Volume XXVIII Number 1
Democracy Plaza at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis
Photo by Herbert Brant
Students express themselves at IUPUI's Democracy Plaza.
Photo by IUPUI Communications and Marketing
Learning to Lead a Public Life
When a showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 at Indiana University Kokomo required security guards to watch over the attending throng, Todd Bradley was pleased. It was a contentious scene, all right, but that was precisely the point.
Bradley co-directs the IU Kokomo American Democracy Project (ADP), part of a nationwide program aimed at increasing civic engagement on America’s college campuses. And civic engagement, he points out, starts with dialogue. At the showing of Michael Moore’s controversial Bush documentary, part of an ADP-sponsored event, people of all political stripes turned out in force. Bradley facilitated a discussion after the film. “We got the issues out there and had a lively, civil debate,” says the assistant professor of political science.
A cooperative initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the New York Times, the ADP was formed to foster college students’ participation in voting, local grassroots associations, community activities, and other forms of civic life. The project derives its definition of civic engagement from works by former IU president Thomas Ehrlich including Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. Ehrlich’s definition reads in part: “Civic engagement means . . . developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make a difference [in the civic life of our communities].” There are nearly 200 campuses around the country involved, including seven of IU’s eight campuses.
At IU South Bend, ADP-sponsored activities have been lively, civil, and often online. IUSB’s highly successful Web log, called ADPblog (www.iusb.edu/~sbadp), contains essays, short commentaries, resources, voter registration information, news and politics links, and frequent discussions about issues such as education policy, terrorism and civil liberties post-9/11, racial profiling, and the role of public universities in democratic societies. Blog visitors readily respond, comment, and share reflections on the democracy-themed content.
“It’s very interactive and our most distinctive activity,” says IUSB ADP director Elizabeth Bennion, also an assistant professor of political science. She notes that the ADPblog sparked a collaboration with WVPE, the public radio station for the Elkhart-South Bend area, and pieces from the blog are now read on the air weekly. “This partnership is also very distinctive,” she says. “The station gets more phone calls about this series than about anything else they do. It’s increased the visibility of our campus and the ADP project tremendously.”
The debate at IUSB happens offline as well. Bennion speaks enthusiastically about the ADP’s “table talk series.” Twice a month, she explains, informal conversations in IUSB’s main cafeteria during the lunch hour focus on topics such as Social Security reform, war, military recruitment, or voting. The conversations involve students, faculty, and community leaders, and they are broadcast throughout the cafeteria, drawing in curious observers. Bennion says the talks quickly became popular, and she hopes to expand attendance by encouraging professors to bring entire classes.
Efforts such as IUSB’s lunch series or IUK’s post-movie debate get people talking, and that’s the biggest challenge of all when it comes to civic engagement, says James Perry, director for the overall IU American Democracy Project. “The infrastructure is in place,” he says, “but people are alienated.”
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam dubbed this attitude of alienation “bowling alone” in his 2000 book of the same title. Our relationships, networks, and communities have eroded to the point that we are no longer joining together, Putnam observed. Instead, we “bowl alone.”
A growing trend in recent years toward increased community service on college campuses might seem to refute Putnam’s claim. A recent survey by the 950-member organization Campus Compact, for example, reports that more than 30 percent of students participate in service, with nearly all member campuses reporting campus-community partnerships and service-learning courses. But Perry, who is also Chancellor’s Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, is quick to point out that the American Democracy Project is about more than volunteering.
“We’re interested in engagement beyond service,” he says. “For the ADP, ‘civic engagement’ means advocacy and political action. It’s about altering society in ways that make it better for everyone.”
As Bennion of IUSB puts it, “part of ADP is volunteering, but students already do a lot of that. We’re interested in getting people to join organizations that will create structural, systemic change.”
IUK’s Bradley adds that the American Democracy Project has no ideological agenda. “At IUK, our ADP theme is ‘building character, building communities.’ That’s what we’re trying to inculcate, left, right, or middle,” he says.
While formal assessments of the project’s impact are still in the early stages, after just two years, the ADP at IU has achieved impressive levels of student and community participation, according to its leaders. “I see a change on campus, and I say that genuinely,” Bradley says. “We have more candidates for student government, more involvement in student activities. Faculty, staff, and administrators all say they feel a growing consciousness and activism in the student body.”
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the ADP at work is the Democracy Plaza at IUPUI. A large common area for expressing opinions and exchanging ideas in “an atmosphere of fair play,” according to the plaza’s posted guidelines, the space is surrounded by a wall on which faculty, staff, and students scribble questions, ideas, and responses in colorful chalk.
Hundreds of people at a time have showed up for outdoor rallies, and more still join in the plaza’s ongoing political expression. Perry points out that not all of it is good commentary—some of it is profane, some vindictive. But most of it is aimed at working out differences civilly, which is the bedrock of democracy.
“It’s beginning to make a difference in the campus culture,” Perry says, and not a moment too soon, in his view. “If we don’t repair disengagement,” he says, “we’re going to pay down the line.”
Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.