Hope and Strategy for a Thriving Democracy

Hope and Strategy for a Thriving Democracy

By David Hoffman, Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, Stephanie King, and Verdis Robinson

Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above. …

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

–from Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (written in 1935)

It has been a challenging couple of years for people in higher education working to fulfill the promise of American democracy.

CLDE_06102017_27.JPG Participants at the 2017 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting grapple with

Participants in the 2017 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting grapple with higher education’s role in contributing to a thriving democracy. [Image credit: Greg Dohler]

Most of us have chosen our careers and commitments in part because of our profound optimism about the American experiment in self-governance. Our work with students in communities on campus and beyond reflects our belief that We, the People, appropriately oriented to our collective power, can work together across differences in background, experience, and perspective to promote the general welfare wisely and justly.Yet today our democracy is in crisis. New hostilities and old prejudices seem to be consuming the body politic. Confidence in our collective institutions and the nation’s overall direction has fallen precipitously. Higher education is under pressure to do more with less, and to focus student learning on workforce development and career preparation, potentially at the expense of civic learning and democratic engagement.

In the face of these pressures, it is tempting to yearn for simpler times, and to direct our work toward restoring what we sense has been lost. For decades, much civic learning and democratic engagement work in higher education, even the most innovative, has embedded a subtle retrospectivity: a longing for aspects of a partly mythic collective past. Higher education’s service-learning and nonpartisan political engagement initiatives have harkened back to a time when people spent more of their lives engaged in common activities rather than consuming content, and seemingly each other, through electronic screens. They have grasped for an elusive yesteryear of communal investments in projects and people, for the public good. With considerable success, educators supporting civic learning and democratic engagement have endeavored to regenerate the sense of empathy, shared responsibility, initiative, and courage celebrated in some Norman Rockwell paintings and in tales from the freedom movements of bygone days.

The four of us also feel that tug of nostalgia. Furthermore, we know that stories of democracy and civic agency from our collective past are vital cultural resources for anyone hoping to foster civic learning and democratic engagement today. Yet like one of the narrators of Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again, we recognize that even in better times, the promise of American democracy has never been completely fulfilled. Too many Americans have been kept at the margins. Even people not excluded from formal civic power by discriminatory laws and practices have been reduced to consumers and spectators of democracy by cultural conventions that have defined citizens simply as voters and volunteers, but only rarely as potential community-builders, civic professionals, innovators, and problem-solvers.

We believe higher education and its partners in communities across America need a vision of civic learning and democratic engagement for our time: oriented to the thriving democracy we have not yet achieved, but can build together. The influential 2012 report A Crucible Moment expressed such a vision in its call for weaving civic learning and democratic engagement into all of higher education’s work involving students. That call conceptualizes democratic engagement as a central practice in everyday life and relationships, not a particular set of activities undertaken on special occasions. It evokes John Dewey’s (1937) framing of democracy as a way of life that must be “enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.” In a similar vein, David Hoffman’s 2015 blog post Describing Transformative Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Practices proposed that in order to transcend the paradigm of marginal, episodic, celebratory, and scripted civic engagement programs, higher education’s civic work must become more integral, relational, organic, and generative.

At the 2016 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, participants built on these insights as they imagined how people experiencing a thriving democracy in the year 2046 might look back at the intervening 30 years of progress. More recently, at the 2017 CLDE Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, participants worked together to begin developing shared answers to four central questions facing higher education’s civic learning and democratic engagement movement:

  1. The Vision Question: What are the key features of the thriving democracy we aspire to enact and support through our work?
  2. The Learning Outcomes Question: What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do people need in order to help create and contribute to a thriving democracy?
  3. The Pedagogy Question: How can we best foster the acquisition and development of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for a thriving democracy?
  4. The Strategy Question: How can we build the institutional culture, infrastructure, and relationships needed to support learning that enables a thriving democracy?


Answering the four central questions facing higher education’s civic learning and democratic engagement movement. [Image credit: Greg Dohler]

Those energetic conversations, and the ideas they generated, are a very promising early step in an inclusive process of reimagining our collective work to meet democracy’s needs. In the coming months, we will share thinking emerging from within our networks and invite broad participation in refining tentative answers to the four key questions. At the 2018 CLDE meeting in Anaheim, California from June 6-9, participants will continue to shape and begin to apply our shared answers.Langston Hughes concluded “Let America Be America Again” with this injunction:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

We believe higher education is well-positioned to contribute to the fulfillment of this charge by extending and deepening our support for students as co-creators of a thriving democracy.

What are your thoughts and hopes for this emerging work? What issues should our networks be sure to consider as this planning process unfolds? Please share your comments.


Dewey, J. (1937). Education and social change.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 23, 6, 472–4.

Hoffman, D. (2015, July 1). “Describing transformative civic learning and democratic engagement practices.” American Democracy Project (blog).

Hughes, L. (1994). “Let America be America again.” In A. Rampersad (Ed.), The collected poems of Langston Hughes (pp. 189-191). New York: Vintage. (Original work published in 1936).

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


David Hoffman is Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at the University of Maryland (MD) and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative. His work is directed at fostering civic agency and democratic engagement through courses, co-curricular experiences and cultural practices on campus. His research explores students’ development as civic agents, highlighting the crucial role of experiences, environments, and relationships students perceive as “real” rather than synthetic or scripted. David is a member of Steering Committee for the American Democracy Project and the National Advisory Board for Imagining America. He is an alum of UCLA (BA), Harvard (JD, MPP) and UMBC (PhD).

Jennifer Domagal-Goldman is the national manager of AASCU’s American Democracy Project (ADP). She earned her doctorate in higher education from the Pennsylvania State University. She received her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester. Jennifer’s dissertation focused on how faculties learn to incorporate civic learning and engagement in their undergraduate teaching within their academic discipline. Jennifer holds an ex-officio position on the eJournal of Public Affairs’ editorial board.

Stephanie King is the Assistant Director for Knowledge Communities and Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Initiatives at NASPA where she directs the NASPA Lead Initiative.  She has worked in higher education since 2009 in the areas of student activities, orientation, residence life, and civic learning and democratic engagement. Stephanie earned her Master of Arts in Psychology at Chatham University and her B.S. in Biology from Walsh University. She has served as the Coordinator for Commuter, Evening and Weekend Programs at Walsh University, Administrative Assistant to the VP and Dean of Students for the Office of Student Affairs, the Coordinator of Student Affairs, and the Assistant Director of Residence Life and Student Affairs at Chatham University.

Verdis L. Robinson is the National Director of The Democracy Commitment after serving as a tenured Assistant Professor of History and African-American Studies at Monroe Community College (NY). Professionally, Verdis is a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Seminar on Citizenship and the American and Global Polity, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Faculty Seminar on Rethinking Black Freedom Studies: The Jim Crow North and West.  Additionally, Verdis is the founder of the Rochester Neighborhood Oral History Project that with his service-learning students created a walking tour of the community most impacted by the 1964 Race Riots, which has engaged over 400 members of Rochester community in dialogue and learning.  He holds a B.M. in Voice Performance from Boston University, a B.S. and an M.A. in History from SUNY College at Brockport, and an M.A. in African-American Studies from SUNY University at Buffalo.

Ethos Matters: Inspiring Students as Democracy’s Co-Creators

Originally posted by the American Democracy Project on September 29, 2016,

By David Hoffman, Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

Civic Ethos:
The infusion of democratic values into the customs and habits of everyday practices, structures, and interactions; the defining character of the institution and those in it that emphasizes open-mindedness, civility, the worth of each person, ethical behaviors, and concern for the well-being of others; a spirit of public-mindedness that influences the goals of the institution and its engagement with local and global communities.
(A Crucible Moment, 2012, p.15)

My university, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, and our collective pilgrimage to the wells of institutional memory yielded plenty of insights about our earliest days. For an educator like me interested in orienting students to lives of deep engagement in their communities and democracy, it was an inspiring trip with provocative implications.

In UMBC’s earliest years, the sense of civic possibility and collective agency was palpable on campus. The original faculty members had been recruited with the promise that they would have the chance to participate in building a new institution. Students steeped in a climate of social upheaval in Baltimore and in American society arrived with the expectation that they would participate in the decisions affecting their lives. Campus administrators invited students to assume responsibility for programs and participate in university governance because they believed it was the right thing to do. The absence of established traditions encouraged a kind of self-reliance that fueled creativity. In the program for the first commencement ceremony in spring 1970, senior Diane Juknelis reflected, “The present class of graduates is the first in a long line of innovators who are not to be considered products of UMBC, but rather constant producers of all that gives it character and quality.”

The sense of civic agency that vibrates through Juknelis’s words hints at the way her education embodied the educational philosopher John Dewey’s insight that students learn from their entire environment, not just through the formal curriculum. She seems to have internalized some of the spirit that prevailed in those days at UMBC and in U.S. public life.

It is sobering to consider that today’s students are similarly internalizing the spirit of our times. Most of them have lived their entire lives in what arguably has been a decades-long period of civic decline characterized by gridlock, diminished trust, and eroding civility from the highest levels of government to ordinary neighborhoods. Rather than summoning us to action, our social divisions and challenges—the clash of worldviews in a national election, the persistence of racial bias in our institutions, the potentially catastrophic transformation of our global climate—seem to deepen our sense of inefficacy and paralysis. The revolution in our information technology has enabled us to communicate and collaborate as never before, but also has encouraged us to customize our experiences in ways that isolate us from people who do not share our preconceptions.

Few of us would argue that most citizens feel much confidence that they can participate meaningfully in shaping our collective destiny. A Crucible Moment, the widely influential report of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement published in January, 2012, featured a warning from Kettering Foundation president David Mathews that we were on the verge of becoming a “citizenless democracy,” (p. 17 ) because trends in public life had pushed ordinary people to the sidelines and made it harder for us to work together to solve problems. Five years later, the situation seems even more vexing.

Important aspects of the UMBC environment have changed as well. The students who arrived this semester, having been immersed in our national culture of civic distress, are navigating a campus that appears much more complete than the one Diane Juknelis experienced 50 years ago. In place of haphazard dirt paths and unfinished structures, they see brick, concrete, and clean lines. It would be understandable if students initially took what they found as given and beyond their capacity to shape.

As a Student Affairs educator, I want to counter that perception and help students transcend the limitations of contemporary public life. I want them to develop a strong sense of their campus and world as fluid and changeable, and of themselves as potential agents of transformation. Furthermore, I want to be able to do this using the vehicles most readily available to me, including programs and activities.

My most successful effort in this vein has been STRiVE, a five-day, off-campus civic leadership program for undergraduates that I developed and administer with colleagues. By STRiVE’s final night, I often find myself in a state approaching euphoria. As I sit with a group of participants and we reflect on the journey of the previous few days, I soak in their confidence and hope. In those moments, the students know that they have the capacity to work across difference to enact their purposes together. The profound feeling of community among people who had only recently been strangers hints at civic possibilities to be realized back home.

Yet Dewey’s insight that students learn from their entire environment illuminates the peril of relying on vehicles like STRiVE alone. If students have empowering experiences in programs my colleagues and I control, but find themselves otherwise immersed in cultures that cast them as mere customers, voters in periodic elections, or users of resources created for them by others, they are likely to internalize the totality of the implicit lesson: that they can experience power and agency only within the boundaries of experiences designed for that purpose, and only when helped along by professionals like me. It’s a concern reflected in A Crucible Moment’s call for commitments to civic learning and democratic engagement to be integrated across institutions, not just in isolated departments and programs. Ethos matters.

We also need to pay attention to the environments we create within our programs, so that our intentionality as designers does not negate the agency of the participants. I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago when I conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews with several STRiVE participants. While they were deeply enthusiastic about the STRiVE experience, not one of them mentioned having been particularly helped or inspired by the components I had designed to build their efficacy as initiators and producers of social change.  Instead, they spoke passionately about how the relationships they established with peers and staff at STRiVE in unscripted moments had affirmed, liberated and transformed them. Immersed in an environment painstakingly developed to be fluid and open, in which they had felt truly seen and heard, working with people who cared enough about their community to be willing to brace ambiguity and resistance together, they had begun to feel themselves truly capable of changing their world.

