Gephardt News

Engage Democracy: A New University-Wide Initiative

The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement has launched Engage Democracy, a university-wide initiative that aims to educate the campus community about the processes and civic skills needed to contribute to a thriving democracy. The initiative is generously funded by Karen and Bruce Levenson, AB ’71. The initiative includes five key components, with opportunities for student, faculty, and staff involvement:

The Gephardt Institute oversees student voter registration, engagement, and compliance across Washington University’s campuses. Through these efforts, we seek to foster a sense of lifelong civic agency and responsibility that will transcend students’ time at the university. We offer nonpartisan resources, organize WashU Votes volunteers, and coordinate highly visible voter registration and engagement activities to increase students’ political participation during all election cycles. During the 2016 election, our student voting rate increased by 11% from 2012, exceeding the national university average by 2 percentage points. We are building on this momentum to support both informed voting and voter turnout during the 2018 midterm election cycle and beyond.

We also offer Common Ground Grants in partnership with the Division of Student Affairs and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Grants are designed to catalyze the campus community in developing strategies to repair, address, and prevent polarization at Washington University and in the St. Louis community, through allocations ranging from $50 to $1,500. We funded four proposals in spring 2018 and are currently accepting applications for projects that aim to unify in an age of divisiveness. Past projects have included a week-long interfaith-intergroup dialogue retreat over spring break, sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and an interactive art wall to encourage public dialogue, sponsored by the Sam Fox School’s Office for Socially Engaged Practice.

Through a new Public Service Fellows Program, select Brown School students will form a professional development cohort to prepare for public service careers and immerse in local government via 10-month field work placements at St. Louis City Hall or city departments. This unique civic leadership program includes substantive mentorship and experiential learning opportunities.

In conjunction with our other civic engagement efforts, we are developing a customizable and nonpartisan workshop curriculum to equip students with knowledge and skills to effectively engage in the process of democracy, including “civics 101,” media literacy, and citizen tools for communicating with elected officials. Tom Irwin, our new Senior Fellow in Public Policy, also offers two political science courses (“Just Do It! Running for Political Office” and “Just Do It! Skills That Turn Passion Into Policy”) each year and is available to provide consultation, training, and career advising in the hard skills required for public policy and political campaigns. As Tom surmises, “Public policy touches all of us. Students have every right to access government and understand how to shape policy. It’s important to use our voices and engage.”

We invite you to learn more about the Engage Democracy initiative online and to connect with us at

Bruce and Karen Levenson: Advancing a Culture of Civic Participation 

Bruce and Karen Levenson

Engage Democracy is made possible by a generous gift from Karen and Bruce Levenson. Bruce Levenson, AB ’71, is a Washington University alumnus with an undergraduate degree in political science and Juris Doctor degree from the Washington College of Law at American University.  Bruce is the co-founder of United Communications Group, a company that provides guidance, analysis, data, and solutions to customers in multiple industries.

Bruce and his wife Karen are impactful philanthropists who are committed to civic engagement and believe in the necessity for young people to be informed and active participants in our democracy. The Levensons have supported a number of causes including the United States Holocaust Museum, the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, the University of Maryland, and nonprofits supporting disadvantaged youths.

In addition to providing seed funding for Engage Democracy and the Urban Fellows Program, now the Public Service Fellows program, at Washington University, Bruce Levenson’s commitment to civic engagement is demonstrated through the work he is doing with a national organization seeking the right to vote in local elections for 16 year olds.

As citizens who feel passionately about advancing democracy, Bruce and Karen are eager to empower others to do the same. “We enthusiastically support the Gephardt Institute,” he says, “because it fulfills our shared mission.” “Success would be every eligible Washington University student casting informed votes in elections and graduating with the tools and motivation to engage in the political process and other civic endeavors in the communities they land in after college.”