Promoting Democracy at Hofstra University
Director, Center for Civic Engagement, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
On the day before Hofstra hosted the third and final presidential debate, the CCE brought American history to life on campus, evoking traveling Chautauqua performances of earlier times. From left: Producer and CCE Director Cynthia Bogard; Noel H. Pugach as Harry Truman; Professor Annette Dees Grevious as Sojourner Truth; Hofstra student Shakirah DeMesier as Harriet Tubman; Democracy in Performance Director and CCE Advisory Board member Professor Lisa Merrill; and Hofstra students Reb Powers as Bella Abzug and Melissa Edwards as escaped slave Sally Maria Diggs.
Our Inaugural Event
The roads around Hofstra were slippery with new fallen snow that February evening in 2007, and we nervously wondered if we'd have much of an audience for our inaugural event. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Lawrence E. Carter Sr., dean of Morehouse College's Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel in Atlanta, Georgia, had arrived, however. The Lackmann catering staff was busy setting up the beverages and desserts we'd serve after the welcome from Hofstra Provost Herman Berliner, after Dr. Carter's speech, and after the awards had been presented to three local advocates for peace and social justice, Martin and Margaret Melkonian and local attorney Frederick Brewington. The exhibit we were hosting with the help of the Hofstra University Museum and opening that night, Gandhi, King, Ikeda: A Legacy of Building Peace, was wonderfully displayed at the Sondra and David S. Mack Student Center. The exhibit was the product of collaboration between Morehouse College International Chapel and Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist association for peace, culture and education. It set just the right tone, we felt, for the underlying reason for this event - Hofstra University was officially starting a new institute - the Center for Civic Engagement. As the time drew near, we were delighted and a bit surprised to find that a diverse crowd of nearly 500 people, including many notables from our local communities, had made their way through the snow to wish us well and attend our event. After the speeches and awards ceremony, we cut the ribbon on our exhibit, and thus began our center.
During the two months that the exhibit was on display, it was viewed by more than 5,000 students and community members, often accompanied by our Hofstra University Museum-trained student docents. With generous support from the Herman Goldman Foundation, we sponsored 10 related events of speakers, films and a concert featuring the music of social change, including Robbi Kumalo and friends performing music of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. It was an ambitious start to what would become an active agenda of civic engagement-related programming.
Hofstra University's Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) recently celebrated its second anniversary, February 2, 2009. Our central mission is to strengthen democratic values by encouraging our students to participate as knowledgeable citizens in their campus, local, state, national and global communities. We also hope our programs - many of which are open to the public - encourage similar participation among citizens and young people in our surrounding communities. We began our second year with a civil rights celebration, Civil Rights Day, in honor of the four college students who bravely decided that segregated restaurants were not in keeping with America's promise and started the Woolworth's Lunch Counter Sit-In in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. Though they were young, their nonviolent actions as citizens made a difference - a point we emphasize in all our programming. Empowerment is a core goal of the CCE. This year we hosted a discussion about what it means to have an African American president, a panel on voting rights in the 21st century, and a jazz concert and conversation about jazz and race relations. Hofstra Professors Mike D'Innocenzo, Grant Hayden and David LaLama participated in these events - another quality common to many of our events - the modeling of civic participation and discussion by Hofstra faculty and administrators.
Research has shown that students who are engaged in their civic life are more satisfied with their lives and social environment, including their college experience, than those who lead only private lives. In addition, those who learn about the satisfactions of civic engagement while young are likely to remain engaged, thus strengthening the democratic fabric for the good of all. There are specific activities and skills that create engaged citizens that can be modeled and taught. Students gain insights from exposure to these civic engagement activities, such as sustained deliberative and dialogic programs, public issues forums, and working together on common public projects. Once students are equipped with civic engagement experiences and skills, they can more effectively move from awareness to action.
At the CCE, it is our goal to educate students about their own potential for civic engagement. In part, we strive to increase their awareness of current and historical issues related to democracy. But the CCE also promotes the prerequisites of democracy through educational programs that stress the importance and complex meanings of democracy's central ideals. These include freedom of civic speech and expression, respect for others, appreciation for diverse persons and viewpoints, personal and group empowerment, social and economic equality, nonviolent solutions to social and personal problems, and environmental sustainability. The CCE attempts to make civic mindedness a part of everyday life by encouraging students to engage in reflection on the ethics of public issues and by helping them understand the importance of taking an active role in their resolution.