At UMBC, colleagues and students across the institution have been collaborating to infuse that spirit of civic agency in all that we do, including courses, programs, communications and cultural practices. Through an organizing process that has connected people across traditional role boundaries, we have embraced another of Dewey’s ideas: that democracy is not merely a form of government but a way of life that “must be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions” (“Education and Social Change,” 1937, p. 473-474). We have helped to sustain and enlarge a culture characterized by mutuality and reciprocity in our relationships on campus and beyond, in which people truly see and respect each other, and in which innovation and collective action are manifestly possible.

In this work, our collective, institutional past has been among our greatest resources. We have no shortage of stories embodying UMBC’s ethos of deep engagement in living democracy. A key to surfacing and making meaning of those stories has been to look beyond the narrow constraints and definitions of contemporary civic life: beyond the volunteerism programs and voter registration campaigns. We have located and communicated our culture in stories like those shared at our 50th anniversary celebration: accounts of improvisation, collaboration across difference, and authentic respect for the potential of every person to contribute as a “constant producer[…] of all that gives [our communities] character and quality.”

Following our weekend of anniversary celebrations, sophomore Gerardo Herrera-Cortes posted (to Facebook): “This is a place of learning, engagement, and development; of nurtur[ing], civility, and citizenship; a place of founders, agents, and pioneers; and finally, a place of grit and greatness. This is my UMBC, your UMBC, and our UMBC.” The ethos persists, and with it, the hope that all of us together can heal our democracy and build a future in which we all can thrive.

How are you and your campus cultivating a campus ethos of civic learning and democratic engagement?  Share your thoughts, resources, and concerns with us at the annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Meeting in Baltimore, Md. from June 7-10, 2017.

For more information on how David and his colleagues are continuing to cultivate a campus CLDE ethos, see David’s previous blog post on Describing Transformative Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Practices (2015).


Dewey, J. (1937). Education and social change.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 23, 6, 472–4.

The first commencement exercises of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1970). University Publications collection. Special Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

About the Author:David_Hoffman David Hoffman
Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency, UMBC

David is an architect of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)’s BreakingGround initiative. His work is directed at fostering civic agency and democratic engagement through courses, co-curricular experiences and cultural practices on campus. His research explores students’ development as civic agents, highlighting the crucial role of experiences, environments, and relationships students perceive as “real” rather than synthetic or scripted. David is an alum of UCLA (BA), Harvard University (JD, MPP) and UMBC (PhD).

What We’re Reading: Transfer Student Success

Today, most college students in the United States do not attend a single institution in pursuit of their college degrees. Accordingly, the successful attainment of a degree or other credential often depends on a smooth transfer process, as students move between and among higher education institutions. Many states and institutions are working to develop policies and practices that ensure that students can successfully and efficiently make their way from one institution to another and move from one level of learning to another. As these policies and practices are developed, however, we must ensure that we attend not only to the efficiency of these guided learning pathways, but that we map them against common frameworks for quality learning outcomes. Campus models and tools featured here highlight ways that we can advance transfer student success both in learning and completion of degrees of real value.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has five case studies and and campus models for your school to learn from and use.

Publication: “Minding the Gap: Partnering Across Sectors for Democracy,” by TDC co-founder, Bernie Ronan, and ADP founder, George Mehaffy

Minding the Gap: Partnering Across Sectors for Democracy

By Bernie Ronan and George L. Mehaffy

Volume 16, Number 1
Winter 2013

(online source)

With the 2012 London Olympics on full display this summer, we were reminded of a characteristically British phrase. While traveling by tube or rail in the United Kingdom, one often sees signs reminding riders to “mind the gap,” or note the space between the rail car and the platform. As we reflect on the beginnings of our two civic engagement projects—the American Democracy Project (ADP) in 2003 and The Democracy Commitment (TDC) in 2011—and our resulting partnership connecting the four- and two-year sectors of higher education, we are struck by this phrase’s relevance to our work. Both ADP and TDC were born out of “gaps” that higher education practitioners need to mind: between our aspirations and our practices, between the democracy we have and the democracy we seek. Since the United States’ founding as a democratic republic, the mission of American higher education has included educating students for citizenship, for active engagement in their communities. The gap between the ideals expressed in this mission and the lived realities of our institutions and communities has both alarmed us and challenged us in designing our projects to close these gaps.

