Peer Review

Democracy Matters at Colgate University

Colgate University students have been actively engaged in working to deepen democracy and promote civic engagement among their peers since 2000, when they formed a campus chapter of the nonpartisan national student organization, the Democracy Matters (DM) Institute. DM is a nonpartisan organization of students and professors working on seventy or more campuses across the country each year to educate people about the role of private money in politics, and its negative impact on democracy.

Colgate’s Democracy Matters (DM) chapter holds weekly educational and planning meetings. This past year’s activity included a variety of outreach events both on campus and in the local community, including lectures, brown bag discussions, a pro-democracy concert, “DemROCKracy,” and a series of events during two “Fair Elections Weeks of Action”—one week in November and the other in April. DM members published op-eds and articles in the campus newspaper, held student empowerment training sessions, produced a video shown in the campus center, registered their peers to vote, invited local politicians to campus to discuss important issues, organized a “Speak Out” rally on the main quad, traveled to local high schools to teach American government classes about the role of money in politics, and went door-to-door in the local town of Hamilton talking to residents about why democracy matters.

During the year, Colgate DM activists met, exchanged ideas, and often collaborated with representatives of national nonstudent citizen organizations, such as Common Cause, as well as with other Democracy Matters chapters from across the country. With other DM students, they participated in the three-day 2007 Democracy Matters Summit, attended by over one hundred students. And this year’s graduating Colgate Democracy Matters intern, like many other DM alumns over the years, has chosen a career path that continues her active involvement with political engagement. She is working as a health care reform organizer with a New York nonpartisan grassroots citizen’s organization.

The Founding of Democracy Matters

The Democracy Matters Institute was founded by three Colgate University professors and one of their former students, Adonal Foyle. Foyle was drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1997, and three years later he invited several faculty to help him start a national student organization that would give students a voice in the effort to change the way political campaigns are funded.

Foyle reasoned that the apathy and cynicism about politics he had experienced among his fellow Colgate students resulted from their belief (widely shared in the society) that big campaign donors largely control the political agenda and that as a result ordinary citizens’ voices—especially students—are ignored. Foyle believed he could spark enthusiasm for political and civic engagement by enlisting students to organize around the links between the need for campaign finance reform and issues like the environment, health care, rising college tuition and interest on student loans, foreign policy, and others. By establishing DM chapters on multiple college campuses that would educate others on the issue of money and politics and actively involve fellow students as advocates for deepening democracy, Foyle hoped to stimulate lifelong patterns of civic and political engagement among young people.

Democracy Matters was born out of these concerns. Since 2001, the organization has had active chapters on more than five hundred college campuses in twenty-six states. These have included small private liberal arts colleges such as Colgate and Scripps, large public universities like Ohio State and the campuses of the University of California, historically black colleges like Winston-Salem and Morehouse, women’s colleges such as Smith and Mount Holyoke, religiously affiliated campuses like Calvin College, community colleges like California’s De Anza and New York’s Ulster County, urban schools like the University of Denver, and rural campuses like St. Lawrence. Each spring, the Democracy Matters Institute receives applications from hundreds of undergraduates for one of its seventy DM paid Organizing for Social Change internships, to be awarded for the following academic year. The DM Board of Directors reviews applications and selects seventy interns. Only one student from each campus may be selected. The colleges included in the program in any one year are those attended by selected interns. (Information on applying for a DM internship is available at www.democracymatters.org.)

Developing Lifelong Civic Engagement

Colgate’s Democracy Matters activities are typical of the organizing work of other DM chapters. Over the years we have found that many factors influence the success of a chapter, its longevity, and its ability to engage students. One important determinant is that students are in charge of selecting their own mix of activities. Each intern, along with chapter members, takes responsibility for creating a strategic plan for the semester. The DM Web site (www.democracymatters.org) offers detailed descriptions by interns of activities carried out on their campuses, but each chapter is encouraged to come up with its own ideas. In order to support this process, each DM intern is assigned a member of the Democracy Matters Institute field staff—themselves young people who have experience in campus organizing—for brainstorming and for help in planning and implementing successful events. Interns have a weekly phone check-in with their staff “link,” and staff travel to campuses each semester as well. Staff are trained to be mentors—even “teachers.” Their goal is to build in students the skills and leadership ability necessary for developing lifelong civic engagement. In sum, while students are given responsibility for organizing on their own campus, they do so with continuous and individualized support and ongoing training.

Another important factor concerns the role of the university itself. Some colleges and universities encourage and indeed facilitate civic and political engagement among their students while others remain more neutral. However, at some schools students are virtually blocked at every turn from successfully carrying out organizing efforts. It is, of course, important that schools register and set rules for student organizations on their campus, but in to many cases these procedures are so burdensome that students find it almost impossible to carry out even the simplest of activities.

