Gephardt News

Course Spotlight: “Just Do It! Skills That Turn Passion Into Policy”

As part of the Gephardt Institute’s commitment to civic education and our Engage Democracy initiative, the institute and the Department of Political Science collaborate to offer one credit courses that teach students to leverage the political process to achieve a policy or advocacy goal.  

In 2020, David Leipholtz balanced his full-time commitment as Executive Director for the Center of Civic Research and Innovation to share his expertise through “Just Do It! Skills That Turn Passion Into Policy.” 

In this Q&A, Professor Leipholtz reflects on the experience of teaching the course and why the ability to turn passion into policy is a vital skill for anyone interested in engaging in the democratic process.

How did the opportunity to teach this course arise, and why is the course’s focus important for students’ interest in political science? 

I was fortunate enough to be asked to take over the course by its previous instructor, Tom Irwin.  The flipside of that good fortune is having the difficult role of following someone as accomplished as Tom.  He has worked in leadership roles throughout government and led a multitude of civic initiatives and entities. In addition, Tom is an incredible teacher both in and out of the classroom. 

When taking over the course, Tom made clear that he found that the success of the course is based on student engagement. With that in mind, the structure of the class is not a traditional lecture. We discuss the issues of the day and examine the political landscape and the inner-workings of campaigns through those issues.   

That approach leads to a broad examination of the political process which is at the heart of the political science field. It is a great steppingstone for the deeper dives that are provided by advanced coursework and the phenomenal opportunities that the Gephardt Institute provides. 

How did the events of 2020, including the pandemic, movement for Black Lives, and election, impact the course from its original design? 

The original design of the course is a perfect platform for discussion of these issues.  We have utilized them to examine elections and politics more generally. In that sense, the course has not changed because that is what it was built to do.  

I will say that those conversations are certainly more charged because of their weight and significance, but the students have been nothing short of remarkable. Their capacity to listen, disagree, persuade, and be persuaded all while being respectful leaves me with a great sense of hope for the future.  

What are the essential skills that someone with an interest in creating change in their community needs in order to translate that passion into action?  

I do not know that there is a precise recipe. I do believe that the starting point of passion is the key. The path to compelling action in the political/policy world is almost always filled with stubborn obstacles. Persistence is critical. Also, the ability to listen is not often associated with advocacy or running for office but it is essential.  

Finally, when converting passion to action, the toughest part can be harnessing that passion and meeting people where they are. If you can be passionate, know the most about an issue, but still make people feel heard and respected, you are on your way. In this current political climate, it is also a way to stand out because it refreshingly different. 

Interested in turning your passion into policy? Learn more about Engage Democracy on the Gephardt Institute’s website.