How does our democracy really work? How are individuals and communities affected by local policies? What can I do to stay engaged post-election season? When it comes to politics, where do I even begin?
These are only a few of the major questions that Engage Democracy Workshops attempt to address. Designed to be nonpartisan, ideologically inclusive, and accessible for people of diverse backgrounds, the workshops deepen attendees’ understanding of democracy, civic responsibility, and political participation as well as their resolve to take action as active citizens at the local, state, and federal levels.
St. Louis politics are currently at the forefront of many discussions on campus, and numerous issues facing the city are complex and multifaceted. In order to attempt to answer some of the questions surrounding these issues, the Gephardt Institute recently hosted a workshop entitled Engage Democracy: Navigating St. Louis and Learning City Politics, with the aim of starting a dialogue on best practices for engagement with local government. The workshop drew a mix of undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, and community members, approaching the conversation from a variety of backgrounds. Attendees brought personal perspectives from their roots across the country and even the world, including Chicago, IL; St. Louis, MO; Richmond, VA; Louisville, KY; Australia; and rural Illinois. Despite their differences, attendees gathered with a shared drive to broaden their understanding of the structural and interactive components of local government.
“In general, I feel interested in and responsible for learning more about St. Louis.” said Carmen Vescia, class of 2019. “As I learn more about it, I’m realizing that St. Louis is a unique and complicated city. Also, being a student of Washington University can sometimes feel like you’re isolated or in a bubble, and I want to learn more about what’s going on in the community.”
Other attendees echoed this desire to attend the workshop in an attempt to “burst the bubble.” Andrea Willis, second-year student at the Brown School pursuing her Master of Social Work noted, “I’m not from St. Louis or the Midwest. I just wanted to learn more about what’s going on in St. Louis, because even though I have a practicum, I’m still not as engaged or tuned in to what’s really going on.” Willis expressed a desire to engage beyond current experiences: “Although I’m with people every day that live here, I don’t really see nor do I feel I am affected by it, because I am still in a bubble, even though I am in a field of study that’s supposed to place me in a community and actually be informed.”
While the workshop encouraged attendees to think about how they could become civically active and educated in their own communities through a series of brainstorming sessions and activities, it focused primarily on issues in St. Louis and the unique nature of St. Louis citizenship. The primary discussions that arose out of the workshop included St. Louis-specific conversations about the political dynamics of the Board of Aldermen and the climate surrounding the city/county divide, who the St. Louis government serves and whether or not it effectively represents its population. The group, then, unpacked some of the potential issues that might arise from the Better Together plan, especially for marginalized communities, as well as the plan’s potential benefits. They ended the session brainstorming ways to stay consistently civically informed and engaged.
The recently launched Engage Democracy Initiative seeks to educate the campus community about the processes and civic skills needed to contribute to a thriving democracy. The Gephardt Institute offers three categories of workshops to support individuals at each stage of their civic journey: Citizen Foundation, Citizen Tools, and Citizen Action. The workshops are open and available to all members of the WashU community, and each workshop can be customized for specific audiences. Students, faculty, and staff can request workshops by contacting the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Education Fellow, Emily Anderson. In addition to civic skills workshops such as Navigating St. Louis, Engage Democracy supports voter engagement, Common Ground Grants, a Senior Fellow in Public Policy, and a Public Service Fellows Program in partnership with the Brown School.
Get the answers to your questions and gain the skills to continue engaging. To learn more or request a workshop, contact Civic Education Fellow Emily Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website.