Ditch the Vacuum: Strengthening our Civic Engagement Values is a Community Endeavor

This blog post is part of a three-part series on the third annual national convening of Newman Civic Fellows hosted by Campus Compact the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The essays in this series are written by Newman Civic Fellows who won an essay competition among attendees of the convening. This essay is written by Liliana Diaz Solodukhin second year Ph.D. student studying higher education at the University of Denver.

By Liliana Diaz Solodukhin, University of Denver I believe in the importance of practicing our civic duty as citizens of the United States, however, it shames me to say that prior to my recent participation in the Newman Civic Fellows National Convening, I could not describe the process by which laws are made in our country. It has been 14 years since my civics course in high school and the best I can remember is all fifty states. It is a combination of a faulty memory and a school that did not have enough resources for us to comfortably engage with the content. (A special thank you to Mr. Schrant, our high school civics teacher, who through hard work had ensured that we at least had a copy of a civics book to use during class time.) In a classroom of 35 students, we only had a set of 25 textbooks, so outdated that, at the request of our civics teacher, we had to write in newly-passed amendments in the inside cover. Attending a poorly funded high school with little resources does not instill an urgent sense of civic duty when your school, community, and family are busy working to provide the barest necessities. Working to survive leaves little time to practice democratic responsibilities in the traditional sense (i.e. voting, philanthropic giving, volunteering). It is for these reasons that I found the Newman Civic Fellows National Convening a rewarding and engaging experience. Fellows are recognized for their commitment to our country’s democratic values as evidenced through volunteering, service-learning, and community engagement, to list a few. Fellows, like me, are nominated to be part of the Newman Civic Fellows cohort by their institution’s president or chancellor. The year-long mentorship program kicks off with a national convening where Campus Compact brings together over 100 undergraduate and graduate students, primarily from across the United States and several students from abroad, to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. There, fellows engage in a variety of activities that highlight and celebrate our democratic process. Among these fellows are entrepreneurs, activists, artists, philanthropists, business and non-profit founders, and leaders that all seek to further democratic values in their communities. I cannot reiterate enough the admiration I have for every single fellow I met at the convening. The work fellows are doing in their communities is inspiring. During the convening, fellows were able to engage with a panel of local government leaders and entrepreneurs whose organizations exist to help their communities, network with other fellows in attendance, and participate in a simulation of the lawmaking process. Easily the highlight of the convening was the United States Senate simulation. The Institute’s simulation allows visitors to become senators who must then work together to pass a bill. Our bill for the day was the United States farm bill that was up for reauthorization and passed by Congress in 2018. The farm bill can impact food production, domestic and international trade, environmental conservation, and social safety programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Randomly assigned as either Democrat or Republican, we had to work together to compromise and negotiate parts of the farm bill for reauthorization. The activity provided a glimpse into a process that I did not understand well and one that I suspect few Americans understand clearly. Engaging with other dedicated fellows was energizing and validated my work exploring the often overlooked ways in which underrepresented communities practice their civic responsibilities. People, specifically students across the country and globe, are working hard to support and uphold a variety of democratic processes that better the lives of people. The ability to build relationships with others doing similar work is important. Campus Compact’s ability to convene together these dedicated individuals allowed us to discover new and creative ways of approaching our work. As someone working on a dissertation on the civic engagement practices of Latinx students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions, connecting with other students was a great way to infuse with new ideas my approach to my dissertation. The Newman Civic Fellows National Convening was a great way to invigorate my work by offering me an opportunity to learn from other fellows. Connecting with highly engaged individuals allows for cross-pollination of ideas and approaches. Specifically for me, this event was helpful in filling in gaps in my own knowledge regarding the law formation process; an important function of our democracy. Similarly, the convening gave me an opportunity to learn about the myriad of diverse way people, across the country, practice civic engagement. I believe that understanding our civic processes and recognizing the many forms of engagement our communities practice are tools to enact social change. Organizations such as the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, COLOR and the Latino Leadership Institute build capacity and prepare leaders that will continue advocating for communities that have been historically marginalized. I too, plan to contribute as an advocate, researcher, and scholar tackling these issues. I will continue working to make space and develop platforms for individuals who have been marginalized to have a voice and representation in our current democratic process and to broaden what is recognized as civic engagement. The Newman Civic Fellows Convening strengthened my resolve and provided me with a network of like-minded individuals working toward the same goals.