David Hoffman and Romy Hübler published the following article in the March newsletter of the American Democracy Project:
Building Civic Proximity: Reflections and a Call to Action
When the two of us launched UMBC’s Center for Democracy and Civic Life in July 2018, we were clear about the road ahead. We had come a long way already: with support from colleagues in UMBC’s Division of Student Affairs and across the institution, we had begun to integrate new thinking about civic learning and democratic engagement into many aspects of our campus culture and practices. Now we would be even better positioned to help people develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to create healthy communities and tackle challenges together. Then came COVID-19. The road ahead became much more difficult to see.
The Center for Democracy and Civic Life's work builds from the premise that civic life encompasses everyday settings and relationships through which people can generate the power to shape their world. Modeling the kind of generative relationship we sought to foster, we took special pride in doing almost all of our work side by side, literally. We declined the option to build private offices within our shared space. When one of us got an opportunity to make a contribution or develop a project, we invited the other in. We know that we are more creative, productive, and humane when we are breaking down walls and joining together as thought partners and co-creators.
That spirit is a hallmark of our Alternative Spring Break program, which positions students to forge strong relationships with each other and with community partners in Baltimore. We lost that program to COVID-19 the week before it would have taken place, after five months of planning with student leaders. Other announcements followed, each both necessary and painful: classes will be moved online for two weeks after the break. All programs and gatherings will be postponed until early April. And then: classes will remain online for the rest of the semester. All programs and gatherings will be cancelled until we can safely reconvene. Faculty and staff will work remotely. Our shared space has become a virtual one, at least when the wifi is working.
This is agonizing. Our work is entirely about fostering civic proximity. We need each other, all of us. We must be able to work together, co-creating our lives and communities and shaping our shared destiny. We cannot allow the social distance needed to sustain life and health to exacerbate the civic distance from which we were, collectively, already suffering.
And so we are thinking about what we can do to sustain and even deepen civic proximity within our institution during these challenging weeks (months?). The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Theory of Change envisions a future in which “[r]ather than conceptualizing civics as confined in particular activities such as voting or providing voluntary service, Americans will build empowering democratic relationships and understand themselves to be potential civic co-creators in their workplaces, on their campuses, and in the everyday interactions that give meaning to their lives.” We can help to enact that future through the choices we make in the coming weeks. We are inspired by stories we are hearing (and living) about people in neighborhoods across the U.S. pulling together (albeit at a safe distance) for company, comfort, and mutual aid. The people within our institutions can do the same, and we can help.
We were hosting monthly gatherings for students, faculty, and staff who want to share personal stories about their connections with civic issues in order to support each other in acting with courage. We will take those gatherings virtual. We had planned to host a “Dinner with Friends” program for people interested in topics relating to Election 2020 to encourage civil dialogue across difference. We will break that program into smaller pieces and take it virtual as well. We will experiment with inviting people from our institution into virtual spaces where they can share their stories of navigating these unprecedented circumstances. We will both support groups with prior affiliations and forge new connections across differences in roles and previous experiences.
We know that a great deal will change because of what will happen in the coming weeks and months. It is hard to see what is ahead of us, other than more dislocation and social distance. But we can be certain that more than ever before, individually and collectively, we will need civic proximity, and all the skills and dispositions necessary to support it. Civic learning and democratic engagement is, and will be, more important than ever before. We have work to do, starting with identifying the civic bridges we can build and support close to home. Let’s be well, safe, and together.
What are you doing to support civic proximity within your institution and with community partners? Please share your stories with us by emailing Cathy Copeland, Program Coordinator, American Democracy Project at email@example.com.