Increasing Civic Engagement Through Dialogue at ECU

East Carolina University holds an open forum on campus to discuss race and politics

Keeping students engaged in social and political issues has always been a problem university staff and faculty may find difficult to solve. The answer may lie in student leaders encouraging their peers to stay informed and updated by creating spaces for students to ask questions and participate in civil discourse. The Vote Everywhere (VE) Ambassadors at East Carolina University (ECU) have recently implemented two programs to keep students on campus involved in current social and political issues. They’re called Race in Our Space, which started during Fall 2017, and Politics in Our Space, which started this Spring semester of 2018.

The 2016 Presidential Election changed many campus climates and inspired students across the nation to become more active and informed about politics than they might have been previously. Team Leader Haley Creef, a sophomore and Erick Jenkins, a senior and VE Alumnus, counted themselves among that number. After the election, Creef and Jenkins both expressed a desire to create something to help their peers become more civically engaged, and “get students interested and involved with issues on campus,” Creef said.

With one-third of ECU’s student body identifying as students of color, race, and racism are important areas of discussion for the campus community. With that in mind, Race in Our Space was created. Creef explained, “The program is a place where students can discuss what race means to them and how it affects them in different ways.” Together, they came up with three specific topics for the program that they felt students would be most interested in exploring: race in social groups, race in education, and race in politics.

Creating a curriculum, complete with program format and learning outcomes, was key to setting the event in motion. The program, they proposed, looks like this: On the evening of the event, Creef and Jenkins introduce the topic, the expert panelists (comprised of students, staff, and faculty), and ask prepared questions. The floor is then opened to the audience, who are encouraged to share their own experiences or ask questions they may not normally feel comfortable asking outside of the program. Hoping that talking about these issues would drive students to vote, Creef and Jenkins also built voter registration into each event.

After the Race in Our Space’s curriculum was approved by Campus Champion Alex Dennis and the Vice-Chancellor, Creef and Jenkins wanted to do a program that would cover more than race — something a little broader, so students could have the opportunity to discuss other subjects relevant to today’s college students. The program was called Politics in Our Space, and had the same panel format as Race in Our Space did. Creef, Jenkins, and Dennis, along with Chris Ballance from the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement at ECU, came up with the sub-topics: Immigration, Healthcare, and Gun Control.

For this event, in particular, Jenkins created an “Issue Guide” for every sub-topic that was handed out before the event. Because these kinds of subjects are not usually taught on most college campuses, the pamphlet became a resource for students by breaking down the issue in layman’s terms, showing where each political party stood, and providing resources for further research on the topic.

“I want students to leave the room still talking about the topic. I hope that students come in open-minded and leave open-minded as they continue to discuss the issue with people who didn’t attend the event. That’s how we create change.”

Creef and Dennis agree that, while talks like this are often tricky, the panel also served as a necessary learning experience for students. Being a good speaker, students are realizing, isn’t always enough. Being an active listener is equally important.

“Obviously when we have a conversation like this, not everyone is going to agree, so civil discourse is important to learn,” said Dennis. “Everyone in the room is trying to voice their own opinion, so it’s important for everyone to be able to hear out someone’s view and understand where the speaker is coming from, even if they don’t agree with that stance.”

Creef hopes that the conversation will continue outside of the program. “I want students to leave the room still talking about the topic. I hope that students come in open-minded and leave open-minded as they continue to discuss the issue with people who didn’t attend the event. That’s how we create change.”

Creating change is a continuous process, which is why the team hopes to keep implementing these programs on ECU’s campus. “Race in Our Space and Politics in Our Space motivate students to be engaged, to go out and vote, and have their voices heard. Youth civic participation is central to The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission, which is why the plan is for these events to continue,” Dennis said. “We’ll have to change topics, and we might have to change the format as time goes on, but we want to keep these programs around.”

Receiving student input is equally important for the future of the program. After each event, students fill out an evaluation form with suggestions for the program moving forward. These recommendations allow Creef and Jenkins to both adapt the program as necessary in order to keep student interest and attendance up and show their commitment to ensuring that student voices are heard and hold weight within the team.

Through Race in Our Space and Politics in Our Space, Creef and Jenkins have inadvertently suggested a solution to the problem of low civic engagement among young voters. The answer isn’t belittling students for not knowing about issues that pertain to them while simultaneously failing to provide the resources necessary to educate them. Indeed, the solution is just the opposite: teaching them, and giving them what they need to form their own opinions. In turn, this will inspire young voters to take up the mantle to advocate for change they want to see on their campus and throughout the U.S. By providing safe spaces to educate and discuss current topics and ask questions, Creef and Jenkins are doing just that.

 About the Author

Hayley van Hoek is the Communications and Development Intern at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in Literature and a concentration in Creative Writing.