Origins and Aims

The American Democracy Project (ADP) began in 2003 during a difficult period for the United States. Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, a tremendous sense of common resolve unified the American people. But after wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sense of unity gave way to increasingly bitter partisan divides. With deep gaps evident between the rhetoric and realities of our democracy and an enormous sense that the country was moving in the wrong direction, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) partnered with The New York Times to launch ADP, an initiative focused specifically on the 415 public colleges and universities that are AASCU members. While provosts have always been key participants, we decided to require campuses who wished to join to make a presidential request, thus securing institutional commitment to the project. To operationalize that commitment across the institution, we asked each provost to appoint a campus coordinator who would play a key role in linking various activities, initiatives, and assessments focused on civic learning outcomes for students.

In 2011, The Democracy Commitment (TDC) confronted equally challenging gaps in the civic landscape. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing and divisiveness and partisanship growing, the United States seemed unable to address some of its most pressing public problems. Community college students, like many Americans, were increasingly marginalized and alienated from the political institutions on which their communities depended. Across higher education and at community colleges in particular, the national focus on workforce preparation was opening another gap between a contemporary view of education as job training and a historic vision of education as preparation for civic life. Seeing these gaps widening, the two of us collaborated with Brian Murphy (president of De Anza College and a former faculty member at AASCU member San Francisco State University, where he helped form ADP), to create a project that would mirror for community colleges what ADP had done for state colleges. As in ADP, we decided that colleges would join TDC through their president or chancellor, who would commit to providing every student with an education in democracy by appointing a campus coordinator, offering staff development, implementing civic programs, and collaborating with national partners and other colleges in the national network. Each college would also agree to complete a “civic inventory” and to participate in an annual meeting held in partnership with ADP.

Thus ADP and TDC grew out of a shared context of frustration and despair as well as a shared commitment to education and action. We forged a partnership from this shared context and commitment so that we could learn from one another and build richer, more creative, and—most importantly—more intentional programs together. Too often, marvelous civic engagement projects are disconnected from the core purposes of the institution and operate in isolation, limiting their impact and their capacity to reach significant scale. By focusing on institutional intentionality, we aim over time to move beyond the model of multiple but unrelated individual programs. We thereby hope to ensure that every student at an ADP or TDC institution has an education for democracy and is equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for informed, engaged citizenship.

ADP and TDC see our institutions as “stewards of place,” a term coined by AASCU in 2002. The phrase captures the fact that our state colleges and community colleges are committed to and responsible for the communities in which they are based, from which their students come and to which they return each day. We aim to revitalize democracy in our communities. To this end, our projects have conceived of civic work broadly. ADP and TDC support volunteerism and service learning, to be sure, but we are also committed to the full range of civic work—including democratic practice, with all its political (and therefore controversial) elements. Democracy, after all, is about conflict and compromise, and our students need opportunities to hone these skills. We are likewise concerned about diversity, both the diversity of institutional types and programs and, more importantly, the racial, ethnic, class, and gender diversity that characterizes our students. We seek to engage the issues of social justice and equity that are embodied in our students’ lives. Finally, we are mutually committed to grounded work, not just theoretical discussions. While our work is constantly informed by academic research, our focus is on praxis: “boots on the ground” civic work on our campuses and in our communities. Our commitment to student learning outcomes, which has led to a collaborative focus on civic assessment tools, is one illustration of this focus on students.

