Jessica Cook is Associate Director of UMBC’s Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program.
Earlier this month, I traveled to New Orleans to attend the joint Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting of the American Democracy Project (ADP), The Democracy Commitment (TDC) and NASPA (an organization for Student Affairs professionals in higher education). I was fortunate to travel with UMBC colleagues David Hoffman, Craig Berger, Nancy Young, Emily Melluso, Manisha Vepa, Belawoe Akwakoku and Theophilus Aluko. I have participated in several service-learning and civic engagement meetings and conferences in the past, but this was my first ADP meeting, and a couple of things stuck out to me.
First, as a member of the American Democracy Project, UMBC is very well respected. When I introduced myself to others at the meeting, many people told me they knew about the work being done at UMBC, the BreakingGround initiative, our hosting of this year’s Imagining America conference, and more. It is wonderful to be affiliated with such a well-respected institution, and this recognition makes me want to contribute to the unique form of democratic engagement we aspire to here in the UMBC community.
Second, this meeting provoked me to think specifically about democracy and internal structures of universities. I have spent much of my professional career working with service-learning and civic engagement initiatives at universities, bringing together faculty, students and community organizations to develop projects so students and faculty learn deeply while also making meaningful contributions to communities external to the university. One of my goals in this work has been to support the development of democratic, reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships. In this context, I have carefully considered power differentials, privilege, equity, and respect.
I have spent far less time thinking about structures of democracy inside institutions of higher education. What generally accepted structures privilege some community members over others? What cultural practices let some community members’ voices be heard, while other community members feel silenced or unheard? In a discussion session that several UMBC colleagues and I co-facilitated, we had an opportunity to discuss these and other important but potentially controversial and messy questions of democratic engagement on university campuses. Working together with David, Craig, Emily and Manisha was a highlight of the meeting for me. We modeled democratic engagement and led several other meeting participants in a meaningful, starting-place conversation.
I came away from the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting with many questions and ideas for democratic engagement at UMBC and within the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program. The meeting gave me space to think through some BIG ideas about democracy and learning (not just student learning, but faculty and staff learning, too), and I look forward to working with many members of the UMBC community around the ideas democratic engagement and co-creation in the coming months.
Contact the author, Jessica Cook, at firstname.lastname@example.org.