Most people think ‘civic engagement’ is just a ten-dollar phrase for volunteerism, that all it requires is 15 volunteer hours at the local food bank and you’re good to go till Christmas, but according to Auburn University professor Nan Fairley, it’s far beyond service.
“Civic engagement is about going beyond transaction to transformation,” said Fairley at the Engaged Scholar Speaker Series lecture Thursday, April 11. In its simplest form, it means building an equal partnership with a community by offering your services and friendship to meet the community’s specific needs.
Students of the Living Democracy program at Auburn University aim to achieve just this during a three-semester commitment to the project led by Fairley and Dr. Mark Wilson.
The program requires students to attend two workshops and enroll in an additional course for a fall and spring semester in preparation of a summer service trip to one of seven Living Democracy communities across the state.
The classes focus on equipping students with social and political knowledge as well as the communication skills they need in order to make a change within a host community.
“It’s not about doing things for people, but with them,” said Angela Cleary, one of the first students to go through the program. Fellow veteran Marian Royston added her definition of Living Democracy. “You’ve got to do it, don’t just talk it,” she said.
Both students spent this past summer in Living Democracy communities where they used their individual passions and skills to develop community-specific projects.
But they quickly learned that having a passionate zeal and high-priced classroom knowledge is not enough to make a community-wide difference.
“I was a little bit of a bossy pants, “ Cleary said. “I would come up with these ideas and decide how to do it, but it wasn’t theirs. I learned that it’s about empowering them to come up with their own thoughts and ideas and showing them that they can make these dreams a reality.”
“You can have the best of intent, but if you don’t include the people affected in the process and get them involved, you will meet resistance,” Royston said.
Past Living Democracy projects have included beatification and cultural revitalization initiatives, youth outreach and community-wide volunteerism opportunities.
These community-building efforts help combat the primary problem that the areas face, brain-drain, by building a sense pride and “home” within the community, said Fairley.
In the Classroom
While Living Democracy projects target lower socio-economic areas, the principles of the program are not constrained within these city’s limits. Fairley implements them in her classroom as well, which is why she was named a College of Liberal Arts Engaged Scholar in 2001.
She exhibits “exemplary professional citizenship and participation in promoting the college's commitment to civic engagement,” by assigning community-focused projects and writing assignments to her students in effort of promoting the Auburn-Opelika area.
“It’s all about figuring out what we, as a university faculty and student body, have to offer to the community and how we can use that to help meet their needs,” said Giovanna Summerfield of the Engaged Scholar Program.
“Most professors think faculty ‘civic engagement’ means volunteering a few hours to speak at a local community event,” said Summerfield, but according to Nan Fairley, it’s far beyond service.