A Robust Partnership

We began our partnership over four years ago at ADP’s 2008 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, where we discussed how to launch a project patterned after ADP’s work with state colleges and universities but reflecting the distinctive mission and realities of community colleges. The following year, at the 2009 ADP Annual Meeting in Providence, a dozen representatives from community colleges and partner organizations met to discuss initial formation. The “rich soil” of the ADP Annual Meeting nurtured our planning, and we held our first joint meeting in June 2011 in Orlando, with around thirty-five participants from numerous community colleges presenting their projects and sharing insights and experiences with each other and with ADP colleagues. By the time we formally launched TDC in November 2011, the partnership with ADP had been seamlessly woven into the new community college initiative.

Our second joint annual meeting, held in 2012 in San Antonio, provided programmatic opportunities for collaboration and campus action (see sidebar). ADP’s initiatives gave community college initiators a rich menu of civic practices to replicate and implement, as well as an array of national programs to join. To this programmatic palette, community colleges added their own examples of robust local organizing endeavors and engaged student participation, represented at the conference through student-led presentations. The variety and depth of offerings at the Annual Meeting has increased dramatically as a result of our collaboration. We will hold our next annual meeting on June 6–8, 2013, in Denver; more information can be found on our websites.

TDC cemented the partnership by housing its national coordinator at the AASCU offices in Washington, DC. AASCU’s generosity and vision in hosting the TDC coordinator have broken down traditional fences dividing higher education sectors and provided access to resources and infrastructure that were essential as TDC launched its national project. The co-location of project leadership has proved immensely beneficial to both projects, facilitating strategizing and operational implementation. Moreover, the partnership between state colleges and community colleges working together to support students’ civic learning and democratic engagement provides a novel, and arguably transformational, symbol of inter-sector collaboration to the rest of American higher education.

Bridging Multiple Gaps

The future of our partnership lies in targeting another gap that we must mind, the one that exists between our two sectors of higher education. The compelling reality is that roughly 50 percent of graduates from AASCU institutions have transferred from local community colleges to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Although our institutions share these students, our respective sectors have operated far too often as discrete silos without coherently linked programs. In TDC and ADP’s common vision of the future, our institutions will forge partnerships on behalf of our shared students and shared communities through civic engagement initiatives and democratic practice. We envision community-based partnerships between state colleges and community colleges in which faculty work across institutional boundaries to build seamless curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular opportunities for students.

Imagine faculty working collaboratively to articulate courses between lower and upper divisions that enable students to develop their civic skills continuously as they move through their associate’s degree courses and into their bachelor’s degree requirements. Imagine civic engagement experiences where students pursue lasting relationships with nonprofits and educational partners in their communities as they move through their academic careers, from community college to state college. Imagine communities where students are actively engaged in civic life, addressing local policy issues in a sustained and purposeful way throughout their degree programs and then pursuing long-term employment or civic engagement in their cities and towns. Some of our member colleges, such as Heartland Community College (HCC) and Illinois State University (ISU), are already building such partnerships. In an intentional effort to create seamless opportunities for students to develop their political and civic engagement skills when transitioning from HCC to ISU, the two institutions began collaborating on voter education drives and convening forums on compelling political issues. They have now connected their curricula, with a new curriculum sequence in civic engagement at HCC that articulates directly into ISU’s new minor in civic engagement and responsibility. ADP and TDC aim to foster similar collaborations between their schools across the country.

As public institutions of higher education, TDC and ADP schools share a historic mission rooted in the work of democracy. Whether community colleges or state colleges and universities, our institutions are resolutely committed to preparing students for lives of democratic citizenship. This resolve entails minding the gaps between our common mission and the challenging realities we face in our democracy and in our communities, as well as the gaps between our respective sectors of higher education. Our new partnership is already proving invaluable in our pursuit of this shared mission, for the lasting benefit of our students and our communities.

