CIVCM Stories

The Future of Civic Engagement

Profile: Camryn Wilson

Nevins Fellow Camryn Wilson is part of Penn State's Intercollege Minor in Civic and Community Engagement. This post is an adaptation of her capstone project for CAS 496, directed by Dr. Rosa Eberly. Camryn compared civic ambassador programs in Texas and Connecticut and created an outline of what a program in Pennsylvania could look like.

I like to define civic engagement as the connections people have with their communities and the ways in which citizens actively participate in making a difference in issues of public conern by using their education, values, and skills. Additionally, civic engagement can take many forms such as volunteering, service-learning, electoral participation, working in government, and activism.

A civic ambassadors program is an exceptional way for states and the communities to increase awareness, participation, and engagement among citizens. These programs allow ordinary people to be leaders in their own communities, while making the civic health of their state better. Implementing civic ambassadors programs in every state would be beneficial to participatory democracy across our nation.

Currently, Connecticut, Texas, and Nebraska have civic ambassadors programs. For my capstone project for my civic and community engagement minor, I chose to compare the Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program to the Texas Civic Ambassadors Program. I worked directly with the Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program during my Nevins Fellowship with Everyday Democracy.

The goal of each civic ambassador is to reinforce community connection through engagement, community dialogues, and beneficial projects. By organizing and participating in these activities, civic ambassadors also benefit personally.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the Connecticut and Texas programs to see what is similar and different about each and how successful each program proves to be. In doing so, I hoped to gain knowledge and insight on how a civic ambassador program could be implemented in Pennsylvania. Implementing similar programs in every state would be beneficial to participatory democracy across our nation.

Connecticut

The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors program was launched in 2017 by Everyday Democracy and Denise Merill, Connecticut’s Secretary of State. The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors become “non-partisan catalysts of change.” The ambassadors are people who want to “build a movement for civic renewal in Connecticut” and who care about and engage others in their community by creating opportunities for civic participation.

They engage with their own communities by sharing civic health information and ideas through speaking, organizing, and/or volunteering at events or at various institutions/organizations. The ambassadors are able to gain a better understanding of the issues that are affecting their communities from the residents who live there.

The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors also participate in workshops, webinars, and the annual Civic Ambassadors Summit where there are opportunities to “learn more about civic health, learn from one another, leverage and build resources/partnerships, share success stories and challenges, increase the visibility of each Ambassador’s work, and build a movement for civic renewal in Connecticut.”

The Connecticut program allows its participants to devote as little as one hour per week to their work as an ambassador, which makes it easy for an average person to be an ambassador. The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program is “open to any Connecticut resident who believes that engaging others in their community and public life strengthens the civic health of the state and promotes community well-being.”

People of any age can be Connecticut Civic Ambassadors and they are able to remain in the program for as long as they like. Anyone can apply and all are accepted to become ambassadors.

Texas

The Texas Civic Ambassadors Program was established in 2016 through the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. This is a one-year program that focuses on service learning and leadership for college students. During the year, the Texas Civic Ambassadors will “help to enhance civil dialogue or civic engagement on their campus or in their community.” Although it is based at one university, students from any college or university in Texas are allowed to become Texas civic ambassadors.

Throughout the year, ambassadors are required to complete an independent educational outreach project, attend leadership development workshops, and conduct nonpartisan or bipartisan outreach activities. They also receive a plethora of information, opportunities, and support throughout their time serving as ambassadors, both from the Annette Strauss Institute and faculty at their respective university/college.

The University of Texas at Austin hosts a 3-day Texas Civic Ambassadors Leadership Summit in which they learn how to and begin developing ideas and draft plans for outreach and events. In order to be a Texas Civic Ambassador, one must be a college student in the state of Texas, attend the summit and other events, host activities, and complete journal entries. The applications are open from March to June and not everyone is accepted into the program.

Comparison

I compared the programs in the following areas:

  • application process
  • time commitment
  • responsibilities/benefits
  • types of projects
  • demographics


Both programs had some similarities and differences in these areas, which can be see from the above descriptions. There are also fundamental differences between the programs that I think are important to highlight.

First, the Connecticut program seems to be more informal, while the Texas program seems to be more formal. This observation comes from the different requirements for the Ambassadors and the amount of enforcement that is put on those requirements, as well as what the Ambassadors personally receive from being part of the programs. While the Connecticut program allows its Ambassadors more freedom and flexibility in what they are required to do, the Texas program is stricter with its requirements.

Second, the Connecticut program is more activist-based and the Texas program is more educational. This observation comes from the fact that the Connecticut Ambassadors become agents of change in the state, while the Texas Ambassadors focus on service learning and leadership, while completing an educational outreach project.

I think both programs are successful and powerful for their states in their own ways. The Connecticut Program has provided opportunities for people doing great civic work to have a title and recognition for that work. The Texas Program provides learning opportunities and life-long civic skills to its Ambassadors so that they can continue to do civic work after their time serving as Texas Ambassadors is finished.

Implementation in Pennsylvania

My vision for the Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors Program is a mixture of characteristics of both the Connecticut and Texas Civic Ambassadors Programs. I believe that following the example of Texas might be the best way to implement a civic ambassadors program in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors could do a number of activities. Since the program would be open to students in higher education only, the Ambassadors could work to get the student voting numbers up by hosting educational events about voting and tabling for voter registration. They could also work to institutionalize voter registration on their campuses.

Additionally, Pennsylvania Ambassadors could be involved in student government activities, host social justice events, and create materials for students about civics, government, and service. One final thing that I think would be important for Civic Ambassadors to do would be to participate in service-learning opportunities, such as alternative break programs and days of service.

