Feature: Reclaiming Democracy: Community Voice, Democratic Learning, and Social Justice through a Multi-Institutional, Community-Based, and Interdisciplinary Partnership

By Josie Alston Williams, Director, Community Engagement, Greensboro Housing Coalition; Hollyce “Sherry” Giles, Professor of Justice and Policy Studies, Guilford College; Spoma Jovanovic, Professor of Communication Studies, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Daniel Malotky, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Greensboro College; and Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Professor of Philosophy, Elon University [1]

In fall 2016, one of our coauthors, Josie Alston Williams, was working with the Greensboro Housing Coalition in a historically black low-income neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, to enlist residents to work collaboratively to improve conditions there. As she sought to implement needed changes surrounding their health and safety concerns, she was determined to use a process that would be driven by the residents. Josie recognized the value of academic research to help develop the community’s organizing and promote their goals to grant-giving agencies, yet she was skeptical about partnering with universities. In the past, she had seen academics and students tell communities what they need, rather than listen, and they often failed to bring the findings back to the communities in which the research began. Josie took a chance in becoming a core partner with Reclaiming Democracy after initial meetings with faculty held the promise for something different: a strong partnership focused on collaboratively finding concrete solutions to community concerns.

Reclaiming Democracy is an interdisciplinary course involving community members learning side-by-side with students and faculty from six area colleges and universities. A guiding principle is to collaborate with the community using the approach Josie advocated. Meeting every other year for the past ten years, the class has grappled with two central questions: What is democracy, and what does it require of us? We, the faculty of the course, recognize that democracy depends on the inclusion of members of the community and their many diverse perspectives. Engaging people in that way has proven painfully difficult in our fractious world, yet we have decided to frame our course around that challenge. We base our instruction on dialogue and shared work among diverse students, including many who attend public and private higher education institutions and some who have never entered college. Students mirror the racially and ethnically diverse demographics of our city and range in age from sixteen to sixty-six years old. Their personal experiences are varied and provide a rich trove of information to share with one another.

The specific nature of Reclaiming Democracy’s impact in the community has varied through the years, but throughout has involved building a web of relationships among faculty, students, alumni, community members, nonprofit leaders, and government officials. Students have graduated, found positions with local nonprofits, and returned as liaisons between the course and the community organizations with which they work, midwifing other students’ collaborative projects for democratic social change. This web of relationships allows the teaching, learning, and community projects to break the semester boundary, with students from one iteration of the course handing off projects to students in future classes, thus offering continuity to make more significant impacts on community problems.

To prepare students to participate in democratic processes, we structure the class as a space to read, talk, and think critically about the challenges affecting the lives of residents in Greensboro. A central goal guiding this class is to respond to the persistent fight to scale back democratic norms in our country. We engage the students in analysis and understanding of these factors while also injecting a hopefulness that often comes from grassroots efforts where meaningful change is most possible.

Students’ work often is directly democratic, including advancing free spaces that allow public protest, canvassing neighborhoods to educate community members about local ballot initiatives, resisting partisan gerrymandering, and upholding the importance and funding for public education to combat racial and other forms of injustice. We also learn about and use dialogue by utilizing our face-to-face time in class to highlight the differences people bring to our democracy, and by organizing for the implementation of resident-inspired murals and a community-based, low-frequency radio station. Additionally, we focus on other factors that limit, to the point of erasure, democratic decision making and action by reading about, for example, the problems of neoliberalism while working on the development of community gardens, organizing with residents to resist the reopening of a hazardous landfill in an economically depressed part of the city,[2] addressing a food desert in our city by helping to launch a cooperative grocery store,[3] and promoting alternative municipal budget structures, like participatory budgeting.[4]

One particularly powerful example of students’ partnership with a community group was a video production entitled “If You Could Hear Us, Would Our Voices Matter?” This short video, which included interviews with residents of the community that work with Josie, gave stark visual evidence of some of the city’s hazardous living conditions and was used to advocate for changes in affordable housing policy. The video was shown to the Greensboro Minimum Housing Standards Commission and led to the city making a “forced order to repair” ruling.[5] This ruling held that if the owner neglected a ninety-day deadline for making repairs on the 177-unit complex, the city could repair the units and put a lien on the property. This was the first time the ruling was applied to a multi-unit complex and eventually led the property owners to sell the building to a reputable landlord. This powerful video produced by students continues to be used as an advocacy tool to leverage support for more changes, including as the basis of a successful proposal for a Community-Centered Health grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina.

In the most recent iteration of the class, upon completing Danielle Allen’s book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, we asked students to write their own declaration in response to current challenges. Drawing from what they learned during the course and all they experienced, the students included among their grievances the lack of equality, undue corporate influence in public policy, disproportionate rates of incarceration, escalating gun violence, and persistent and unfairly distributed poverty. They called for a living wage, mental health reform, government transparency, and collaboration with other nations to affect climate change, among other demands.

Inspired by our students, the faculty of the Reclaiming Democracy class offer our own declaration about education. While incomplete, our preamble would read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that students have the capacity and innate joy to learn and critique, to develop the knowledge, skill, and art befitting responsible engagement in a free society. When cultural forces combine to reduce the mission of higher education to the production of cogs in the global economic system, the stakeholders of academia have the right and duty to reclaim the mantle of freedom. Toward this end, we call for bringing disparate constituencies together, creating democratic spaces in the classroom, and developing true partnerships with the communities we serve. We frame these efforts in the disciplines of a liberal education, offering the prospect of meaningful success to our students, both as immediately experienced and as a life goal. In doing so, we aim to strengthen the foundations of democracy itself.

[1] In acknowledgement of their full collaboration in writing about Reclaiming Democracy, the authors list their names alphabetically, with the first person listed rotating to last author in each subsequent publication about the course.

[2] Susan Ladd, “Fear of Environmental Racism Justified,” Greensboro News and Record, May 1, 2015, https://www.greensboro.com/fear-of-environmental-racism-justified/articl....

[3] Eric Ginsberg, “Supermarket Chains Ignored This Black Community, So Residents Opened a Co-Op,” Vice, Sept. 14, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3keqnb/renaissance-community-co-op-gr.... H. Scott Hoffmann, “Our Opinion: Even as Co-op Closes, There's a Lot to Be Proud of,” Greensboro News and Record, Jan. 13, 2019, https://www.greensboro.com/opinion/editorials/our-opinion-even-as-co-op-....

[4] Spoma Jovanovic, “Participatory Budgeting: People, Not Politicians, Decide How to Spend $500,000 in Greensboro,” Greensboro News and Record, April 17, 2016, https://www.greensboro.com/opinion/columns/participatory-budgeting-peopl....

[5] Susan Ladd, “Susan Ladd: College students explore democracy in action,” Greensboro News and Record, Dec. 8, 2016, https://www.greensboro.com/news/local_news/susan-ladd-college-students-e....