It has been roughly a month since the CommNS Fall Event but the topics, ideas and connections made there have taken on a new sense of importance through the intervening weeks, during which we experienced an election that, no matter who you are or what your perspective, has undeniably raised new and resurrected old questions of what our American democracy is made of. The event, titled “What Does Democracy Look Like?”, brought together Madison community leaders, UW faculty and staff, students, and invited guests from around the state, and explored the many layers of participation in democracy, and the way that community members and organizations facilitate the full range of participation.
This year’s event started with a new component which we hope to build upon in the future — a community-organization-focused session that took place off campus. This Community Partner Mixer was held at the Urban League of Greater Madison and was attended by a variety of community organization representatives as well as campus representatives who work with community partners. We explored the needs of Wisconsin community organizations, what supports or services may already exist, where there are gaps, and how academic, for-profit, and public stakeholders may be able to better contribute to organizational work. This discussion helped inform and advance an effort being conducted by the CommNS and the Morgridge Center for Public Service, to “inventory” and “map” resources available to Wisconsin organizations and ultimately better coalesce and leverage such resources in an organized and informed manner.
We recognize that our democracy and the well-being of our communities, families, and people, depend very much on the health, ingenuity, and fundamental work of our community organizations. We commit to work with partners across the state to better support these key organizational protectors and promoters of healthy communities and a functional democracy. Next steps will be to incorporate the input from community partners into our process of mapping resources and gaps, and begin to share a demo version of our resource mapping tools to Wisconsin organizations in the spring, before officially launching these tools across the state or seeking resources to create a more official statewide hub for nonprofit and community organization support and resources. We are incredibly grateful for the time and input of our community partners in this effort. Stay tuned for more on this exciting effort.
The afternoon portion of our event featured panel and break-out discussions at Nancy Nicholas Hall. Our lunch panel was on the topic of Democracy and Youth Civic Engagement. Panelists included Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg (Director of CIRCLE, Tufts University), Dean Diana Hess (School of Education, UW-Madison), Dr. Matt Calvert (UW Extension 4H Youth Development Specialist), and SoHE’s own Associate Dean Constance Flanagan.
Panelists discussed the current state and future potential of civics education in school systems, offering a variety of models to increase student exposure to the workings of government and society. They discussed the need to prepare students to be engaged citizens and the challenges of preparing them to have respectful discussion on controversial topics in an age of polarized social media.
Afternoon Focus Area Sessions showcased areas of inquiry that the CommNS has been pursuing through its research and outreach. These breakout sessions covered the following topics: Democratizing Evaluation, Youth Organizing, Civic Engagement and Health, and Cooperatives and Democratic Ownership. Panelists included a broad range of community organization leaders and representatives who are conducting innovative work to promote democracy and community well-being across the state. Attendees engaged in frank discussions about what it takes to do the critical work of community organizing and engagement, evaluation, and worker democracy, and to lift voices in these processes and venues which have been historically underrepresented in the dominant structures of democracy. They laid out real challenges that will continue to impede progress but also identified promising developments and potential future opportunities. Throughout, a relevant theme was that there is opportunity to improve the fabric of our democracy from a local community level, and in fact, that unless we do the work within communities that impacts individual lives and agency, our democracy will weaken.
We closed the night with a keynote from the aforementioned Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg. She presented an overview the in-depth research CIRCLE did on the lead-up and possible voting trends expected for the 2016 election. The topics she covered, including millennial alienation from politics and the increasing rural/urban political divide, feel more salient than ever. And, CIRCLE’s inquiries and findings seem to support the notion that work on the ground — to change dynamics and perspectives in individual organizations, neighborhoods, and communities — are the key to healthy democratic participation in the generations to come.
The CommNS thanks all organizers, participants, and attendees of this thought-provoking convening. We promise to continue to build within our own Center and fortify relationships with community partners to increase strength and knowledge, and to innovate strategies and tactics, to support our communities, and help to protect our democracy from the ground level.