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Reflections from the 2023 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting

IPCE Research Associate Sam Theno shares his reflections after attending the 2023 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting in Boston.

From May 31st through June 2nd, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) hosted the 2023 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement  Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. Each year, the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting (CLDE) provides individuals working within the world of civic learning and democratic engagement the opportunity to network and develop their civic-minded thinking and practices through an array of engagement activities, such as plenary sessions, informative general interest sessions, interactive workshops, and roundtable discussions. CLDE provides a great opportunity for an institution such as our own to learn from and network with civic leaders from across the nation. I traveled with our Associate Director Norma Ramos to attend this years’ CLDE in Boston, with the intention of learning from our peers as to how we can advance IPCE’s own mission of transforming democracy and creating a more fully engaged community with more effective leaders.

With over 400 faculty, student affairs administrators, campus leaders, and community partners in attendance, the 2023 CLDE conference kicked off with an Opening Plenary featuring remarks from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Commission, Dr. Noe Ortega. Dr. Ortega highlighted the importance of higher educational institutes advancing democracy and civic learning, especially within the highly contested environment we live in. Dr. Ortega asks, “What is our mission for the public good as a higher education institution? What does racial equity mean in the 21st century, and how do we ensure we are trained in culturally responsive and relevant ways that shape our approach to teaching and engagement?”.

From there, we broke off into informative general interest sessions and workshops. One of the first sessions I attended was led by students, staff, and alumni from the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis. The panel presentation, entitled “When Students Lead: Supporting and Investing in Pathways for Civic Engagement'' described Gepharts’ innovative, student-led, and St. Louis centered programming. Gephardt implements a Student Civic Pathway Model to guide students towards lifelong commitments to communal life through sequential sets of experiences. These experiences include programming such as Civic Action Week, Weekly Civic Dialogue and Learning Events, and Immersive Community Experiences. I found these examples of programming to be inspiring and affirming, as we conduct similar programming and engagement opportunities here at UIC.

Another session I found impactful was led by civic leaders from the University of San Francisco, entitled, “A Public Act of Love: Re-imagining Community-Campus Partnerships to Strengthen Democracy”. This session dove into the theory of shared imagining, a practice centered on the imagination of collaboration to build toward equity and justice for the common good. Drawing on scholarship and inspiration from intersectional feminist movements, programs at USF such as USFVotes and the McCarthy Fellows program integrate the practice of shared imagining into their students' classrooms to strengthen democracy not only on campus, but also within their surrounding communities. I was excited to see an institution infuse student connection and imagination in tandem with their surrounding communities, both on campus and off. This connection not only provides students with lifelong civic lessons, but also strengthens democratic decision making within their communities.

A common theme I found throughout the conference was the idea of cross collaboration. At the Closing Plenary, professor of Urban Education at Rutgers-Newark Timothy Eatman summed up the idea of collaboration greatly, stating, “Collaborating and embracing each other must be a powerful symbol as to how we rethink our systems.” This compelled me to reflect on the importance of our programs and initiatives here at IPCE such as the CORE group, Civic Engagement Lunch Talks, and the Urban Public Policy Fellowship Program. As a higher educational institution, partnering with campus organizations and community partners helps us bridge gaps and cover potential blind spots within our work. It is crucial that we build towards furthering our abilities to spark these connections.

The 2023 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting was an insightful learning experience, and a great way to hear from civic leaders from institutions and campuses across the nation. I’m looking forward to attending future CLDE conferences, and further building both my own and IPCE’s capacity toward transforming democracy.

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