More information about ADP and TDC is available on their websites: and

ADP/TDC Civic InitiativesThe American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and their member institutions offer an array of programs along a continuum from service learning to political advocacy and civic action. Selected examples include

  • Stewardship of Public Lands: This annual week-long faculty seminar at Yellowstone National Park focuses on controversies about public land use.
  • eCitizenship: This partnership with the Center for the Study of Citizenship at Wayne State University examines how emerging technologies, particularly social networks, support and facilitate civic and political engagement.
  • Civic Health: The Campus and Community Civic Health Initiative, a partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), seeks to assess and improve indicators related to political engagement, volunteering, social trust, and social connectedness, among others.
  • Global Engagement: Focused on educating globally competent citizens, this initiative has produced a national blended-learning course, a faculty toolkit, and series of faculty development institutes.
  • Engage the Election 2012: Partnering with national organizations and programs, colleges pursued a variety of events related to the national election, including voter registration and voter information drives, candidate forums, and election night events.
  • Community Learning Partnerships: This national network of programs prepares students for careers in community organizing, community and economic development, and advocacy to improve quality of life for residents in low-income communities.
  • Civic Assessment Efforts: In addition to conducting campus audits, ADP and TDC campuses are participating in a joint AASCU–AAC&U project compiling assessment measures to define civic learning, one of the five pillars of the Degree Qualifications Profile.


Bernie Ronan is associate vice chancellor for Public Affairs for the Maricopa Community Colleges and George L. Mehaffy is vice president for Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) .

Co-founder of The Democracy Commitment, Bernie Ronan, writes about TDC, and “Community Colleges and the Work Of Democracy.”

Community Colleges and the Work Of Democracy

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(For original article source, please visit:

A Time of Crisis: This phrase served as the title of a crucial section in the historic 1947 Truman Commission Report, Higher Education for Democracy, which framed how higher education should respond to the education crisis facing post-World War II America. The most lasting contribution of the Truman Report is that it argued for the creation of a national system of community colleges.

In a similar spirit, A Crucible Moment is the title of a 2012 report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which describes a crisis of democracy still facing our country. This sense of ongoing urgency over citizens’ confidence in the political system reflects the perennial, if not permanent, nature of this issue. Moreover, the crisis of democracy, or the problem of how to make democracy work as it should, is a constant challenge facing our nation’s colleges and universities. In the fall of 2011, a group of community colleges came together to form The Democracy Commitment, a new initiative committed to reclaiming their colleges’ democratic mission and responding to this time of crisis. Along with Brian Murphy of DeAnza College, I have been privileged to assist in the launch of this initiative, and part of this commitment includes a research partnership with the Kettering Foundation to advance experiments in civic learning and democratic engagement that can be used as exemplars for the nation’s community colleges.

“Democracy’s colleges” is the moniker applied to the nation’s land-grant colleges, which were created in the 19th century to democratize higher education. More recently, the same label has been adopted by the nation’s community colleges. Community colleges started using this term to describe themselves when they embarked on a national “call to action” —to redouble their efforts in assisting students to complete their degrees, echoing the country’s critical need for a well-trained 21st-century workforce. This is one dimension of the challenge facing community colleges—how to provide citizens with equal access to higher education and to the opportunities that completing a college education creates. This was a guiding premise when the land-grant system was established in the mid 19th century, as well as when a national network of community colleges was created in the mid 20th century. However, as Scott Peters points out in the Cornell Chronicle Online, there is a second, and equally compelling, meaning implied by the term democracy’s colleges, what he refers to as “public work . . . work that taps and engages and develops the civic agency, talents and capacities of everyone . . . where ‘the world’s problems’ play out in ways that women and men can do something about.” This is the work of democracy.

This same duality in the challenges of American colleges—equalizing opportunity and doing the work of democracy—was also embraced in the Truman Commission Report in 1947: “The social role of education in a democratic society is at once to insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups, and to enable the citizens to understand, appraise, and redirect forces, men, and events as these tend to strengthen or to weaken their liberties.” Today, community colleges are once more confronting this dual challenge. In their inaugural declaration, the founders of The Democracy Commitment state:

American higher education has a long history of service to democracy. Our nation’s colleges and universities have always had a mission to make education available to the many and not only the few, to insure that the benefits and obligations of education were a democratic opportunity. This is a proud history, but it is not enough. Beyond access to education itself, colleges and universities have an obligation to educate about democracy, to engage students in both an understanding of civic institutions and the practical experience of acting in the public arena. The American community colleges share this mission of educating about democracy, not least because we are the gateway to higher education for millions who might not otherwise get a post-secondary education. More critically, we are rooted deeply in local communities who badly need the civic leadership and practical democratic capacity of our students for their own political and social health.

