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Lecture series urges civic engagement

‘What Now?’ workshops address importance of community activism in wake of election

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2017

“What do I do now if I don’t agree with what is coming from our administration? How can I make change?”

These are the questions students have been asking themselves after the election of President Trump, said Emerson Wells ’18, a workshop coordinator for the Swearer Center for Public Service’s new “What Now?” series. The inaugural five-part series was created to answer these question by drawing attention to civic engagement, in collaboration with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the civics education organization Generation Citizen earlier this semester. The first workshop on navigating student activism was held Feb. 27 by Scott Warren ’09, who founded Generation Citizen while he was a student at Brown.

The series “is meant to help Brown students figure out — in this difficult climate — how to best take action,” Warren said. “I think we’re seeing unprecedented levels of political engagement right now across the country, which is really exciting to see,” Warren said. “You have to hold two truths at the same time: One is that it’s really necessary to engage with the political process to affect change, and the other is that political change is hard and messy and seeks a lot of time.”

Other workshops in the series will examine Rhode Island politics, community organizing and grassroots activism in the state, said Betsy Shimberg, the Swearer Center’s director of community partnerships. The series invites speakers from the Brown community and the broader community in Rhode Island to form “an arc from knowledge to action,” she said. “I hope that people will take away specific skills and knowledge so they can be engaged citizens. That’s the bedrock of our democracy.”

The series came organically out of the Swearer Center’s commitment to public service, she said, adding that civic engagement is a way to create just, equitable and peaceful communities.

“In many ways, democracy is at risk, not just because of who’s in the White House, but because we need a revival of civic engagement in this country,” Warren said. Warren will lead the third workshop in the series March 16 on the future of civics education after Trump’s election and the Brexit vote.

Under a Trump presidency, “we literally need all hands on deck. Because now, we’re in a moment where we have to take these theories that we talk about … and put them into practice straight away. It’s just that urgent,” said Marco McWilliams, social entrepreneur in residence at the Swearer Center. “We have to be very sober about the moment that we’re in.”

But Wells and Shimberg emphasized that the series is a nonpartisan project. In an effort to attract students from across the political spectrum, workshop coordinators reached out to Bryce Campanelli ’18, president of No Labels, a national bipartisan political action group whose Brown chapter was formed last year.

“I think ‘What Now?’ is when we all work together to band (together) for the fundamental elements that make this country great, and that’s something that does not have to be specifically by political party,” Campanelli said. “It’s standing up for American core values, and understanding that we, in this time, cannot demonize each other.”

During the first workshop, Warren spoke about his own experience in politics and activism. At Brown, Warren was actively involved with efforts related to the genocide in Darfur in Sudan. As part of the Darfur Action Network, Warren pushed Brown and Rhode Island to divest from companies with business ties to Sudan. Rhode Island eventually became the first state in the country to do so.

At Brown, “students really do have the opportunity to (take) effective and meaningful action at the local level,” Warren said. “Especially at this day and age, that’s really important.” Because Rhode Island “is a smaller area,” state representatives and city council members “tend to be really receptive to constituent feedback,” he added. “I saw that when I was a student at Brown. So I think part of the series is really focusing on that local action.” Warren encouraged students to get more involved in grassroots activism in Rhode Island if they want to affect lasting change.

The second workshop, “Rhode Island Politics 101,” to be held on March 13 explains how politics works in the state, Shimberg said. Confirmed speakers are State Rep. Shelby Maldanado, Chief of State for the Rhode Island’s Secretary of State Gonzalo Cuervo  and Nicole Pollock, chief of staff for Mayor Jorge Elorza.

The fourth workshop, “Community Action Off the Hill,” will bring students from local universities and high schools to Brown. Shimberg said the session will attempt to answer “questions like, ‘How do we address the challenge of not recreating power dynamics within community organizing?’” Coordinators envision that the workshop will feature a student panel and then split into working groups to encourage collaboration between the students, McWilliams said.

McWilliams is encouraging students from public schools in the state to attend the sessions in order to ensure socioeconomic diversity in workshop participants, he said. McWilliams has been in touch with students at Rhode Island College, University of Rhode Island and Providence College, and will reach out to Classical High School, Central High School, Times Squared Academy, Mount Pleasant High School and Hope High School, he said.

“The problem is that at Brown, students don’t know what students at URI are doing. And students at URI don’t know what students at PC are doing, … (yet) all of these schools are within a one mile radius with each other,” McWilliams said.

The last workshop scheduled for April 18 aims to impart “practical skills to engage politically,” such as how to start a political campaign, and will cover “community organizing basics,” Shimberg said.