From Dayton, Ohio– College Students and the Public Summit at the Kettering Foundation… Part One

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New Directions for Leadership on College Campuses/ Life Lessons in Politics

By Jeanine Russaw

‘A lesson in politics’—where have I heard that before?  Cliché, yes.

This however, is not: Poli is a prefix with Latin derivation meaning “Many,” while Tics are “Blood-sucking Parasites.” That is the meaning of ‘politics’ according to a rather comical meme I came across in the past couple of months. While I am well aware of the joke’s grammatical fallacies, I could not help but question its validity.

Of course I know that not all politicians are honest, but that must mean the reverse is true as well. Indeed, not all politicians are dishonest…so why do I have a hard time trusting figures of authority in my personal day to day life?

I raise that question because that is my current definition of politics: life.

This is a conclusion I reached after a year with what I consider to be the best decision I’ve ever made in life: being involved with a Civic Engagement project (‘Deepening Democracy through Deliberation’) at Hofstra University in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation and NIF. It is very interesting how when one is putting together a puzzle and gets stuck on one particular piece, that is all they can see. It isn’t until the puzzle is completely finished that the manner in which the pieces fit together is visible.

That is very reminiscent of how my involvement with Civic Engagement has been. When I close my eyes and re-live the journey that it entailed, I find myself surprised— because who on earth could possibly imagine a former drama major with no prior knowledge/interest of politics or fundamental goings-on in the world suddenly interested in community development?

But that is exactly what I am, and I’m quite proud of it.

However, I soon realized that it was not enough to declare my interest in civic responsibility; I had to truly learn it and know exactly what I was talking about. Beginning with “Deeping Democracy through Deliberation,” I was presented the task of moderating National Issues Forums with an extremely talented group of 20 Hofstra students in order to bring  an understanding of ‘America’s Role in the World’ and similar topics to both high school students and working adults alike.

Lesson number one:

Everything in life involves some form of politics. There is no escaping it.

How could I have been so naïve? Politics and the end result of political decisions affect me daily. Be it through the amount of money I spend on my education, regulations on what I can and can’t write about in my desired profession, or even down to the choices I will make regarding the area where I will live. Nonbiased though we were in conducting these forums, someone in the group managed to bring the discussion back to that place.

The following is an excerpt from a blog I wrote after a forum at Long Beach Library:

“In this option, the issue guide suggests that in order to repair our ailing economy, the government should reward enterprise—we need innovators to move society forward. When participants were asked about giving tax breaks to the wealthy so that they might startup businesses to bolster the economy, one participant expressed grave concerns: ‘I don’t trust them to do that. They make more money than everyone else; they don’t do anything with it.’ She continued, ‘There needs to be more regulation or else our economy will fall apart,’ appropriately highlighting one of the major trade-offs associated with this possible action.”

As I wake up every morning and step outside my dorm onto the Hofstra campus, I often ponder whether or not my decisions make any type of difference. I believe empowering students with awareness of certain issues, followed by equipping them with the tools to make the changes they desire are most helpful. That was certainly the case when I accompanied Hofstra Civic Engagement representatives (with leader Etana Jacobi) for education of Sustained Dialogue.  I learned:

“Sustained Dialogue is about forging and transforming relationships between people of different or seemingly different identities, beliefs, or status for the purpose of garnering understanding or taking action.”

While life and politics are synonymous in my opinion, this is a much finer point.  Because of this broader sense of political phenomena, something else occurred to me. Why am I not talking about this with my peers? Why do I choose to be kept in the dark about the institutions I find myself in every day, when I could be taking advantage of my far more intelligent peers? And what if I’m not the only student who thinks this way?

These are the obstacles to comprehending community-politics.

Lesson number two:

Don’t like the rules?  It only takes a small group of people to make a difference.

For Hofstra, we have agreed upon a long term goal of closing the schism between the Hofstra campus and its surrounding community, while addressing concerns of socio-economic gaps and racial divides as possible causes. However, we have also come to the understanding that this will only be possible if we receive “buy in” from our own school, so we will first make a change at Hofstra by hearing the opinion of students and faculty.

There is room for improvement everywhere I turn. I no longer turn a blind eye to what is wrong, because as life is constantly changing, so is politics. Plans will constantly be made whether I choose to see it or not. So there is my crossroads: I can actively do something about certain situations, or I can just watch as life happens…helplessly.

So to answer the question I found myself wondering earlier, the reason I find myself distrusting authority figures is a defense mechanism of self-preservation…a natural part of life. Gone are the days where we can sit idly and be content with all policies we encounter—government imposed or otherwise. Now is the time when students can act to ensure the changes they would like see come into fruition.  That is what politics—and life—are about.

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