Civic lessons: Indiana State involved in democracy project

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
August 9, 2010

As John Conant stood listening to a representative from the Buffalo Field Campaign advocating buffalo and other wildlife are given precedence on public land, he was putting democracy in action.

For the past three years, the Indiana State University economics department chair and professor has traveled to Yellowstone National Park with Indiana educators to examine the collision of democracy in the United States' first national park.

In that outdoor classroom, Conant takes the teachers to listen to different sides of issues concerning wolves, buffalo and public land use.

"We bring in natural science and social science knowledge and merge it with civic engagement," Conant said. "Then you have advocacy and engagement.

"Our overall goal is to teach students to be good civic agents."

Examining the economic, political and scientific ramifications of land use conflicts in Yellowstone is only one part of Indiana State's commitment to civic engagement and the American Democracy Project. Indiana State joined the project in 2003 - the same year it began as an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the New York Times.

"The public purpose of public universities has been lost in general concerns of preparing people for careers," said George Mehaffy, vice president of leadership and change with AASCU and creator of the American Democracy Project. "We thought the critical issue would be citizenship."

"We treat college students like they're in citizen deferral. We treat elementary, junior and high school students like they're in training to be citizens," said Darlene Hantzis, ISU communication professor, of how schools usually treat students. "If you don't give them civic practice, you've said to them ‘you're not ready.' They are citizens while they're here. They do need to become involved civically."

To that end, Indiana State faculty and students have run voter registration drives, conducted voter turnout polls, celebrated Constitution Day and held regular meetings of Pizza and Politics.

"Indiana State University is one of the leading American Democracy Project campuses. Darlene Hantzis, John Conant, and others have provided campus leadership for a set of innovative and effective programs to prepare the next generation of informed, engaged students," Mehaffy said.

In the project's first year, 130 institutions joined AASCU's largest unfunded mandate to make civic engagement a part of their campus cultures. By 2010, 232 institutions had joined. But Mehaffy said organizers had concerns that the enthusiasm and commitment would wane and that the project would fail.

"What we were trying to do was have meaningful change to institutional practice, to drive it deeper into an institution to get more faculty involved," he said.

To that end, they created seven initiatives - America's Future, Civic Agency, Deliberative Polling, eCitizenship, Political Engagement Project, Seven Revolutions and Stewardship of Public Lands - in which universities would partner with an outside agency to focus on a particular topic.

"These are often laboratories of democracy," Mehaffy said.

The initiatives involve students to get them excited about what can be possible.

"When you think about it, students are at the most idealistic part of their lives," said Cecilia Orphan, program associate. "When they go through the projects, it lights them on fire."

Yasmin Kariman, American Democracy Project intern, said her generation has grown up disconnected, not feeling part of something greater.

"We have had glimpses (of connectedness to community) with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. There are plateaus of not feeling connected, then the disconnectedness disappears briefly, but it always comes back," she said. "We want it to be the plateau of being part of community."

In drawing students to engage civically, Indiana State has taken leading roles in the initiatives of eCitizenship, Civic Agency and the Stewardship of Public Lands. In eCitizenship, initiative members are studying how emerging technologies, such as social networks, can support civic and political engagement. The Civic Agency initiative involves working across differences of party politics, faith traditions, income, geography and ethnicity to study questions and solve problems through creating common ground. Stewardship of Public Lands examines who controls public lands with their diverse interests for federal, state and local entities and how in a democracy these different groups' interests get addressed and resolved.

"None of that vital work of campus and national leadership work would have been possible without the strong support of the university," Mehaffy said. "We have been incredibly proud of the contributions made by our colleagues at Indiana State University. In the immortal words of the Preamble to the Constitution, Indiana State University, through its contributions to the American Democracy Project, is working to create a ‘more perfect union.'"

He also praised two of Indiana State's leaders, who have become leaders in the American Democracy Project.

"Both Darlene (Hantzis) and John (Conant) have been dynamic contributors to the work of the national American Democracy Project, helping to form national strategies and practices," Mehaffy said.

Hantzis was invited to serve on the National Implementation Team as one of the few faculty members working with AASCU leadership and university provosts and presidents. The team met for the first time in June.

It was a trip with Mehaffy to Yellowstone that led Conant to create Indiana State's own Yellowstone project with Indiana teachers to explore democracy. That project recently appeared as an article written by Conant and former Indiana State professor Charles Amlaner in the monograph, "Stewardship of Public Lands: A Handbook for Educators." In exploring the fights over Yellowstone, Conant has the teachers create lesson plans applying what they have learned to their schools and communities. Then, those educators engage their students in examining their hometowns land use and conflicts.

Hantzis journeyed to Yellowstone with the educations this year to explore advocacy concepts and practices.

"When we talk about advocacy and public conflict, we learn that we aren't looking for the right answer," she said. "We have to look for the best answer, the one that brings the greatest number of differing positions together."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/960580817_hBixA-D.jpg
A group from Indiana State listens as a Buffalo Field Camp spokesperson discusses why the camp members think buffalo and other native wildlife should be able to freely roam public land. Courtesy Photo

Contact: John Conant, Indiana State University, economics department chair, at 812-237-2160 or John.Conant@indstate.edu

Darlene, Hantzis, Indiana State University, communication professor, at 812-237-3658 or Darlene.Hantzis@indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu