Empowered Students Transforming Colleges: Civic Engagement as an Equity Strategy

The California Communities Colleges system is engaged in a serious attempt to close the racial achievement gap so that students from all demographic groups are achieving at high levels. The word being used for this attempt is “equity.” The idea is that we should not treat all our students equally. Rather, we should try to figure out what our different students’ needs are and organize our institutions to meet the full range of those needs.

What equity means and how to achieve are major topics of discussion and planning for faculty and staff at community colleges throughout our state. But one major constituency has not been engaged enough in doing equity work: students.

Our students need to be partners in transforming our institutions to serve their needs. And how we go about including them will make a great difference. For our students to be engaged they need places on campus where they can reflect on their roles at the college and on what their needs are; they need to believe that they can make a difference; they need to have the knowledge of how our systems function and how they can be transformed; and they need to have the skills to know how to engage an institution to transform it.

I know this can be done. At De Anza College I have been working with students to help them learn to advocate for the things they believe in. I am the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action (VIDA), whose mission is help to increase students’ civic capacity – their ability to be agents in the worlds of political and social change.

Traditional service learning offices are built on the idea that students should learn to be concerned for others and develop their empathic capabilities as well a sense of a larger world by providing services to those in need. Many have criticized that model as built upon a presumption that students come from relatively privileged backgrounds. As students in higher education are increasingly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, some see that model as both limited and out of touch with reality.

A developing model of civic engagement begins with the premise that students are members of societies that have not always served them or their families and communities well, and that the purpose of civic education is to help them find ways to change those social realities. At De Anza College, that idea is built into one of the college’s core competencies, which is a list of the main goals the college is trying to achieve for its students. Along with being critical thinkers and having information literacy, our students are expected to leave our college with “civic capacity for equity and social justice.”

To help our students achieve this goal, our office provides classes in community organizing, leading to a certificate in Leadership and Social Change. We also offer a number of paid internships and a robust intern support program to help students work on projects in areas of concern to them. Additionally, up to 10 students are selected to learn how to advocate for policy change at weekly workshops and trainings during the winter quarter at Public Policy School.

When our students see a problem that affects themselves and or others, they work to implement policies to solve that problem.

Many of our students have chosen to advocate for the kinds of things that make our college better able to serve their needs. For example, several years ago our students worked to obtain a deal from the regional transit authority whereby every De Anza student pays $5 a quarter so that every one of them is eligible for a free bus and light-rail pass. This program, which was approved by a vote of the student body, led to a tremendous increase in bus ridership.

Our students also advocated for a resource center for undocumented students and a women, gender and sexualities center. Paid for with student government funds, both those centers are functioning and serving students’ needs, though neither is fully institutionalized. Now the students are working to obtain full intuitional support for those initiatives.

Off campus, our students also worked hard in the successful campaign to raise the minimum wage in San Jose, where many live and work, and to pass Proposition 30, a major education funding measure for the state of California. Presently they are working on criminal justice issues, registering people to vote, and on passing a rent stabilization initiative for San Jose.

The principles of civic engagement can be used to help our students learn to be more effective advocates on the campus, changing the typical power dynamics.

For many years, De Anza has worked with a shared governance model, like all California community colleges. Students are included on all major governance committees. But even at De Anza, these students tend to sit politely at committee meetings and say almost nothing. If that happens, their participation doesn’t make much of a difference.

When people who don’t hold a lot of power sit with more powerful people, they spend most of their time trying to decode, understand and follow the rules of the game. If students are to be active participants in making a campus more equitable, they need to fully know the rules and have a clear sense of themselves as full players who can change the rules when needed.

I have seen this happen with our students. When our students work on a social change project, they begin with a deep process of empowerment that helps them see themselves as leaders and not just as passive followers.

If we want real meaningful participation from students, we need to do more than ask them their opinions or give them a seat at the table. For students to be empowered they need to go through a fairly deep process of decolonizing their minds, so that they come to see themselves as agents of change and people whose voice really matters.

This will not happen when students sits on a committee but don’t really understand what is happening, or when their ideas fall flat because they don’t understand the process. And it won’t happen if students are asked their opinion in a survey but don’t understand the context of the questions or are asked about things they’ve never thought about before.

Real, meaningful participation happens when students are put into situations where they can practice taking leadership and are affirmed and encouraged along the way; where they are given the tools to engage in meaningful social action; and where they can feel the transformative power of their actions and ideas. Real, meaningful engagement takes a big investment, but the result you get is students who are in a position to remake an institution so that it works for them and for future students like them.

When our low-income students are able to get to school for a reasonable cost, they will do better in school. When our undocumented students feel safe and supported and are able to navigate the complex hurdles they face, they will do better in school. When our queer students know that they have a safe place to go, and that the institution has their back, they will do better in school. When our students are able to pay their rent without working too many extra hours, they will do better in school.

The people who best know the barriers that are there to be overcome are our students themselves. Getting them to a place where they can understand the barriers they face, and can advocate to overcome them is a long and complex process. But one that is clearly worth the effort.

Thanks to my colleagues Melecia Navarro and Bob Stockwell for helpful comments, and to Becky Bartindale for encouraging me to write this.

 

 

 

 

 

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