Diversity and Democracy

Organizing for Change: Delta College’s Civic Story

Students walking the hallway at Michigan’s Delta College couldn’t help but stop. A mirror framed by the words “The New Face of Addiction” challenged stereotypes of those devastated by the opioid crisis. A computer displayed slides with stories of victims: beautiful people who fell prey to addiction, with fatal consequences. A table display presented opioid addiction as a mental health—not criminal—issue by asking passersby to sign a letter urging local law enforcement agencies to implement Hope Not Handcuffs. Started by the Michigan-based grassroots organization Families Against Narcotics, this initiative allows addicts to walk into an agency and seek treatment, without fear of being put behind bars.

The six Delta College students who pulled off this project were enrolled in an American Politics course at the community college that took them through a process of organizing to create a positive change. The students had formed a group around a common interest and personal experiences in the opioid crisis, but by the end of the semester, they found themselves the closest of friends. The group worked with Families Against Narcotics on the project. All the while, they gained citizenship skills—such as problem solving, critical thinking, and working collaboratively with others—to improve the quality of life in their community.

“Seeing how people reacted to Hope Not Handcuffs and Families Against Narcotics when I advocated for them . . . made me feel empowered and like I was actually effecting positive change,” said student Anna Percy. “That was a really, really good feeling.”

Group member Brandon Schultz added, “People out there actually don’t want to be silent; they want to have a voice in their government.”

The same organizing framework that students like Anna and Brandon used to mobilize their peers is implemented across Delta College’s campus to create a culture of civic activism and realize the civic mission of higher education.

Woven throughout Delta College’s civic story are community organizing principles: identifying interests, building relationships, telling stories, creating structure, designing strategy, and taking action. Just as community organizers build capacity for change, change agents including faculty and staff must organize constituencies across campus to create a civic culture. As we cultivate relationships with key players whose goals are aligned with civic work, we create building blocks for change.

Interests, Relationships, Stories, and Structure

At Delta College, campus civic organizers began by understanding how the interests and goals of departments and programs on campus aligned with civic activism. We asked, “What offices, departments, or initiatives support getting students out in the community and empowering them to use their education to create a positive change?”

The answer has resulted in the Democracy Commitment (TDC) core team at Delta College. As the hub for campus civic initiatives, it comprises faculty and staff across the college. This work started in 2011 as Delta College’s response to a national call to action from the Democracy Commitment, now Campus Compact’s Community Colleges for Democracy network.

Because civic engagement involves student engagement, faculty and staff with an interest in seeing students plug into college life have worked together on the TDC core team and multiplied their individual efforts. The campus life and student engagement coordinator has become a valuable member of the team. As the information specialists on campus, librarians are stakeholders in cultivating a politically informed student body and have become important team members as well. Faculty across disciplines have found civic engagement to be an effective way to help students see the real-life relevance of course material. For example, faculty teach English and communication as citizenship skills that can be used to effect positive change. Biology professors empower their students to raise awareness about public health issues like antibiotic-resistant bacteria or vaccine hesitancy. Faculty in these disciplines and others, like sociology and psychology, are an integral part of the team. All faculty can apply their service to the team to the promotion and tenure process. Finally, administrators support civic engagement due to its impact on students’ personal and professional growth, as well as the presence it gives the college at the community, state, and national levels. For example, Delta College furthered its commitment to sustainability by sending students to the Citizens Climate Lobby conference in Washington, DC, in June 2019, with funding from the college’s TDC budget.

With stakeholders identified, the rewarding work of building relationships begins. Investing in the people contributing to this work is essential to maintaining long-term commitments. Before our campus closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited our stakeholders to coffee conversations, conferences, deliberative dialogues, and celebratory events to demonstrate the value of each player in creating a civic culture. Team meetings, whether in person or through videoconferencing platforms, must include an agenda that works toward the goals of the team. A record of the group’s decisions and individuals’ commitments is critical for a productive meeting in which people know their time was appreciated. These relationships are the starting point for structuring the team and its leadership and assigning roles.

We meet with the college’s leadership at least annually to describe the work’s benefits to students, the college, and the community. We invite students to share their stories because stories are powerful motivators, evoking emotions and a sense of urgency, hope, solidarity, or even anger that can lead to action. We have also decorated halls around campus with pictures of and quotes from students who have been transformed by civic encounters. For example, one student said, “It has become very important to me to get involved and to stop thinking that one person can’t make a difference when that’s not the case. All it takes is one person to begin to spread the word about something and over time becoming an overwhelming force that cannot be stopped.”

Strategy and Action

After building capacity for cultural change by identifying interests, cultivating relationships, telling stories, and creating structure, Delta College’s TDC core team began developing its strategy for change. Strategizing is an ongoing process. We plan, act, evaluate the results, and plan some more (Ganz 2008). We have chosen tactics that raise the visibility of civic and political engagement on campus, creating encounters that encourage students to participate. Before the 2018 midterm election, for example, we challenged students to vote through signs around campus, a “pledge to vote” display, and the “Democracy Wall,” a three-sided black dry erase board outside the library where students could respond to questions of public concern in neon markers. We have hosted events—like a deliberative dialogue on marijuana legalization and a meet the candidates event—out in the open, piquing the interest of passersby.

Once we identified our strategy, we took action by deploying our team’s resources. The TDC core team has maximized its “people” resource by partnering with organizations including the League of Women Voters, Campus Vote Project, Campus Election Engagement Project, NextGen America, TurboVote, and the local county clerk’s offices. The college received a Voter Friendly Campus designation for the 2018 midterm election for its strategic actions in three areas: voter registration, education, and engagement. (We are also applying for this designation for the 2020 election.) This process involved creating an action plan with realistic goals, deadlines, and responsibilities, which ensured that we remained accountable and intentional about our partnerships and resources and that we carried out our vision of an engaged campus. In addition, the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge awarded our 2018 voter engagement action plan a Gold Seal for increasing voter turnout rates by 17 percentage points since 2014 and recognized our 2020 voter engagement action plan as exemplary (2020).

All this work culminates when students discover their voice in the political realm and become part of shaping the world in which they live. “Civic engagement at Delta College gave me firsthand experience in helping to enact meaningful, positive change in both my college and my community,” said former Delta College student Richard Diehl. “My involvement with a local organization gave me the on-the-ground training in this sort of work, and coupled with what I was learning in the classroom, provided me with a tool bag of skills.”


ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. 2020. “Action Plan Examples.” https://www.allinchallenge.org/resource-hub/action-plan-examples/.

Ganz, Marshall. 2008. “Organizing: People, Power, and Change.” Course lecture notes, Harvard University. https://annastarrrose.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/ganz-course-notes.pdf.

Lisa Lawrason is a Political Science Professor at Delta College.

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