TCU freshman Lauren Fred said she has never been very involved in community affairs activities. However, this semester she is deeply involved in a community project on campus, she said. The advertising/public relations major is part of a group of students trying to instate an open campus meal program that would allow students to use their student ID cards to purchase food at local restaurants.
“The majority of people at TCU want this program to be implemented,” Fred said. “A lot of other campuses do this already, so right now we’re behind. I think it’s important for us to keep up to date with other schools, and this would give students more variety. It’s also more convenient to pay with your ID card than carry around a lot of cash.”
Fred is not working toward this goal only out of interest in campus dining plans. This semester she is enrolled in “Topics in American Politics: Civic Literacy,” now offered as part of TCU’s core curriculum.
“I voted in the last election, but before this class I didn’t really get involved with local politics,” Fred said. “I’ve learned a lot – that you really can make a difference.”
Two sections of the course were implemented as part of TCU’s new Center for Civic Literacy, started in response to a decline in citizen participation rates in the United States, said Don Jackson, Herman Brown chair professor of political science and director of the Center.
“The notion is that there has been a decline over the last 40 years in terms of participation in public affairs and community affairs,” Jackson said. “And civic engagement is designed to encourage people to participate in public, community life.”
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who wrote an influential best-selling book on community involvement in 2000, said interest in public affairs has declined by 20 percent, voting by 25 percent, attendance at public meetings by 30 percent and participation in party politics by 40 percent over the past few decades.
“We have extraordinarily low participation rates and voting rates; almost everything you can say about post-1960s America shows that people are participating less and less,” Jackson said. “There are high rates of cynicism, high rates of alienation.”
Bill Koehler, president of the Fort Worth Independent School District School Board and former TCU provost, said this decline can have a staggering effect on society.
“If you look closely at many if not all of the social service programs, they depend on volunteerism and philanthropy,” Koehler said. “It seems to me that for people to be as involved as we as a society need them to be, they need to understand how their knowledgeable involvement is important.”
“The country functions as well as it does because of volunteerism,” he said. “We need to do all we can to emphasize the importance of knowledgeable engagement in our society.”
Jackson said this decline is seen close to home as well.
“My view is, TCU has not been very effectively involved in the community,” he said. “It has not been involved in ways it should have been and could have been, and we can do a lot better.”
Koehler said he knows faculty, staff and students at TCU are significantly engaged in the community and civic volunteerism individually. However, he wasn’t as sure about TCU as an institution.
“If you ask if TCU is involved as an organization – I think any organization can always be more involved,” he said. “Let me just leave it at that.”
Jackson said TCU is participating in a national movement for civic literacy by establishing the three-part Center for Civic Literacy. The first part is the course; the second part is supporting community-based research and the third is essentially bringing people to campus, he said.
“We call it civic literacy because we think the university has the obligation to produce knowledgeable citizens,” Jackson said. “So the notion of literacy is that we’re producing informed or knowledgeable citizens, rather than just encouraging participation by anyone whether they are prepared or not.”
The first step in this process has been the civic literacy course.
“We realized our new core has citizenship and social values commitments, so this fulfills the core requirement,” Jackson said. “But then the mission statement of TCU says our purpose includes preparing responsible citizens and ethical leaders for the global community. We’re working on the immediate community.”
Jackson said the course is comprised of regular classroom time including allotted participation through class debates and other activities; a laboratory session where students work on policy projects and hear from various representatives of political parties and government; and a third part students are not required but encouraged to participate in – civic literacy internships with 150 hours of voluntary service requirements.
Eric Cox, lecturer in the political science department, leads the lab section of the course. In the lab, the students are divided into groups and decide upon an issue in the Fort Worth or TCU community that’s important to them, Cox said. The students research the issue before designing and implementing an action plan to address some aspect of the problem.
“The objective is to get students plugged into the community and also to demystify the process,” Cox said. “We often deify our heroes that bring about change, when in actuality most of the people that make the big impacts that matter are regular people. It’s getting students connected with the community, but even more so, teaching them how to be connected with the community.”
Jackson said in order to promote a collaboration between the TCU and Fort Worth communities, the center is sponsoring a conference Jan. 27 and 28, 2006, focusing on the environment, education, health, safety and transportation.
Jackson said he hopes for a formal proclamation from the City of Fort Worth recognizing the creation of the center at that time.
Currently there is not a building or office set aside for the center, other than Jackson’s personal office on campus. Jackson said the center has a small grant from a foundation for start-up, but it is mostly working within its current resources at the department and college levels. However, Jackson said, the center is seeking an endowment of $5 million, which would produce an annual income of $250,000. This money would be used to bring in people and support research on anything that is a community-based problem, he said.
Fred said she had not planned on taking the civic literacy course, but is glad she ended up there.
“I’m not a political science major, but I waited until the last minute to do my schedule, and this class just fit in, she said. “I’m glad I’m taking it though – it’s very interesting. The class helps you to get involved with the community. You can’t complain about issues and how the system’s working or not working if you don’t get out and actively work to make a difference.”
Jackson said philosophy is what the class is all about.
Jackson gave Texas Wesleyan University, located in east Fort Worth, as a local example of the success of the movement for civic engagement.
“Texas Wesleyan has for a long time been deeply integrated in its community,” he said.
Gary Cumbie, vice president for advancement at Texas Wesleyan, described several programs the university has enacted that deal directly with its community, including a mentorship with the Boys and Girls Club located directly across the street from the Texas Wesleyan campus.
The university also has school programs that guarantee college tuition to local neighborhood students who go all the way through William James Middle School and Polytechnic High School, both public schools in the area.
“We don’t have a whole lot of students impacted by this, maybe seven or eight students here on that program, but it gives some hope to kids and a reason to stay in school,” Cumbie said.
Cumbie said Texas Wesleyan is also involved in economic development of the neighborhood, working with Congressman Michael Burgess to try to stimulate more businesses in the area.
“This is good for the neighborhood and for our students and gives them more opportunities,” he said.
Cumbie said civic engagement is a high priority for Texas Wesleyan.
“No matter who you are, or what institution you’re with, it ought to be important for you to be involved with your neighborhood,” he said. “No matter how pleasant and safe we are, if our surroundings aren’t as safe and pleasant, that’s going to influence us. It’s kind of a selfish interest, but in the long run, what benefits us in the short benefits us all.”
One department at TCU that already shares this priority is the School of Education.
“Everything in the School of Education has been very instrumental in the Fort Worth ISD,” Koehler said.
The School of Education does all of its student teaching in the school districts surrounding TCU – Fort Worth, Everman, Crowley and White Settlement. The school also participates in mentoring and after-school programs.
Cecilia Silva, an education faculty member who works with the Center for Urban Education within the School of Education, said the school’s work in the community is very tightly linked to its objectives.
“We are preparing professionals and we’re preparing teachers, and if we did not work with communities, future educators would not be prepared to be in schools,” Silva said.
Silva said she has seen this community involvement go both ways, serving both the Fort Worth community and TCU.
“We support school districts with professional development. On the other hand, school districts in the area also are interested in the students we graduate,” she said. “It’s a joint benefit situation.”
Koehler said he has high hopes for the Center for Civic Literacy at TCU.
“I think it will definitely enhance and improve the relationship with the community,” he said. “Given that TCU students come from across the country, that program, if successful, won’t only help this community, but communities across the country. I would think students would take what they learn with them elsewhere, improving not just our community, but numerous communities.