In the case of Colgate, the university strives to provide positive support for student organizing. Colgate’s president and deans have made it clear that they are eager for students to engage in learning and growth outside the classroom. Last year for example, DM students worked with the administration to create a program that encouraged all first-year students to register to vote. Democracy Matters students were invited to return to campus before the regular academic year began in order to participate in First-Year Orientation and implement their program. In addition, as part of the university’s ongoing support for student organizations, the Colgate DM chapter, like other clubs, is able to request a budget to support its activities, use campus facilities for meetings and events, and utilize the expertise and help of Colgate’s activities staff in both planning and implementation. Also important has been the involvement of Colgate faculty, who are often willing to participate in Democracy Matters-sponsored events. Examples include a recent successful teach-in where each of five faculty briefly described an important issue facing society (global warming, food contamination, the war in Iraq, educational policy, and increasing poverty), and a member of the Democracy Matters Institute speaker’s bureau then discussed how each of these issues was related to the role of private contributions to political campaigns and what students could do to support change.

Other Lessons Learned

We have learned many other lessons in our eight years of campus organizing, but three in particular stand out. The first is recognizing the importance of campus coalitions. Democracy Matters chapters have grown and been effective because they reach out not only to individuals on campus but to groups as well—regardless of their political affiliation. Because DM’s mission is nonpartisan, chapters can appeal to and attract students with diverse interests and concerns. Last year at Colgate, for example, Democracy Matters students arranged to present ideas to a variety of student groups about how they might work together. They built relationships not only with explicitly “political” groups, but also with those concerned with specific issues and also with groups involved in volunteer service activities. DM members spoke at a meeting of a campus environmental group, explaining how working together for campaign finance reform would impact U.S. environmental policy, and they also attended a meeting of The Brothers, an African-American student organization, to discuss public financing as a remedy for the frequently underfinanced political campaigns of low-income candidates. This outreach has often led to groups participating in each others’ events and continuing to collaborate. Given the balkanization of most campuses into different groups and causes, bringing students together to talk and act politically is of great importance.

Another lesson has been the importance of a positive message. Faculty and students at institutions like Colgate excel in developing critical thinking, and this is of course important. But being only critical tends to depress rather than encourage student activism and involvement. Democracy Matters at Colgate has been successful because students have not only offered a critique of large private political contributions as a danger to our democracy, but also explained how students can make a concrete, practical difference by helping to create a fairer system of campaign funding. Democracy Matters students at Colgate create events to educate others about the public financing of election campaigns as a positive solution to the problem of special-interest money in politics. For example, they ran a weeklong educational poster campaign that illustrated the way public financing creates a level playing field among candidates and allows people who are not wealthy—including students—to run for office.

One important aspect of the DM message is that students can make a difference politically. By pointing to the fact that full public financing has been implemented in seven states and two cities in the United States, where ordinary people have effectively changed the campaign funding system and enabled citizens from all walks of life to run for office, students can see the tangible results of active political engagement. Colgate DM members share the message that the political process in a democracy can work for students rather than exclude them. They emphasize examples of how others, like themselves, have succeeded in creating successful political reform. Many students tell us that they had given up on politics before learning about public financing of campaigns. This positive content—offering hope for real and workable solutions to a political problem—is critical for sustaining student involvement.

A final lesson is the importance of encouraging students to think long-term and beyond their own campuses. For many undergraduates, their campus and their friends are their whole world, and they are reluctant to venture afar or to think too much about their lives after graduation (except perhaps with anxiety). By encouraging students to create links between their campus activities and ongoing groups and issues in the wider community and world, a different kind of learning takes place. Specifically in this coming academic year—an election year—the Democracy Matters Institute will emphasize the importance of knowing about and participating in the 2008 election. Colgate students as well as other DM chapters are already planning to work with other campus groups to disseminate information on candidates’ views (including their positions on campaign finance reform), and to help to register students and then bring them to the polls on Election Day. But equally important for DM will be an effort to encourage students to think about what will happen—and what role they can play—after election day. Democracy Matters students will be creating events to explore the broader and deeper issues that this election is raising—problems that will continue well beyond November. They will encourage their peers to remain involved in influencing important ongoing policy discussions, in communicating with their representatives, and in being proactive on the issues they care about beyond Election Day and indeed beyond graduation. Undergraduate activism in Democracy Matters provides a model for, as well as information about, involvement with national civic and political organizations. This experience can facilitate students’ post-college transition to becoming lifelong politically engaged citizens.

Democracy Matters’ focus on democratizing the political process by implementing public financing of campaigns has captured not only the enthusiasm but also the concern for the future that characterizes many college students. Students often don’t know how to express that concern, and today’s political system can seem alienating, confusing, and difficult to influence. By training, supporting, and involving them in working on a concrete and pragmatic political change that affects many issues they care about, Democracy Matters’ program helps students understand not only how active citizens can succeed in creating a more responsive political system but also how they personally can play an important role in that process.


Joan D. Mandle is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology Emerita at Colgate University and the executive director of The Democracy Matters Institute.

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