Gephardt News

WashU Engage: Deepening Civic Involvement Where We Live and Work

Alumni Engagement in the Windy City

In recent years, Washington University has deepened its commitment to galvanize and foster the civic involvement of alumni in addition to students, faculty, and staff, with the goal of building stronger communities across the nation and world. The Gephardt Institute partnered with the Alumni Association to launch WashU Engage in spring 2016. This initiative serves local communities, while providing alumni the opportunity to connect with each other and reflect on their role in the communities where they live and work.

Nearly 1,500 alumni, parents, and friends have participated in WashU Engage volunteer projects and discussions at senior citizen centers, city parks, and book discussions through the initiative, and many have asked for opportunities to engage even more throughout the year. John Crosby, AB ’69, serves on the Gephardt Institute’s National Council and has been instrumental in expanding the program’s scope. “I have spoken with alumni of all ages about WashU Engage,” he shared, “and they are enthusiastic; they want to serve as agents of change and help solve the problems facing their communities.”

WashU Engage Chicago volunteers at an Interfaith Action Sunday Soup Kitchen event on January 7, 2018

After conducting focus groups across the country, the Gephardt Institute and the Alumni Association chose Chicago as a pilot city where a series of events could be held in 2018. Crosby has worked tirelessly with university staff, alumni volunteers, and an alumni focus group to gauge interest and narrow ideas. Crosby is chair of a planning committee with 12 alumni in the Chicago area. Last fall, the committee prepared a survey that went out to approximately 8,000 alumni, family, and friends. 90 percent of respondents expressed an interest in getting more involved and addressing pressing social issues such as the environment, youth development, sexual harassment, food insecurity, healthcare, and gun violence.

In January, 24 Chicago alumni participated in an Interfaith Action Sunday Soup Kitchen event, serving meals to 60 homeless community members at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Katie McKenzie, AB ’07, hosted the event, which is the second in the series of events planned for WashU Engage Chicago’s inaugural year. Volunteers included parents, current WashU students, and children as young as 7 and as old as 13. “The fact that we attracted such a diverse group of all ages and backgrounds,” Crosby said, “gives me great hope that we have touched a chord among our fellow alumni. Their interest in the Gephardt Institute and its mission and vision was also gratifying to hear.”

When asked about his goals for WashU Engage Chicago, Crosby responded that he seeks to “develop a critical mass of volunteers that are consistently coming to events and spreading the word so the number of attendees grows exponentially.” Upcoming plans include a retirement center bingo and breakfast event in March; an environmental service project in May; a civic engagement seminar series on political engagement and democracy in action in June; Common Reading Program book discussions in October; and a Toys for Tots holiday party in November or December. If the program is successful, Crosby hopes to expand to other major cities in coming years.

John Crosby and JoJo Knaup (back row) at a 2017 Common Reading Program book discussion for alumni, parents, and friends in the Chicago area

John Crosby: Leading by Example

John Crosby and his wife JoJo Knaup, AB ’69, were both active on campus during their undergraduate years, and Knaup has served for many years on the National Council for the Undergraduate Student Experience. Crosby credits their student life experience for the energy he hopes to bring to this endeavor. Additionally, Crosby served as Chief of Staff to Congressman Dick Gephardt during his first three terms in office (1977-1982). “Having the opportunity to work with the Congressman and to advance the vision he has for the work of the Gephardt Institute has been music to my ears,” he said. “The charge we’ve been given vis-à-vis alumni is an exciting one. We can help 100,000 peers discover engagement opportunities across the country.”

As an alumnus, Crosby is committed to developing partnerships with community members and understanding how their needs speak to broader social issues. “At each of our WashU Engage Chicago events,” he explained, “we include a civic policy discussion. At our recent soup kitchen event, for example, we discussed food insecurity and caring for the homeless from a policy perspective. We shared data on the Chicago metropolitan area and at the national level.”

“Working with faculty and staff on the university’s campus,” Crosby continued, “we hope to bring their expertise and research to bear on the policy discussions held at these events. It is important to consider community needs and potential policy changes at each of our programs, and we encourage participants to explore these issues in greater depth and reach out to local legislators to catalyze change.”

“I deeply appreciate the support we receive from Gephardt Institute and Alumni Association staff,” he concluded. “Without it, we couldn’t do this work.”

To learn more about WashU Engage and upcoming events, click here.