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Conference coordinator Michael Ross, Kennesaw State University’s associate professor of middle grades education (middle), speaks with students at the conference. (Photo by Dustin Wheeler, Western Carolina University)

   As the holidays begin, the political primary season waits just around the corner. Once again, commentators question whether younger participants might make a difference in the next general election. Many contend younger participants must get involved in the process for democracy to truly work, but younger voters historically refuse to vote in large numbers.

   Yet over two days in the fall semester, more than 50 college and university students started their involvement by participating in the third annual conference of the American Democracy Project’s Southern Consortium at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga. Conference coordinator Michael Ross, KSU’s associate professor of middle grades education, confirmed that 81 people – 51 students and 30 faculty or staff members – registered for the conference.

   ADP seeks to produce graduates who understand and are committed to their roles as citizens in a democratic republic. Currently, 228 institutions in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities participate in the project.

   “How can we drive the commitment to civic engagement to the core of the academy?” KSU’s Provost Lendley Black asked a room full of college and university students, professors and administrators prior to Associate Dean Michael Heard introducing the Alabama circuit judge who ruled against the Ten Commandments’ Judge in the late 1990s. “Too many students see citizenship as an on-again, off-again activity.”

Alabama Circuit Court Judge Charles Price tells a crowded room about his decision that a depiction of the Ten Commandments was unconstitutional. Price received death threats following his ruling.  (Photo by Dustin Wheeler, Western Carolina University)

Alabama Circuit Court Judge Charles Price tells a crowded room about his decision that a depiction of the Ten Commandments was unconstitutional. Price received death threats following his ruling. (Photo by Dustin Wheeler, Western Carolina University)

Adjudicating Democracy

   “Alabama Circuit Court Judge Charles Price provided insights into continuous citizenship during a plenary address to the ADP-South conference. Price’s ruling that the courtroom display of the Ten Commandments was unconstitutional brought death threats but earned him both the Wiley Benton award, honoring the lawyer of the Little Rock Nine, and the John F. Kennedy Profile of Courage, which chose Price as Alabama’s first black recipient.

   “I respect people of faith for I am one of them,” Price said. “As a judge however, I will do what is legal and what is right.”

   Yet in this case, many people did not equate legal with right, which led to more than the usual unrest. Price said he would not be moved despite threats to his life, affirming the decision as correct then and now.

   According to Price’s interpretation of Harvey v. Cobb County, the Ten Commandments can be displayed with other judicial documents as long as it doesn’t promote a particular religion. That led him to rule against Alabama’s Ten Commandments’ Judge.

   In 1997, Circuit Judge Roy Moore displayed a hand-made wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments behind his bench. In addition to copyrighting and selling replicas of it, Moore also held prayer in the courtroom. Moore could have held church in the courtroom without a problem, Price said.

   But once Moore put on the robe in his official capacity as a government official, Price said the law prohibits any government official from using their official capacity to promote a particular religion. Price said Moore respects his ruling because Moore knows Price does not make rulings based on anger, so there’s nothing personal. In 2003, Moore lost his chief justice job after placing a granite Ten Commandments marker in the state’s judicial building.

   Price said he styles himself after Judge Frank M. Johnson, who dismantled Alabama’s desegregation laws. He said he learned about minority opinions as a child. While throwing baseballs at bypassing cars with friends, one hit the car of an ex-convict. Price took the blame for the incident then just as he now shoulders the burden of upholding the law against popular opinion in the South.

Judge Charles Price (photo by Dustin Wheeler, Western Carolina University)

Judge Charles Price (photo by Dustin Wheeler, Western Carolina University)

   “I’m steeled in the conviction that sometime you have to walk alone,” he said. “There will come a time in life that you will have to make a decision that you will have to stand alone. I called several other judges that I respected and had them read the law. They said, ‘You’re absolutely right, but I’m glad I’m not making the decision.’”

   Price called the ADP-South conference’s theme of “Democracy in Action – No One Approach” particularly apt. While some groups prefer prayer, Price said others prefer protest as the means to accomplish change. He noted protests by concerned citizens changed the fate of the Jena 6, where teens had been charged as adults.

   “No one who demonstrated believed that those responsible should not be prosecuted,” Price said. “But they should be prosecuted in the proper venue for the charges.”

