The Skills to Make Local Change

February 24, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week about Dartmouth’s effort to fight back against its culture of binge drinking and sexual assault. The pessimism among students about the likelihood of success reminded me of conversations I had with students when I was working at Princeton. I was co-teaching a seminar on social entrepreneurship, in which the students were developing proposals to do things like end global poverty. They were all quite confident that they could lead systemic change to produce major impact. 

Inspired in part by the work of Bringing Theory to Practice, I opened a conversation one day with these students about whether it would be possible to bring the drinking culture at Princeton under control by engaging students in community-oriented work. (I should note that I don’t think the drinking culture at Princeton is worse than at similar colleges.)

To a person, my students rejected the possibility that anyone or anything could make a dent. I pointed out the irony of their temerity in the face of global challenges and their timorousness in the face of local ones. They were smart enough to see it, but that did not lead them to reconsider.

We know from a vast body of research that engaging students in meaningful public work through the academic curriculum increases the degree to which they see themselves as people who can effect change. Many of those Princeton students had been involved in such experiences, and that fed their confidence—when they imagined themselves working with communities that were far from Princeton. I suspect that their lack of local confidence had to do with their lack of organizing skills. They could envision big projects, but when they imagined themselves working with people they actually knew, they couldn’t quite imagine what they would say. They didn’t know how to work with people to discover what motivated them and to bring them together to produce change in their own community. They didn’t know how to organize.

If campuses are to make lasting progress in their attempts to create environments where dangerous and criminal behaviors are widely seen as unacceptable, they will need the support of students who know how to make change right where they live. Campus efforts to eliminate binge drinking and sexual assault can succeed only if students will work together not just to protect individual students from harm—although that is important—but also to build a campus culture that values responsible and ethical conduct.

Fortunately, there are efforts to teach students the organizing skills they will need to create more just and equitable environments on campus and elsewhere. The Leading Change Network has built one such model based on the work of Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a former Director of Organizing with the United Farm Workers. LCN helps faculty members learn how to offer courses through which students learn the central practices of community organizing. The point is not to tell students what they should care about but to enable them to work effectively with others to make change based on their values. One purpose of this kind of teaching is to enable students to be better citizens throughout their lives. Another purpose is to help build campus cultures that are inclusive and respectful.