Diversity and Democracy

Democratic Agency and the Visionary's Dilemma

People working in the early stages of broad social movements face a common conundrum. Call it the visionary's dilemma: How can a movement gain traction when the dominant culture's theories, knowledge, politics, and conventional mechanisms for social and institutional change reflect the status quo? Participants in the US Civil Rights Movement, for example, sought to expand voting rights without having the benefit of the electoral clout that full voting rights would eventually afford them. They faced violence, entrenched privilege, and a widespread sense of powerlessness stemming from the very oppression they were trying to defeat. Among their responses to this dilemma were the Freedom Schools: spaces in which people could imagine otherwise, develop new knowledge together, learn essential academic and organizing skills, and discover their individual and collective capacity to initiate far-reaching change.

Scholars and leaders working to fundamentally refocus American higher education to support democratic renewal also must contend with the visionary's dilemma. In A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) asked higher education leaders to imagine and take the first steps toward an ambitious vision of democracy as a core institutional value demonstrated in action. However, structural challenges, entrenched cultural practices, and lack of "full participation" (Sturm et al. 2011) obscure our vision. How can we imagine significant changes in professional roles; in hierarchical conceptions of teaching, learning, assessment, and reward structures; and in exclusionary cultural norms? How might the critical, questioning, student-centered, and action-oriented approach of the Freedom Schools inspire us to lay an intellectual, cultural, and practical foundation for powerful democratic knowledge and practice?

Democratic Strands

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), we are asking and beginning to answer these challenging questions. With our BreakingGround initiative, formally launched in August 2012, we seek to overcome the visionary's dilemma by fostering human connections, encouraging new questions, and (re)awakening students, faculty, and staff members to their own hopes that their lives and careers will matter. BreakingGround's programmatic components, including funding opportunities created by Provost Philip Rous to support courses and programs, are the surface layers of a deeper, organic process of relationship-building, imaginative thinking, and experimentation with new forums and incentives for democratic engagement that are now part of the unfolding UMBC story.

The democratic strands in UMBC's culture run back to the institution's founding in the mid-1960s as the first public university established in Maryland after Brown v. Board of Education. When building the campus, planners waited to lay sidewalks until they saw how people chose to walk across the fields between the original buildings. In the decades that followed, UMBC developed cooperative education programs, internship programs, and service-learning initiatives; opened the Shriver Center in 1993 to support reflective engagement with long-term community partners; launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1998 to support excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for students from marginalized populations; and in 2003 received a grant from the National Science Foundation to promote the advancement of women faculty in STEM, prompting conversations that produced a campus-wide faculty diversity program. In 2007 our Student Government Association launched Prove It!, an annual contest that awards grants to teams of students who develop social innovations that benefit the UMBC community. Faculty members have developed courses where students work with community members to address challenges facing Baltimore's communities, and departments like Gender and Women's Studies have supported students as advocates for social justice. UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and others across the campus have launched projects to support and critically assess innovations in teaching and learning that emphasize collaboration.

Despite these deep roots, BreakingGround's immediate origins are as prosaic as a scene from The Breakfast Club: five people with different roles on campus, sitting in a room, having a frank conversation that departed from the usual scripts. In 2010, those five individuals—an academic department chair, a scholarship program manager, the Shriver Center's director, the student government president, and a student affairs professional—met to discuss the deep meaning of their work in supporting students' and colleagues' development as co-creators of their communities, having recognized a common philosophy of democratic engagement linking their separate programs and learning spaces. That philosophy emphasized that individuals and collaborative groups are powerful agents of meaningful change, and that students deserve genuine respect as agents in their own lives and as partners in building community.

A Philosophy and Process

Following their initial meeting, the group decided to explore how others on campus thought about their own programs and spaces, focusing on the connections between people's personal aspirations to make a positive difference and their approaches to their contributions on campus. The resulting discussions were marked by transparency (carrying no hidden agendas) and authenticity (speaking person-to-person, rather than position-to-position, whenever possible). Those initial conversations worked well because they embodied the ideals the original group was seeking to advance: full participation by people collaborating to envision and create the future of their (campus) community. Beyond generating good ideas and good will, the conversations helped sharpen participants' focus on the importance of cultural practices: the subtleties of daily interactions that could either reduce people to their autonomous roles, or foster a sense of emerging collective power.

Eventually the conversations snowballed, and participants started asking how they could deepen and extend their collective efforts. In the ensuing months, the initiative gained a name, a website, and funding and support from senior leadership. BreakingGround grants supported the creation or redesign of courses across the disciplines and helped launch collaborative community projects. But the expanding yet informal group of students, faculty, and staff steering the initiative has taken care to identify BreakingGround not as a distinct program, but as a philosophy and process reflecting a multitude of voices, contributions, stories, and reflections, many of which are gathered on the BreakingGround website (breakingground.umbc.edu).

Thus instead of staking out turf and securing dedicated budgets, we have worked to promote democratic cultural practices and foster democratic agency among people involved in strategic planning and budgeting, research and teaching, speaker series and faculty working groups, student and faculty recruitment, and student organizations. The results are clear in the way UMBC's people talk about our campus and in the way our work increasingly emphasizes that all campus stakeholders are real human beings with knowledge, skills, and stories that connect us to each other as we engage our communities.

Growing Conversations and Cooperation


Students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County build The Garden. (Photo by David Hoffman)

BreakingGround's strategy and spirit are exemplified by The Garden, a student initiative (a Prove It! winner and a BreakingGround grant recipient) that has connected a wide variety of campus partners. Its organizers aspired to establish a place where community members could grow food and talk about food security. They also wanted to foster collective agency, recognizing the deep democratic symbolism of people working together to build and tend to an unfinished space on campus. In addition to vegetables and herbs, The Garden produces conversations and cooperation among people whose campus roles might never have brought them together, yields opportunities for interdisciplinary research and teaching, and nourishes the notion that we all can co-create opportunities to shape the relationships and spaces of our communities.

In The Garden and kindred projects and courses, we can hear a distant echo of the Freedom Schools, and glimpse the possibility of transcending the visionary's dilemma in higher education. Here we can imagine together, and enact our commitment to a reinvigorated democracy.


National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Sturm, Susan, Timothy Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education (Paper 17). Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://surface.syr.edu/ia/17/.

David Hoffman is assistant director of student life for civic agency; Craig Berger is coordinator of student life for campus and civic engagement; Beverly Bickel is clinical associate professor in language, literacy, and culture—all at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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