   The judge encouraged the participants to spread democracy through service rather than words. He recommended they read Congressman Charles B. Rangel’s book, “And I haven’t had a bad day since.” He also suggested they give their time like those who helped Katrina victims; like Oseola McCarty, who gave $150,000 to Southern Mississippi; like Sheri Saltzberg and Mark Grashow, co-founders of US Africa Children’s Fellowship Fund; or like tennis star Andre Agassi, who created a college prep school.

   Price noted while it takes vigor and courage to make democracy function, sometimes it takes compromise. Alabama Gov. George Wallace appointed Price to fill a vacancy as circuit judge, an action Price called a compromise to keep Wallace in power. Price claimed democracy will only stay alive through varied actions. He said if a citizen’s preferred action is being sufficiently accomplished, do something else.

   “I don’t like folks who simply fly the flag, wear the flag and won’t do anything to put patriotism on the line,” he said.

Marching for Democracy

   While every conference participant could listen to the speakers, they had to choose from 24 presentations produced by students and faculty from the participating higher education institutions.

   Morehouse College professors Mark King and Cynthia Hewitt took a group of students to the Jena 6 protest march and documented the experience. A short film showed ADP-South participants a montage of scenes from the protest during the presentation of “Why Jena 6: A Reawakening of the Consciousness for Social Justice Movement.”

   The film depicted rally participants from different generations. The professors said the protest provided participants an opportunity to meet each other, while the issue attracted people from different occupations and even different political views, e.g. a 52-year-old New York republican donated $150 to the cause. New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin talked with filmmakers as Mychal Bell was released in September.

   Following the film, the session opened for questions. A majority of those attending the presentation said they did not participate in the last election, which led to presenters encouraging participants to get involved in the democratic process.

   “People from California and Maine made it to the protest at Jena, La.,” King said. “It’s hard to get that number to participate and vote.”

   The professors attributed the size of the protest to the aftermath and ongoing coverage of Hurricane Katrina, an increase in the use of technology and media framing. They called the Jena 6 protest unexpected and spontaneous, which contributed to the lack of a centralized address to the crowd. They noted that social networking sites and e-mail allow protest organization on short notice without a media filter.

   Yet they also noted the media frame differed depending on whether the outlet was local or national. While national media displayed sophistication as befitting their audience, local media made racial jokes on the radio. One such incident is caught on film.

Community Engagement


Students from multiple institutions participate in a think-tank discussion designed to produce a project celebrating diversity on their campuses. (photo by Dustin Wheeler)

   McCormick said this year’s Septemberfest focused on the environment. In addition to a voter registration drive, Septemberfest featured a showing of Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Ken Burns’ documentary “The War,” a peace tree ceremony performed by Native American students, an apple pie contest, a Meet the Candidates gathering and a volunteer fair.

   While many non-profit organizations understand volunteerism, McCormick said they seldom understand service learning. A workshop discussed the differences and led to groups providing sign-up sheets during the volunteer fair to encourage students to become involved.

   In another effort to involve the community, churches and individuals joined with MSU’s campus choral groups for a community choir. The music faculty chose songs and held practices a couple of times before the performance.

   To cap the program, McCormick said Excellence in Civic Engagement Awards were given to campus groups and community organizations. Four on-campus awards recognized an organization, faculty, student and service learning, while three off-campus awards recognized an organization, business and individual.

   However, some ADP projects did not start out that way.

   Texas State University’s Student Body President Alexis Dabney and University Star student newspaper editor Maira Garcia spoke about the projects at their school that fit under the ADP umbrella in their presentation, “Accounts of Successful ADP Projects at Texas State University-San Marcos.”

   Dabney said San Marcos, a community of nearly 48,000 people, affects university students and vice-versa as the commuter school attempts to transform into a residential campus. While Texas State boasts 28,000 students, Dabney said 5,000 to 6,000 students live on campus, with another 10,000 living in the community.

   TSU provides students with a common experience by having students read a common text (e.g. John Graves’ “Goodbye to a River”) and listen to speakers, events and dialogues built around the topic. The philosophy department holds a dialogue series, which has garnered national coverage in USA Today. In 2008, Dabney said TSU will feature “The Legacy of LBJ and Civic Engagement” for President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 100th anniversary, which will be a national event.

   TSU’s community relations’ staff assigns a project to a multitude of student organizations through “Bobcat Build,” a campus-wide community service project to provide repairs, cleaning and construction needed in the San Marcos community. Garcia said the Star participated by landscaping church grounds in the community.

   Dabney said TSU’s Associated Student Government launched a massive drive that registered 26,000 students, though only 9,000 voted in the election. She said students responded to the idea that they should register in San Marcos since they would be living there for four years.

   TSU also boasts a student representative on City Council who is ASG’s City Council liaison. The student attends the City Council meetings and gives a report on student interests. Dabney said the council seat promotes civic education as candidates speak at ASG meetings or in the ASG City Council debate.

As a result of a breakout session just like the previously shown think tank, these students planned an artistic campaign to focus on similarities between groups instead of differences. (photo by Wheeler)

   Garcia said the Star started Spanish Heritage Month series and posted a Web site for the 2008 election. The paper recently endorsed City Council candidates, though it endorsed the incumbent instead of a student running to replace the incumbent.

   Yet another group decided the best way to promote civic engagement was by encouraging literacy skills.

   Laura Beth Jackson, an English graduate student from Middle Tennessee State University employed by Rutherford County’s Business Education Partnership (http://www.rutherfordbep.org/), presented “From Projects to Partnerships: Making service learning more effective with families, schools, universities and non-profit organizations.”

   Jackson said BEP primarily focuses on BookLIT, a nearly two-year-old family literacy program held each semester in local schools. With initiatives in Tennessee such as the Governor’s “Books from Birth,” which provides free books for children up to 6 years old, local nonprofits have attempted to help parents learn to read to their children and encourage family cultures of literacy.

   ADP-South Vice Chair Ron Kates, an MTSU English professor, worked with BEP Executive Director Lee Rennick to provide an experiential learning internship and begin service learning projects for Murfreesboro City and Rutherford County schools. Jackson said the model has been implemented in three different ways in the county, and ultimately produces community and business leaders.

   She said research indicates students learn more when a culture of learning exists at home. Under the BookLIT program, up to 12 parent-student teams meet once a week for a month during the evenings for dinner that encourages the feeling of talking around a dinner table. Working with a nonprofit group called “Read to Succeed” (http://readtosucceed.org/), MTSU students read aloud with the families and provide games and activities. Teachers recommend participating students, who are then approved by the school principal. Jackson said both BEP and the principal help choose the book to be read.

   “It’s not just a reading program where they learn about phonics, but it creates a culture of learning,” Jackson said. “Kids started getting the idea that reading is fun.”

   Service learning ties into the university curriculum, and meets some learning outcome through service-learning pedagogy. Kates recommends college students for service learning training (http://mtsu.edu/~exl/). Each project must be need-based, student-interest driven and hands-on. Students often have a leadership minor or they receive a one-hour credit for their transcript, which shows a potential employer or graduate university that the student has been involved in a service-learning program.

   In a service-learning project, the student plans it, implements it, then usually writes a paper afterwards to reflect on what’s happened. According to Jackson, the projects successes include creating a model by professors, teachers and professionals, giving experiential learning students teaching experience in a safe environment, and providing individual attention and instruction to students and families from more than just school teachers.

Democratic Engagement

   During the “How to Enhance your ADP Activities with the New York Times” session, Georgia College and State University’s political science instructor Gregg Kaufman discussed “Times Talk,” a weekly session he launched in August 2005 that encourages topical discussions. A “tool kit” on the sessions can be found at http://www.gcsu.edu/coverdell/Times%20Talk%20Tool%20Kit/Welcome.html.

Kaufman keeps a schedule that allows faculty, staff or students to facilitate current-events discussion over a topic chosen by the facilitator. About a week in advance, he sends the topic and a link to the chosen article to the campus e-mail. He also posts the subject on the news racks so participants can come prepared, having read the article to become aware of the subject.

Though participants can wait to read a copy of the article when they arrive, Kaufman said most read it online since the article can be accessed for seven days. Kaufman encourages facilitators to summarize the article, then pose questions to promote discussion.

   “I encourage faculty to work with students to get their opinions out,” Kaufman said. “From time to time, a faculty debate will break out. Then we must bring it back to student perspective. (The campus) president hosted one (discussion). It’s a great opportunity for deans to get into the classroom.”

   Kaufman said the Wednesday noon sessions usually attract more than 20 participants. He plans to use student and student group facilitators exclusively in the Spring 2008 semester.

