Engaging in the Work of Democracy Together
by Kathy Cramer
It is not easy to be a good democratic citizen. A basic requirement for good citizenship is that people know the nuts and bolts of government and their obligations and rights as citizens.
But being a good citizen requires more than knowing the Bill of Rights. At the Morgridge Center for Public Service, we have a saying: “Here’s the thing about Democracy: Ignore it and it will go away.” Being a good citizen requires active participation, putting your talents to work to meet real community needs and a basic attempt to understand other people whom your actions affect.
The Morgridge Center for Public Service is a civic engagement center. You might also call us a good citizenship center. We are in the business of helping to nourish democracy by enabling students at UW-Madison develop into great citizens, not just good ones.
Because democracy is government by the people, we the people need to be involved. At the Morgridge Center, we try to encourage involvement in public service by supporting a range of service activities and engaging a wide variety of students. We recognize that there are many ways that people can be involved in their democracy, from volunteering to working with governments to philanthropy. We seek to engage students in all of these forms and more, in ways that help them develop knowledge about civic life but also develop far beyond that baseline requirement of citizenship.
Because democracy is about the people governing themselves, being a good citizen requires developing a basic understanding of the other people whom your political choices affect. This requires developing the appetite and the skills to engage with people who hold a wide range of views. We try to live this ideal in practice at the Morgridge Center, not just by encouraging students to listen closely to community members while engaging in their service work but also by striving to engage a wide range of students in the programs we administer and support.
In our Badger Volunteers program, for example, we engage a wide range of students who volunteer to work on teams to address community needs. This semester, 720 students are volunteering with 76 community partner organizations and agencies in 141 teams every week. These students represent a range of interests. 46% of volunteers represent majors in the College of Letters & Science, which includes a wide variety of majors from Economics to Zoology. 10% of volunteers belong to the Wisconsin School of Business, 12% are in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and 9.5% are Engineering majors.
The projects students work on tackle community-identified needs related to education, health and sustainability, and the work these students do within these areas varies widely. One team works with Meals on Wheels through Home Health United, delivering meals and visiting with people in need. Another team works with Three Gaits, assisting with therapeutic horseback riding lessons for children, youth and adults with disabilities and special needs. Another team assists residents enrolled in the Music and Memory Program at Capitol Lakes Skilled Nursing Facility, which uses music to trigger memories for individuals struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other cognitive challenges to help them reconnect with the world.
Badger Volunteers is one of the many programs we administer. We are also proud to inspire good citizenship through the for-credit community-based learning courses we support. These courses are in almost every school and college across campus, from the School of Library and Information Studies to the School of Education.
Student work in this aspect of civic engagement at UW-Madison also addresses a broad array of community needs. In Computer Science 402, students teach computer science to Madison-area elementary and middle school students in after-school clubs. In Civil and Environmental Engineering 629, students work with community partners to develop engineering solutions for real-world problems, such as salt runoff on Madison roads. In Landscape Architecture 610, students work with nonprofit organizations or cities on outdoor projects such as designing a park or bike path for a community.
Good citizenship is not the obligation of people affiliated with a particular political party or social group. In order for a society to live up to its democratic ideals, all of its residents must be engaged. Ideally, we engage in this work together. One of our favorite recent examples is a bi-partisan blood drive that students conducted last spring as part of the first All-Campus Day of Service. The students showed that despite rampant skepticism, people of different political leanings can come together in service of the common good.
Kathy Cramer serves as the Faculty Director for the Morgridge Center for Public Service and is a professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Political Science in which she has taught a service-learning course called Citizenship, Democracy, and Difference for the past 14 years.