What We Do
With these goals in mind, in our first two years, we have created and produced well over 100 events and ongoing activities. We have brought numerous scholars to campus to speak about current global issues in our cosponsored International Scene Lecture Series. Working with the League of Women Voters, we registered more than 1,000 new voters during 2007 and 2008, provided information for many more, and encouraged all student voters to go to the polls. With co-hosts in Hofstra's Office of Student Affairs, Honors College and First-Year Connections, the CCE has hosted three Multicultural Mixers, inviting our campus community to come together across racial/ethnic and religious boundaries. Each has drawn hundreds of students to share conversation, international food, and ethnic music and dance from the wide variety of cultures represented at Hofstra. We have instituted several civic celebrations, including Civil Rights Day (previously mentioned), the International Day of Nonviolent Social Change (Gandhi's birthday, October 2) and Earth Day (April 22). With student groups, we cosponsor an annual "Day of Peace" to encourage interpersonal nonviolence and "The Art of Healing" - featuring performing and fine artists with a political message. We have hosted two other exhibits, one on nonviolent approaches to human security (created by Soka Gakkai) and the other on the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (created by the U.N.). This year we hosted an interfaith dinner and discussion on the relationship between faith and civic engagement and launched our first "Focus on Human Rights" event, which took place on April 29. Dr. Kevin Bales, co-founder and president of Free the Slaves, was the invited speaker. Dr. Bales is one of the world's foremost authorities on modern slavery and human trafficking.
We at the Center for Civic Engagement believe the arts are a great resource for encouraging civic engagement. To that end, we have produced "street theater" events, supported student-led performances and - our most ambitious effort to date - produced Democracy in Performance - 13 events portraying pivotal moments in American democracy and featuring fully costumed living history performers who were a mix of professional Chautauqua performers and Hofstra student actors trained in a special Educate '08 class. Directed by CCE board member Professor Lisa Merrill, the performances were held the day before Hofstra hosted the third presidential debate, and more than 2,000 people (a mix of community members, Hofstra students, and students from area high schools and middle schools) attended the events. Democracy in Performance was supported by the New York Council for the Humanities and the Motorola Foundation, in addition to generous support from Hofstra University's Provost's Office.
The CCE has been involved in Hofstra's living/learning communities from the first, lobbying successfully for a performance space in the Netherlands residence hall and for a Civic Engagement House - which was successful enough that in 2008 there were two houses for first-year students, while the students from our first house decided to live together and form a sophomore house to continue their engagement activities. Our graduate assistant hosts a sustained dialogue series at these residence halls and at the Honors College residence hall. We have also continued to bring Camp Wellstone to Hofstra once a year. This award-winning program has trained more than 150 Hofstra students, including all of our CCE interns, to be effective community organizers.
We have sponsored several intergenerational issues forums working with the National Issues Forums Institute and, with support from the Kettering Foundation, have just published our issue book on prosperity. With additional Kettering support, we hope to continue to produce such books to encourage intergenerational discussion of public issues.
Our signature event, the Day of Dialogue, is a one-day, multi-event, multi-perspective, student-focused conference on current public issues. We use a variety of forms to get students engaged in pressing national and global topics, including debates, discussions, issue panels, dramatic presentations, and even music and art. More than 7,000 people have collectively attended our last three Days of Dialogue, each of which has included more than two dozen separate events.
The Center for Civic Engagement began when a group of Hofstra faculty decided that we needed a high-profile and concentrated way to inform students about the issues at stake in the 2004 presidential election. After much discussion and with student input, the University's first Day of Dialogue was launched. We would have a variety of events from debates and panels, to discussions and thought-provoking drama, all with the aim of presenting multiple-perspective information on public issues so our students could be informed voters. More than 1,100 students showed up to our 19 events that March to engage in learning and talking about the political concerns of the nation. We were onto something important, we realized, and we had a second Day of Dialogue that October - three weeks before the election. That one, which included many faculty members and their classes, had 28 events and 3,500 participants. Our subsequent study of student voting patterns (published July 2008 in PS: Political Science and Politics) demonstrated that Day of Dialogue attendance had significantly increased the percentage of students who voted on Election Day compared with students who had not attended the Day of Dialogue.
These early successes made our faculty group, more formally organized as Long Island Teachers for Human Rights (LITHR), realize that there were many benefits to our University, our students and our community to making civic engagement a high-profile part of Hofstra University. So we set about planning a campus-based institute that would provide students with the skills and activities that foster civic engagement. Since its inception, the Center for Civic Engagement has been advised by our founding group of faculty, and, over our two years of operation, we've sought to broaden our advisory board so that more departments and schools are represented. We now have more than 30 faculty members on our board who volunteer their time and talent to advise, suggest and participate in our civic engagement activities. This year, we plan to add an executive board to broaden input from interested community members, administrators and alumni.