   Free pizza entices between 20 and 25 students a week, Kaufman said. After one “Times Talk,” Kaufman claimed non-Greeks broke their stereotypes after reading an article and participating in a discussion of the culture and responsibilities of fraternities and sororities. New York Times’ representative Petra Kohlmann said Penn State made a definitive assessment on the “Times Talk”program while KSU’s Ross also has made an assessment of the program.

   In an effort to take the New York Times beyond campus, Kaufman works with middle school students through the “Early College Program on Campus” funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. Kaufman said ADP students read articles to seventh-grade students, then host a discussion about the issues. Kaufman found students who read the newspaper three or more days a week do better in class. At the end of six weeks, the seventh graders produced a newspaper.

   Kaufman and student Justin Mays elaborated on GCSU’s program during “Integrating an ADP-recognized Student Organization to Strengthen a Campus ADP Program.” Kaufman said Paul Coverdale left his Peace Corps’ papers to Georgia College and State University and the Coverdale Institute was founded.

The Institute used federal grant money, which is managed by the director of the Coverdale Institute. When GCSU launched its ADP program in 2003, it utilized funds from the Coverdale Institute to underwrite ADP. For the past three years, the Coverdale Institute worked with students and faculty to run ADP, but federal funding ends this year.

   In an effort to move from a model of an externally-funded program to student-led program, Mays has taken ADP to recognized student organization status, which consists of traditional organizations, Greek activities and institutional organizations. By becoming an RSO, ADP could petition the student government for travel funds, reserve campus facilities, solicit memberships, conduct on-campus fund-raising and use the University’s name in its title.

   “Our ADP becoming an RSO opened us up to the rest of the campus,” Mays said.

   In collaboration with the Black Student Association, Young Democrats, College Republicans, Political Science Department, Rhetoric Department and the Philosophy Department, ADP sponsors “Give Us Something to Talk About” (a themed weekly discussion) and a voter registration drive. This spring, GCSU’s ADP plans to hold mock elections to increase participation across campus.

Taking Democracy Abroad

This earth replica graces the Kennesaw State University campus, which hosted the American Democracy Project's Southern Consortium. (photo by Sitton)

This earth replica graces the Kennesaw State University campus, which hosted the American Democracy Project’s Southern Consortium. ADP students learned how they could take democracy worldwide. (photo by Sitton)

   While eating lunch, conference participants learned how to take the idea of democracy – i.e. one person, one action – to a broader, global setting while listening to a nonprofit CEO explain why he left the promised riches from a job in corporate America.

   With a job lined up after graduation, Ben Keesy planned to join the workforce immediately after majoring in math and accounting with internships at several major accounting firms. But his plans changed after talking with documentary film-making friends who he’d attended church with as a child.

   His friends took a trip to Africa with a documentary in mind, but could not find the sources needed to produce one on the subject they wanted. Instead, they stumbled on refugees in Northern Uganda, where the rebels in the 20-year Civil War abducted children and forced them into conscription.

   That encounter led the three young film-makers to create the documentary, “Invisible Children” (available at InvisibleChildren.com). When they returned to the States, they intended to show the documentary to friends and family members. Since then, the film has been shown to millions of people.

   Those friends talked Keesy into going to Uganda before he took his job. After finishing his last college final at UCLA, Keesy got on a plane the next day for what he now describes as “a life-changing trip.” Keesy told conference participants that he didn’t come from a background concerned about global issues.

   Yet the trip broke Keesy’s stereotypes of what it’s like to be in a conflict. While he acknowledged that America may have a savior complex, Keesy said he soaked in knowledge and wisdom from this area of the world, calling his problems insignificant compared to those faced by the refugees. On returning, Keesy and his friends decided to get the story out to people and start a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping and he became CEO of Invisible Children.

   “I got so excited. I had to quit my first professional job before I even started,” he said, adding that his parents did not necessarily agree. “But it’s a good idea, and it’s the right thing to do.”

   Keesy said Invisible Children does not lack ambition or ideals. The group went on a road trip to show the documentary face to face. After watching the documentary, people demanded to know what they could do to help. The group suggested talking about the issue and using creativity to spread the word. Volunteer supporters responded by holding bake sales across the United States and sewing the African continent on trucker hats, which they sold for $20 each.

   When confronting the problem of what to do with the money raised, Keesy said the group listened to the people involved in the conflict, who asked that the group help send their kids go to school to become educated so that they might lead the country in the future. Invisible Children now funds scholarships for kids to go to secondary school, since that isn’t a right in Uganda. Two years ago, the group helped 90 students and four mentors; this year they helped 600 students and 20 mentors.

