Learning to challenge the status quo

By Maya Pisel

Eighty students from Macalester and Carleton College spent last Saturday in Kagin, learning strategies for democratic organizing that go beyond voting. Debating 4 Democracy is an initiative of Project Pericles, a non-profit that “encourages and facilitates commitments by colleges and universities to include education for social responsibility and participatory citizenship as an essential part of their educational programs, in the classroom, on the campus, and in the community,” its website advertises.

After an introduction to the fundamentals of “direct action” or community organizing, participants spent the first half of the workshop role-playing relationships of power. Students were split into twelve small groups: six corporate teams and six community organizations.

In the scenario, chemical dumping had been discovered in an industrial town. A “Right to Know” law being considered by the city council would force the allegedly offending corporation to reveal the ingredients of their product. After planning strategies that took into account their objectives and relative power, groups took turns role-playing a 10-minute meeting between the corporation and community.

Project Pericles contracted Midwest Academy, a Chicago-based institute that trains community organizers and grassroots activists, to facilitate the workshop. One of the facilitators, a Chicago community organizer, is a current Mac parent; the other works for Organizing for America, the vestigial non-profit of the Obama for America campaign.

In the second half of the day, the participants used the Midwest Academy’s strategy chart to plan a legislative campaign. Their objective was to convince a legislator to vote yes on a bill that would make college more affordable.

Civic Engagement Center Director Karin Trail-Johnson said that one participant wrote on his or her evaluation: “The strategy chart was most helpful at so many levels, and it was a really good presentation of the connections between electoral and community organizations.”

Overall, Trail-Johnson said, “my first glance of [the evaluations] looked pretty positive.”

“It’s difficult when you have 80 people to meet the complete needs of everyone,” Trail-Johnson continued, but she asked the facilitators to make the workshop challenging for Mac students whose courses and interests have exposed them to theories of power and community work.

This year’s D4D was held in part due to positive feedback for a similar event held at Macalester in Nov. 2008. That event was also a Project Pericles initiative, although not facilitated by Midwest Academy.

“We got the response last time that it really did feel like it filled a need,” Trail-Johnson said. She recalled watching bright students making political blunders during role-play activities, noting that “We don’t often talk about skills in higher education, we talk a lot about theory.” Trail-Johnson feels the skill-based practice approach of D4D is what makes it so valuable.

On their evaluations of this year’s workshops, students listed a wide range of activities to which they could apply the skills practiced at D4D.

“I’ll be participating in a day at the capitol to talk about affordable housing in urban areas in Minnesota,” one wrote.

“I will design a community-based project in a spring seminar I’m taking, probably related to immigrant’s democratic participation,” noted another.

Trail-Johnson emphasized that D4D was particularly valuable to Macalester students because of the college’s location: “We are in a capital city.change happens on the ground level right here in St. Paul.”

Macalester was an inaugural member of Project Pericles when it joined in 2003, Trail-Johnson said. Today, there are 22 member colleges and universities that Trail-Johnson said are “pretty diverse” in terms of geography and student body.

The D4D workshop is only one aspect of Project Pericles’s relationship with Macalester. Project Pericles has provided “some mini-grants for faculty that help with course development for community based learning,” Trail-Johnson said.

Trail-Johnson and the other project directors, meet annually at different member schools to share ideas and do site visits in the communities. Project Pericles also has a President’s Council, of which President Rosenberg is currently the chair, Trail-Johnson added.