The Center for Civic Engagement was started with a $50,000 gift from Professor Michael D'Innocenzo. In the past two years, CCE's activities have cost more than three times this figure. Other funds and in-kind donations have been acquired from the Kettering Foundation, the Herman Goldman Foundation, Soka Gakkai International, the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, the Harry H. Wachtel Distinguished Teaching Professorship for the Study of Nonviolent Social Change, Wellstone Action!, the Motorola Foundation, and the New York Council for the Humanities. In addition, the Office of the President, First-Year Connections, Hofstra University Honors College, Hofstra's NOAH Program, Hofstra University Museum, Office of Multicultural & International Student Programs, Student Leadership and Activities Office, Residential Programs Office, Hofstra Libraries Special Collections Department, School of Education, Health and Human Services, School of Communication, Student Government Association, and many individual departments have contributed staff, ideas and funds to support our activities. Most of our additional needed funding, however, has come from the Office of the Provost, to which we are profoundly grateful.
The basis for all our accomplishments is our paid CCE internship program.
From an original five undergraduate interns, we now have nine to 12 undergraduate interns and two or three graduate-level interns, including one with a full graduate assistantship. Most students have committed to a two-year internship, during which time they all attend training offered by Camp Wellstone to learn how to be effective community organizers. These students meet regularly as a group with the director, the undergraduate interns are mentored by the graduate students, and together we plan and bring to fruition our ambitious agenda of pro-democracy programming. Most of the ideas for programming come directly from our students, based on their concerns and interests. We have just received the first "named" undergraduate internship to be funded by an endowed donation.
A Project for the Future
One of our most exciting projects going forward - the Green Future Alliance - builds on the notion of "think globally, act locally." A few years ago, Hofstra students in the Department of Anthropology under the direction of Professor Cheryl Mwaria, a CCE Advisory Board Member started a cross-cultural e-mail relationship - in French - with counterparts at the University of Lomé in the small nation of Togo, West Africa. This project was facilitated by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) PLAN, which has a vibrant infrastructure of development programs in Togo and operates in dozens of other developing nations as well. After 18 months of communication, the CCE was asked to facilitate an actual (rather than virtual) exchange between the two student groups. With generous support from the Office of the President and Office of the Provost at Hofstra, two professors and four students traveled to Togo last May. There we met with more than 600 Togolese students, university administrators and faculty, PLAN-Togo personnel, and even Togo's minister of education and the U.S. ambassador to Togo. After visiting the university and the capital city, Lomé, we set off in a university-provided bus for a week-long development tour of Togo, graciously sponsored by PLAN USA. We traveled with a select group of 16 Togolese students, their professors and two PLAN personnel (one from Togo, one from PLAN USA). The bus stopped at an innovative after-school music and media program, an HIV prevention project, an anti-human trafficking initiative, a girl-friendly school and daycare center, and a micro-credit women's business initiative. Throughout our travels, we were impressed with how fervently the Togolese people felt about educational opportunity and how engaged they were in their own development projects. As the two groups of students came to know each other, they sat down to develop a plan for the future. Each group, they decided, would begin a development project in an economically struggling area of their own nation, and then they would continue to communicate about their progress. These plans were further articulated when four Togolese students and two professors visited Hofstra and New York in October 2008, when the University hosted the third presidential debate. The African students participated in many of the University's debate-related events, toured New York City, and visited Hofstra's Center for Public Archaeology project exploring slavery in New York in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island.
The Green Future Alliance, as it came to be called, fosters ongoing links between these two groups of students in order to pursue, in both nations, two development goals - increased awareness of human rights and the importance of sustainable environmental practice. University students in both locations are mentoring disadvantaged middle school students in economically challenged communities in their own nation as they encourage virtual exchanges between the younger students and similarly engage in sustained communication with their peers. In our project, CCE interns are working with students from the Roosevelt School District to turn a degraded area in the younger students' community into a bird and butterfly sanctuary. A village in Togo will similarly engage in reforestation efforts. The restored areas will serve as living biology laboratories, as students observe and make note of the environmental changes they produce. During this process, the younger students will exchange letters and photos about themselves and their progress and also scientific data about the flora they plant and the fauna they observe. Both projects will be supervised and encouraged by older students (and teachers) in each nation. Eventually, each group will produce a curriculum on the forest ecology of their region, which will be exchanged with their counterparts. CCE interns have also started their own NGO to raise funds for educational supplies and other projects in the Togolese partner village.
The Green Future Alliance will allow young leaders from Togo to observe how grass-roots social change takes place in American democracy and how locally based social policy is implemented in a democratic context. American students will learn of the challenges inherent in building a sustained program of environmental preservation and human rights enhancement in an economically challenged area of their own nation - and in an impoverished nation halfway around the world. Both groups of students will learn how to plan projects in conjunction with local citizens and what is required to make such projects sustainable. In defining and pursuing their goals, Green Future Alliance students will learn what it takes to cooperate internationally and cross-culturally on issues that will be of central concern to their generation - how to manage the environment sustainably and how to foster human rights around the globe. While they engage in this process, they will be learning how democracy operates from the bottom up in two different contexts.
As our work progresses, the many contributors to the Center for Civic Engagement hope to expand our efforts to encourage students to find satisfaction in being involved citizens. Civic engagement is crucial to maintaining a strong democracy.