   Invisible Children now tries to help students compete on a national level with the rest of Uganda. American college campuses and high schools partner with existing Ugandan school to refurbish the schools torn apart by the Civil War by providing teacher resources, texts and transportation. When confronted with the problem of how to get people concerned about world issues, Keesy said invisible children can be found all over the world.

   “What we found was the best way is to humanize the people in the conflict,” he said. “They are not subjects to pity, but they’re just like us. You want to be their friend, then it’s natural to want to help.”

   Keesy said that unlike Darfur, Ugandans speak a lot of English, so they didn’t have to overcome the language barrier present in that conflict. By getting involved, Keesy said volunteers appreciate more of what they have, which leads to genuine compassion and genuine help.

   Invisible Children wanted to culminate the tour with a nationwide event with a large gathering. The group decided the U.S. government could do a lot by pushing the peace process forward in Uganda. It created an event called “Displace Me,” which on April 28, 2007, gave activists a taste of what the Ugandan refugees went through. Activists created cardboard houses and limited their intake of food to simulate the living conditions refugees faced when forced to make their own housing and live off the limited food available.

   Following the demonstration in major cities across the United States, including Denver, Nashville and others, the group went to Congress and spoke to U.S. senators like John Kerry about the problem. Keesy reports that this led to Congress creating a diplomat position to be involved with the peace talks. More policy information can be found at ResolveUganda.org.

   The group also formed a “Schools for Schools” Web site (http://S4S.invisiblechildren.com). In a month, students already raised $200,000. With a committed adviser and four-to-five students, Keesy said any school can get Schools for Schools working. University students have the opportunity for internships in Uganda, while college and university professors can participate in a teacher exchange with a Ugandan teacher for two months.

Since the peace talks concluded, Keesy said there’s been a cease-fire, which has led to increased development, people walking around at night and increased hope for those affected by the Ugandan Civil War.

Democracy in Action – No One Approach


   Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, could not make the opening plenary session (see comment below), so Ross improvised by calling on people involved on the Southern campuses to speak.

   Kates told the group to take control of their own education by actively seeking out opportunities to volunteer. He said involvement helps employment opportunities as potential employers say volunteers are self-starters who give of themselves without expecting to get something back.

ADP-South Chair Bev McCormick (center) listens during a planning meeting on the last morning of the conference. McCormick stepped down following the conference and MTSU’s Ron Kates moved into the position. (photo by Wheeler)

ADP-South Chair Bev McCormick (center) listens during a planning meeting on the last morning of the conference. McCormick stepped down following the conference and MTSU’s Ron Kates moved into the position. (photo by Wheeler)

   McCormick said she liked the fact that the third conference was “more student-centric,” noting students are an important part of the university since they provide work study and both plan and help run events. McCormick said MSU counts on hundreds of students to make Septemberfest work.

   ADP-South Secretary/Treasurer Mike McCullough of the University of Tennessee at Martin found six attendees who were involved in their campus’ student government association and 10-15 involved in leadership groups around campus.

   “Students involved in this invariably give a care about something,” he said.

Marsha Riggs, a senior elementary education major at Middle Tennessee State University, said she sees the importance of service learning, understands what service learning is and why it is necessary to be involved. With her help, 30 fifth graders held a clothing/food drive for a single mother in Rutherford County, Tenn.

   Randy Manis, a MSU graduate teaching assistant in speech, said he identifies service opportunities in the community and passes the information on to 150 leadership students. Though he was looking for ways to enhance his resume by joining ADP, he said his work in the group gave him confidence. He claims to see himself in incoming students, which leads him to talk about opportunities to get them involved on campus and in the community.

   Kates said Manis and Riggs are both thinking how they can use their education to affect others. He noted there are few lines drawn between faculty and students who work on ADP.

   “Steal our ideas and replicate them somewhere else,” Kates said. “Form a community. Do things that will make you a better professional. To be a leader in a community, you don’t have to run for public office. There are so many ways to be a leader.”

   Editor’s Note: Dr. Ronald Sitton of the University of Arkansas at Monticello represents Arkansas in the ADP’s Southern Consortium. For more information on bringing ADP to a college or university campus, visit AASCU’s ADP Web site (http://www.aascu.org/programs/adp/).

(This article originally appeared in the Arkansas Free Press in the December 2007 issue).