All this time I ve been working to change things, a student, active for years in community service, once confided in Richard Ferguson. But now I realize I m not really making a difference.
To Dr. Ferguson, director of the Institute for Neighborhood and Community Leadership at the University of Dayton, this was not a sign of despair, but a sign of progress, one of the many steps students take in recognizing the depth and complexities of what it means not just to be a problem-solver, but to be a citizen. As the student quoted above continued working with Dr. Ferguson, she recognized that there were many levels where she could make a difference and many communities from the nation, to the state, to the neighborhood where issues need to be addressed.
Students often come to community service naively optimistic about their ability to single-handedly solve problems. Richard Ferguson sees his role as one of developing more aware citizens: people who recognize the way that they as individuals fit into groups; people who are able to work within large systems to influence policy and achieve broad social change; people who are able to see in small interactions, the broader forces that lie behind them.
Leadership and Community Building a seminar co-taught by Dr. Ferguson and Brother Raymond Fitz, S.M., president of the University of Dayton is designed to help students recognize the complexities of society and develop skills that are central to democratic citizenship: skills like decision-making, deliberation, participation, and understanding policy change.
Each year, students in the seminar work with one or two neighborhood associations in a distressed area in Dayton. Through readings and a series of meetings and presentations with the neighborhood association, the course addresses a number of key citizenship skills.
In face-to-face meetings with community residents, students engage in discussion of community issues. Together, they share ideas and insights about the problems that can be addressed around critical issues such as housing, safety, families and children, and economic development. In this process, students build skills of civic discourse and participation, learning to communicate effectively with others and to think through problems together.
Back in the classroom, students read theoretical work by various sociologists and political scientists who discuss the connection between individuals and society in modern America. This gives students the opportunity to see the connection between social forces and individual lives, another key connection to make as citizens.
Students return to the community for three more of their weekly seminars, engaging in a process of deliberative decision-making with community residents. Through each issue, residents and students discuss their vision for a better community and how it can be achieved with the resources that are available.
At the end of the course, an audience of university professors and staff, members of local nonprofits and foundations, various elected and appointed city officials, neighborhood residents, and others are assembled for a presentation by the students. This presentation is accompanied by a 50-100 page report in which they summarize key action steps that can be taken and policy changes that can be implemented to help the community achieve its vision.
By the time they are done, the participating students many of whom are studying political science, public administration, sociology, or communications have developed knowledge, attitudes, and skills that no classroom could teach. They have seen themselves, often for the first time, as part of the web of human interactions and social policies that continually affect one another. In the process, they have acted not just as problem-solvers or service providers, but as democratic citizens.
From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy
Website: Institute for Neighborhood and Community Leadership: http://www.udayton.edu/~includ/