Institutional citizenship & Wells Fargo: A Civic Engagement counter-narrative

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These opinions expressed are solely those of the authors. We wish they reflected those of the Civic Engagement Center but any further reading will clarify that they do not.

Quiz: Who said it, KWOC or the Civic Engagement Center (CEC)?

A. “Macalester College and University Bank [a local community bank] share institutional commitments to sustainability, supporting local communities, and working for the common good.”

B. “Investing money involves making socially responsible choices. Increasingly Macalester College began recognizing its public role and responsibilities as an institutional citizen in the Twin Cities. It recognized that while the local community benefits from the efforts of individual students and faculty who contribute time and expertise, the time was ripe for a more multifaceted project that would embody institutional civic engagement.”

(University Bank is a member of Sunrise Community Banks)

Answer: Civic Engagement Center said both A and B. (http://www.macalester.edu/cec/institutionalcivicengagement/).

As prospective college students, one of the primary factors that drew us to Macalester was its core value of “civic engagement.” We all chose Macalester because of the unique opportunities it offered to connect our academic experiences to the Twin Cities communities that Macalester calls home. We were excited to go to a school where praxis was a priority, as epitomized by this quote from the CEC website: “We connect the resources of the college with community needs and strengths from a commitment to institutional citizenship and to reinforce the capacity of local communities.”

To live out these ideals, we also all worked in the Civic Engagement Center. Importantly, several years before our arrival, the name of the institution had changed from the Community Service Office to the CEC. In staff meetings, this change was often highlighted to show that at Macalester, we don’t just volunteer; instead, we reflect in groups, form strong relationships with community partners, and provide academic solidarity to communities historically marginalized within the academy. In classes ranging across departments, we have all seen the power of this collaboration, where we connect our learning to communities outside the classroom and create knowledge and actions whose impact will hopefully linger far beyond our college careers.

But as current and former CEC employees, we see an unacceptable gap between the promotional materials of civic engagement and the reality of the choices we do not make as an institution. The silence of the Civic Engagement Center throughout KWOC’s campaign has been deafening. The CEC, as the institutional home for civic engagement, ought to be a leader in this conversation. We are ashamed and disappointed in their tacit endorsement of the gap between rhetoric and action, as reinforced by last week’s decision to retain the contract with Wells Fargo. There is a fundamental hypocrisy in learning about creating structural change if the institution in which we learn helps to perpetuate those structures of oppression. Likewise, what is the point of our four years of “mutually beneficial campus and community partnership” work when the material realities of our community partners are structured by our own very political choice of complacency as Wells Fargo systematically dismantles those same communities?

We, as an institution, have a choice to make. We can practice service to the community that merely maintains the present balance of power through the volunteer hours of students. In many of these situations, students volunteer in the protected bubble that preserves a strict divide between “client” and “provider.” In these situations, civic engagement no longer exists; rather, we practice “volunteerism” and “community service” which remain fundamentally superficial. And in this superficial world, it’s easy to pretend that our relationship to Wells Fargo has no impact on our communities and is divorced from the work of the CEC. When this falsehood is upheld, the pillar of civic engagement crumbles.

Alternately, we can actually live up to our own billing as a space that holds a “commitment to institutional citizenship.” Macalester, on paper, is a place that exists within its own community of the Twin Cities, a community that contains far more diverse experiences than those taken into account by President Rosenberg and David Wheaton in their decision to retain the contract with Wells Fargo. When Wheaton said, “I think part of our mission is producing students… who are involved and care about these issues,” perhaps he meant that students should continue to serve as token representatives of Macalester’s faux-commitment to its local community by volunteering with the CEC. Being an “institutional citizen in the Twin Cities” goes beyond a few hours a week tutoring children whose families have been affected by the foreclosure crisis; it must instead incorporate a holistic critique and re-imagination of the structural inequality that shapes these families’ lives.

Whether the choices we make as an institution preserve or contest the status quo, they are inherently and equally political. If we are to practice real and meaningful civic engagement as individual students and as representatives of Macalester, both the CEC and its students can no longer ignore the hypocrisy of our financial practices. We must acknowledge the imperative of institutional action to resolve the fundamental incompatibility of our words with our actions.