years, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) has been focused on collaborating with the community to inform our research and communicate it more effectively through the lens of civics. CEHD’s Dean Jean Quam has made it a priority to develop a framework for the school to create deeper partnerships; the work we do is not restricted to libraries, archives or labs. In the wake of the polarizing 2016 Presidential Election, CEHD is well-positioned – and has a responsibility – both to promote our work to improve society and to inform it through more collaborative relationships across ideological, cultural and professional divides.
In short, higher education institutions must be co-creators of solutions with the people they serve, combining their own resources with the skills and wisdom of members of the community. To do this, though, requires conceiving academic research and practice as genuinely public endeavors.
A Spectrum of Civic Work
There are two major approaches to the civic work in which higher education institutions must engage. These, however, do not represent distinct spheres of activity so much as different ends of a spectrum.
Civic studies typically describes the research and scholarship conducted by those committed to serious and sustained inquiry into the character and conditions of a good society. For example, if a scholar theorizing more effective institutional designs to connect her fellow citizens to their elected representatives is engaging in civic studies. CEHD’s commitment to civics studies is reflected in our bringing the The Good Society Journal to CEHD and housing it here on campus.
Civic renewal usually connotes work at the other end of the spectrum – that of community practice. This could be a group of neighbors working together to organize regular community dinners where the relationship of local concerns to larger structures in society are explored on the community’s terms. Exploring those issues on that level works to build relationships of trust and empathy, and it excites people to work toward a common goal together.
The middle of this civics spectrum can include all sorts of things. It might be students at their respective university working with neighborhood organizing groups to engage candidates running in local elections, reminding the latter not to ignore certain pockets of the community. Or, it could be a group of academic and community leaders lobbying the city to establish a budgeting process that requires feedback from those community members to choose how a certain part of the budget is spent. The goal point of both civic studies and civic renewal is to blur the lines between reflective thought and intentional practice to help them inform one another.
Positioning CEHD as an Institutional Citizen
No institution is perfect, and CEHD – as part of a larger university system – has doubtless been complicit in the decades-long, national trend of higher education institutions dispensing solutions to communities rather than pooling wisdom with them. Yet in discussions with Dean Quam, I and several other CEHD scholars saw an opportunity for the school to model a different approach, in hopes of catalyzing a cultural shift among institutions nationwide. That hope led me to apply for a grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation to help us explore what that model could look like.
One of the things I committed to do in writing this grant was to organize a symposium convening participants and attendees from across the community to promote civic renewal on a large and public scale. The goal was not to reach consensus on hot-button issues, but to demonstrate how the intentional cultivation of empathy and disciplined habits of listening can help us understand people with whom we differ. By featuring the stories and exploring the techniques of people for whom such practices have allowed them to collaborate fruitfully with erstwhile opponents, we hoped to kindle new hope in the possibility of respectful disagreement, pragmatic cooperation, and civic attachment that transcends political differences.
Minnesota Symposium on Civic Renewal
The result of these efforts was the first annual Minnesota Symposium on Civic Renewal. The symposium was attended by more than 200 Minnesotans eager to reclaim democracy as their privilege and responsibility—in other words, as the work of the people. Major highlights included a keynote address by philosopher, educator and Washington Post columnist Danielle Allen, a luncheon address by CEHD’s own Bill Doherty, and several panels featuring public servants, community organizers, business leaders, and even elementary school students. The event both publicized and affirmed the two emerging college priorities I’ve been discussing – civic studies and civic renewal. It demonstrated what can happen when an institution of higher education commits itself to studying societal problems in conversation with the community, and thus with less danger of predetermining the range of possible solutions discussed. It also demonstrated the power of making ourselves—that is, each of us as members of a diverse yet interdependent community—more visible to one another, thereby revealing the unexpected commonalities and potential alliances that might help us get things done together.
Through the conversations that begin at events like this – and by prioritizing building real relationships between CEHD and the communities we serve – I believe we can help spark civic renewal and a new sense of citizenship.
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