Mac hosts civic engagement training

Hannah Catlin

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On Saturday Jan. 23, students and staff from Macalester and Carleton College gathered in Weyerhaeuser Boardroom for an annual civic engagement training called Debating for Democracy.

Debating for Democracy workshops are designed to “introduce a systematic framework to help participants identify solutions to problems they are concerned with and then build winning strategies to make change.”

“Debating for Democracy occurs every year,” Civic Engagement Center (CEC) Outreach Coordinator Derek Johnson said. “There’s a different trainer every year and we always partner with Carleton.”

“People care about lots of issues, and I think you hear [it] at the walk-in, etc.,” Johnson continued, “but how do you continue to work on these things? This is giving [students] a toolbox, a framework, and some skills.”

This year’s trainers were from Midwest Academy, an institution that teaches, “an organizing philosophy, methods, and skills that enable ordinary people to actively participate in the democratic process.”

The trainer that led Saturday’s event was Jhatayn Travis, an activist from Chicago.

For Hannah Whipple ’21, Travis’ experience as an activist was a major highlight of the training.

“I think my favorite part of it was seeing her real-life examples,” Whipple said. “After she told us about all these strategies, she walked us through a specific campaign that she went through and then she showed us a video to succinctly wrap it up. I really appreciated that.”

During the training, students participated in break-out groups that focused on one issue and applied Travis’ toolkit to a specific issue.

Whipple signed up for a group that tackled education policy. Despite her interest in the training, she felt that she could have benefited from doing some research prior to the event.

“Obviously these are really important issues that I think need to be addressed, but I’m no expert in them and nowhere near an expert,” Whipple said.

Whipple did, however, appreciate the tools that the workshop provided to her – including flow charts, videos and explicit steps for new activists to follow.

“I really think they gave us some solid tools,” she said.

Debating For Democracy is an initiative of Project Pericles, a consortium 31 of colleges and universities that include civic engagement in their missions. Carleton and Macalester are both member schools – along with Bates College, Occidental College and Reed College.

Arielle del Rosario, Program Associate of Project Pericles, represented the organization at Saturday’s event.

According to del Rosario, Project Pericles has trained over 3,400 participants since they began their work.

“We have colleges in California, on the East Coast, in the Midwest,” del Rosario said, “[and] what they have in common is a commitment to incorporating civic engagement as an essential element of the student curriculum.”

In addition to Debating for Democracy, Project Pericles also runs a biennial national conference on civic engagement, letter-writing workshops and research on how to make civic engagement more effective.

Now that the training is over, Johnson wants to continue to encourage students to continue pursuing their interest in community organizing.

“We want to, after this finishes up, find ways for students that want to put those skills into practice and get engaged, support them in doing that,” Johnson said.

Per Johnson, the CEC’s upcoming Day at the Capitol event on Feb. 28 is a good opportunity for continuing engagement. Coordinated by the Minnesota Private College Council, the program for the day includes a tour of the recently renovated Minnesota State capitol in St. Paul and the opportunity to meet with the policy-makers who work there.

Johnson said that the program presents an opportunity for students to start getting experience in talking to politicians about the issues that matter to them.

“You realize that you can walk in there, watch in-session and call somebody off the floor to talk to them about what you care about,” Johnson said. “It’s powerful.”