Penn State could be the perfect university to be the hub for the Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors Program. The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, The Center for Character, Conscience, and Public Purpose, and the Intercollege Minor in Civic and Community Engagement make the university a great host for the program. The size of the Penn State community, as well as the existence of commonwealth campuses also work to the advantage of Penn State.

Urban Farming and Community Engagement

Profile: Andrew Hanna

During the Summer of 2018, Andrew Hanna served as the Penn State Center: Philadelphia’s community engagement intern and worked with Weaver’s Way Farms to foster community involvement in urban renewal and local food systems. Hanna, a Penn State Economics major and Philadelphia resident, was drawn to the opportunity to work with urban farmers by his interest in working in settings that are not necessarily traditional for economics majors, such as agriculture. This interest extends to the intersections between economics and community development, a connection that Andrew fostered over time. “I’d heard of it,” Andrew said of the task of community development, “but wasn’t really sure what it looked like, and wanted to get a better understanding of it.” This process entailed weekly volunteer days at various urban farms and farmer’s markets, attending meetings with residents, and participating in facilitated discussions with his cohort and peers. These discussions, led by World in Conversation—a PSU-originated dialogue project—as well as Soil Generation, a Philadelphia-based Black & Brown-led coalition dedicated to the community control and access to food and land, were instrumental in both Hanna’s growing investment in community development as an active process, as well as his lingering skepticism of large-scale, non-local interventions to established communities: “I don’t think that it’s appropriate for outsiders to make large developmental decisions for a community if they don’t live there,” opined Hannah, especially “if they don’t have an intimate understanding of what that community needs. The creativity and the decision-making should come from the ground level, and it should be supplemented by resources from the outside.”

Finally, it was intimacy that was at the heart of Hanna’s experience, both with the physical systems of food production (by way of the act of farming), and more importantly, with the local community of Philadelphia. The gardens, and the communities that both support them and benefit from them, “have become very, very important,” Hanna notes, “and whenever I go back into Philadelphia…I have a much different connection with the city, and there’s definitely more intimacy and excitement around it.” The Intercollegiate Minor in Civic and Community Engagement was thrilled to be able to support Hanna’s internship, and applauds his efforts, in his own words, at “bolstering my understanding of social issues, building a capacity for empathy, and fostering the relationships between interns and members of the local community.” Hanna’s experience is a model for the type of outreach and civic enterprise that the Minor hopes to foster amongst its students.

Click here to see a short documentary about Andrew Hanna’s experience as a CIVCM intern.

How CIVCM Helped Prepare Me for My Internship

By Emilee Ehret

Emilee Ehret headshot

“Thanks to your class, I was able to apply it to my summer internship work. Last summer I interned with Research for Action, a nonprofit organization that does education research. During one of our meetings, a new client that was in the state of Delaware needed advice on how to form community engagement and bring people together to discuss the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We needed to send three suggestions to the state of Delaware about the best way to accomplish this because it is now mandated for them to hold something for the community and tell them about ESSA. Everyone was throwing out ideas of little small focus groups, but they did not really know how they would accomplish this. After the meeting I went right up to the head of our organization and said, “Hi, my name is Emilee and I am a summer intern here. I took a civic and community engagement class this past spring where we as a class were in charge of creating a forum for the Student Farm Club.” I gathered all the notes that everyone posted and compiled it into one document for him to read over. It looks like how we ran the forum might be one of the suggestions he is going to send to Delaware (with some changes of course). He really liked our class and said what we did was pretty awesome. Thank you for teaching an awesome class this past spring.”

From Academics to Action

By Rachel Dungan

“The CIVCM program gave me an academic ‘home’ at the University that I hadn’t otherwise found. Faculty affiliated with the program (some of whom have become lifelong mentors and friends) encouraged me to think in new ways; they celebrated the fact that I believed studies in one area could help advance my understanding in what sometimes seemed like an “unrelated” field. This encouraged me to push the boundaries on what I’d believed I could do with, and get out of, my Penn State education.

“I’m part of a national community of professionals working at the intersection of health research, policy and practice. Every day, my work helps demonstrate the value and impact of engaging patient and public stakeholders in health (research and policy) decision-making. I attribute this access, opportunity and success largely to my CIVCM education. In each situation, I was prepared to navigate challenging conversations in constructive ways. I was equipped to assume leadership roles, because I could “speak the languages” of multiple people in the room and could connect dots in ways others didn’t anticipate. The CIVCM program introduced me to new ways of thinking, questioning, communicating, and translating my academics into action. I can confidently say that this one experience served as the single most defining element of my Penn State career. It also largely defined the person I now carry out into my local and global community, every day.”

More than a Minor

By Lauren Bubb

“Although Civic and Community Engagement reflects a minor in my college education, it has fully shaped my career and future just as much as my major in visual journalism. My capstone project and involvement in my internship with The American Red Cross forever changed by path in life after Penn State. I’m happy to be working full time as a community event organizer in Baltimore, working with community and city members to host events and sponsor non-profits for the good of the community. I thank the CIVCM faculty for helping me find my way here!”

Turning Theory into Practice

By Rachel Popovich

“My minor in Civic and Community Engagement assigned an educational degree to my interests in community service and my journey to finding a personal identity in the communities of Penn State and beyond. I use the skills and theories to which I was introduced in the minor to inform my decisions as a professional working with the public in a community hospital. I make an effort to find meaningful solutions with an interdisciplinary team because I understand that working together is more effective for greater change.”

Making a Difference

By Jillian Seifrit

“While at Penn State I participated in the Civic and Community Engagement Minor. I was able to intern at Family Intervention Crisis Services in Bellefonte as my Capstone project. Through this experience I confirmed that I wanted to attend law school and make a difference in people’s lives. Because of my experience, I volunteered during law school and I plan to continue volunteering by participating in Pro Bono opportunities.”