Something stirring in higher education

Eric Fretz is director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning at the University of Denver. He wrote this guest post about the impact of training students to be community organizers.The University of Denver uses the Public Achievement organizing model.


Last fall, we received a $300,000 gift from a local foundation to further develop our student civic engagement initiatives. With the funds, we recruited 20 students, paid them a pretty handsome stipend, and then trained them to be community organizers; that is, we taught them how to do one-to-one relational meetings, how to run house meetings, how to do community research, and how to build coalitions and understand self-interest, power and accountability.

At a recent evening event, we brought the funders as well as a collection of other donors, faculty and academic officers together to hear the students tell stories of their organizing work. Six students talked about their organizing projects: building a community garden, working with homeless coalitions, developing an organizing group on campus, creating a therapeutic recreation program, and making the U more LGBT friendly.

We used a modified Public Achievement issues convention framework where select students talked publicly about their issue, why it mattered to them, why is should matter to others and what they are doing to resolve the issue.

Afterwards, students facilitated a talk back with the audience where they challenged audience members to think about how they can support and participate in their projects.

Following the event, the air was electric. The funders spoke publicly about how important it was to hear students talk about meaningful work, our Advancement Officer told me she'd never seen anything like that before, and faculty members reported to all our staff that they were going to mimic this format for their classes and other events.

What was new to them all, of course, was what happens when we teach students how to organize, turn them loose, and then let them tell their stories and do their work.

Harry Boyte talks a lot about something stirring in higher education and in the larger culture, too. I really think strategic organizing in higher education is one of the ways that we can work toward culture change in our institutions.

Read about Public Achievement at DU

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs