On My Mind
by Michele Tolela Myers, President
In 1999, a group of college and university presidents drafted a document entitled “The Presidents’ Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” in which they stated:
This country cannot afford to educate a generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit society or how to influence democratic decision-making. We must teach the skills and values of democracy, creating innumerable opportunities for our students to practice and reap the results of the real, hard work of citizenship.
I believe that the best way to ensure that our students acquire the knowledge they need to engage in the “real, hard work of citizenship” is to incorporate the art of leadership, the value of community, and the power of advocacy as integral components of a liberal education. Our experience, as well as current research in this field, supports our belief that it is possible to teach students the skills of effective leadership and advocacy. Research and experience also indicate that, to be successful, we must supplement our teaching efforts with opportunities for sustained community involvement and a support network that encourages students when the work is challenging, and that exposes them to inspiring role models who have been successful in effecting social change.
This is a tall order. Fortunately for us, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been willing to help us, first by funding a two-year pilot program, and now by supporting a three-year residential summer program for a selected group of students, faculty and staff focused on what we have called the Leadership Institute and Democratic Arts Program.
The goal of the program is to encourage a broadly diverse group of students—one half comprises our resident advisers, and the rest are students nominated by their peers, faculty and staff—to become actively involved in Sarah Lawrence affairs and to develop the leadership skills that will make them effective in making the College an active, open, supportive, intellectually vibrant, and fun community.
The Leadership Institute focuses on community building on campus. It deals squarely with issues that plague most student organizations: developing a clear purpose, planning, leadership continuity when chairs and members often change from year to year, training in areas such as group process skills, financial and budgetary know-how for organizations’ treasurers and student senators responsible for allocating resources to student groups, peer counseling skills for resident assistants. The program also helps students examine issues of inclusion and of social change implementation on campus.
In the Democratic Arts Program, students interested in social and political activism can improve their effectiveness as advocates and learn effective activism strategies. The program is run by the Office of Community Partnerships and Service Learning, with the assistance of faculty and staff.
The curriculum-based sessions led by faculty include such topics as multiculturalism and issues of inclusion; public policy, labor and human rights issues; lawmaking, lobbying, and effective advocacy and coalition building; history of social movements and criteria for creating an effective movement; presentation skills, debate and rhetoric. In addition, students will participate in sessions designed to improve their skills in facilitating meetings, in conflict resolution, and in motivating volunteers. By the end of the program, they will each chart a course of community involvement for the upcoming year and beyond.
Worthy goals for any campus, of course. But what captured the attention of the Mellon Foundation is Sarah Lawrence’s serious faculty involvement in the program. We share a belief that liberal arts colleges are places where the intellectual examination of political and social problems and the practice of effective activism skills can be melded, thus fostering the intelligent and active involvement of citizens in the affairs of their communities—what a real democracy demands.