Our organization is a national initiative providing a platform for the development and expansion of community college programs, projects, and curricula that aim to engage students in civic learning and democratic practice across the country. The goal is that every graduate of an American community college will have had an education in democracy. This includes all students, whether they intend to transfer to a four-year university, earn an associate degree, or obtain a certificate.

In collaboration with the Kettering Foundation, we are exploring this second dimension of the historic duality facing higher education and democracy: how these colleges understand their civic mission and their civic relationship to their communities. We are also investigating to what extent these colleges view themselves as civic agents in their communities, actively collaborating with their communities in addressing the challenges and issues the communities face. Further, we are asking, to what extent are they dedicated to instilling this sense of civic agency in their students, in inculcating in students the skills and capacities to be active and engaged citizens in their communities? How are community colleges developing and implementing programs to foster civic learning and democratic engagement? How does this appear in curricula? In extracurricular programs? In student life? In clubs and associations on campus, including student government?

Kettering research has focused primarily on problems of democracy, rather than problems that occur in democracy; that is, with how democracy works rather than with the specific policy issues that our democracy grapples with. The Democracy Commitment embraces both aspects of the democratic challenge by starting with specific issues that our communities face and asking how they are implicated in larger problems of democracy. How are community colleges engaging their students in the work of democracy—by focusing on the issues in democracy? After all, these are community colleges, institutions in, of, and for their communities, enriched and challenged by all of the issues their communities are addressing every day.

The problems our communities face—homelessness and poverty, race and class, public health and neighborhood development—are grist for the democratic mill. Civic learning and democratic engagement in community colleges have as both their rationale and their focus the problems these communities face. Our students come into our classrooms with these problems and deal with them every day outside of class. Community college students are more ethnically diverse, more economically distressed, more part-time and full-time employed, and more challenged in terms of transportation, housing, and language than any other population in American higher education. In this, they reflect their own communities. As The Democracy Commitment declaration states: “Community college students come from all walks of life and all social stations; they represent all ethnicities and religious communities; they are all ages. Their ability to exercise their democratic rights and work together in public life, to be generous and tolerant and yet able to advocate for themselves, will help determine the future of these communities.”

The research partners in this work are the community colleges that are participating in The Democracy Commitment. As I explain in the 2011 issue of the Higher Education Exchange, these colleges are now engaged in a rich variety of civic practices, including student-led dialogue at Skyline in California and Cuyahoga in Ohio, public achievement in Lonestar-Kingwood in Texas, community organizing at Minneapolis Community & Technical in Minnesota, student organizing at DeAnza in California, deliberative forums at Maricopa in Arizona, and developing civic-learning modules at Miami Dade in Florida. Representatives from these and other institutions are coming together in a series of workshops at the Kettering Foundation to reflect critically on a broad array of civic practices and to capture the rich narrative of students democratically engaged in the problems of democracy they actually embody.

In the first year of their work as a national consortium, colleges joining The Democracy Commitment will conduct a “civic inventory” to describe what is happening on their campuses and in their communities with regard to civic learning and democratic engagement. They will come together at an annual meeting to share best practices and learn from colleagues, joining together with a companion initiative composed of state colleges—the American Democracy Project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is for community colleges to fulfill their dual destiny as democracy’s colleges: to develop civic skills and a sense of civic agency in their students, through engaging in the challenging, pervasive problems arising every day in their own communities. Bringing together community colleges’ experiences in working with people in their neighborhoods with the Kettering Foundation’s research on deepening and advancing civic innovation, we hope that this partnership will catalyze more robust civic agency in America’s community colleges and in the communities they serve.

Bernie Ronan is cofounder of The Democracy Commitment and directs the Maricopa Community Colleges’ Division of Public Affairs, which includes the Center for Civic Participation, part of a national network that collaborates with the Kettering Foundation on experiments in the work of democracy. He can be reached at