Morgan Zepp ’18, English and Global Studies, is a student Service-Learning Coordinator for UMBC’s Shriver Center.
That question was on my mind a lot last week in Indianapolis, where I served as part of UMBC’s 14-member delegation to the national Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting (organized by the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment and NASPA).
Before the meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect or what I would learn. But what helped me most in staying grounded was an orientation session the previous week for members of UMBC’s delegation. At that session, we had talked about the intersections between what was personal for each of us and what was theoretically valuable. We shared experiences from our childhoods—typically considered private and not relevant to public life—and applied them directly to the most basic meaning of democracy. For me, the “answer” to that application remained muddled leading up to the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting, but I did enter Indianapolis with an awareness that very personal experiences can be connected with even grand philosophical ideas. Democracy wasn’t just an abstract concept; it was somehow about me and my everyday life.
On the first day of the CLDE meeting, all of the meeting participants (hundreds) came together for a session wherein three faculty members gave TEDtalk-esque presentations. The first two were, for all intents and purposes, about “civically engaging” students in the voting process. Those presentations were thoughtful and included many nuances, but there were missing pieces. They weren’t delving into the deepest and most philosophical problems regarding exactly why students feel disempowered in the current democratic climate. But the third presentation went much deeper. Biased though I was in favor of David Hoffman’s presentation (because he’s from UMBC), I felt that it entered the core of what matters, and it wasn’t just voting. He defined “democratic engagement” in his own terms, painting an image of the way the world would look in 2046 if we were optimistic and, quite simply, willing to work with one another. Democracy itself is not the act of voting. To embody the “living” democracy that we as a society desperately need, we need to have conversations about why we are disempowered, why we cannot work together, and why the societal structures in our lives would have us feel powerless.
Elsewhere on that first day, I observed that a number of discussions and presentations by faculty were about students, but did not include students, which hinted at a kind of hierarchy in which faculty were more important. Throughout the rest of the meeting, I carried this odd sense of rebellion. Among civic-minded students and faculty, discussions were rich when carried in small groups, but among larger audiences, the voices most often drowned were those of students. In smaller sessions, other UMBC students and I sought to speak up about things that impacted us: Any time we saw a student being patronized, we started a conversation about it. I think I learned the most from the impassioned students around me.
On the last night, there was a student meet-up, and it turned out that many of us felt the same way about the conflict between the larger topics in the conference and what our experiences were. What was most enlightening for me was having a conversation in a small group with a student whose entire life had been profoundly shaped by incarceration. He had been incarcerated, and so had many members of his family, expressly as a result of structural poverty and racial injustice. He was incredibly open about this and willing to make himself vulnerable to people he had just met when talking about his experiences in our “democratic” society. He eloquently described how that experience led him to exactly the line of thinking he chooses to embody today, and as a Philosophy major, he prioritized thinking about deeper meaning before discussing more superficial issues like motivating students to vote.
I’m incredibly thankful that from the orientation meeting onward, I felt that my small student voice was worth hearing. I’m glad that UMBC’s delegation had such a respect for its students and their thoughts, going far beyond a narrow focus on voting. All of us were able to recognize how we could make ourselves heard at this conference, and that’s one small step toward making ourselves heard in any other context. The CLDE meeting gave me the opportunity to think more deeply about our democracy in universities and in the United States, and those ideas will continue to turn in my head.
Contact the author, Morgan Zepp, at email@example.com.