Diversity and Democracy

Engaging Diversity and Democracy in Local and National Forums

USC’s Center for Diversity and Democracy helped organize an intensive study abroad trip to Japan for first-generation college students
USC’s Center for Diversity and Democracy helped organize an intensive study abroad trip to Japan for first-generation college students.

In December 2010, Ozomatli, a multiracial Grammy-award-winning group of musicians from Los Angeles, California, performed in the auditorium of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The concert's songs were written by local junior high and high school students who had drawn from their personal experiences in the City of Angels to construct "corridos of Los Angeles," celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Mexican Revolution with the ballad-like song form made famous by that critical event. From a total of eighty submissions from schools all over southern California, community jurors selected fifteen songs in English and Spanish for performance in front of teachers, family members, and fans of the corrido tradition. Despite occurring amidst a growing backlash against Mexican and other immigrants in the region, the event culminated an exciting period of creativity for primary and secondary school classes learning about Mexican history and the corrido cultural form. Organized in collaboration with LACMA, USC's Latin American Studies Program, and its Center for Popular Music, the event was one of many important exercises in diversity and democracy sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Democracy (CDD) at the University of Southern California (USC).

A Locally Grounded Mission

Created in 2006, the CDD aims to support civically engaged activities and scholarship focused on issues of diversity and inclusion facing Los Angeles and the United States as a whole. In leading the center since its inception, I have drawn on ideas expressed in my essay "Crossing Figueroa" (2004), which draws its name from one of the streets that separates the USC campus from the surrounding community. In that essay, I called for renewed attention to the relationship between two factors: institutions' efforts to build sustained relationships with diverse local communities, and their often-frustrating attempts to open their campuses to faculty and students from those same communities. Over the years, the CDD has created, supported, and sustained projects that address and advance the relationship between these two critical pathways of democratic renewal and diversity enhancement in twenty-first-century higher education.

Since my 2008 appointment as vice dean for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives in USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, I have expanded the CDD's role in university efforts to create a more effective and reflective environment for civic engagement and diverse student success. Over the past few years, the CDD has initiated several projects in support of this goal. First-generation college students can now engage in an intensive study abroad experience in Japan, where they build systemic understandings of how business and cultural exchange with East Asia affects the lives of residents of south Los Angeles. A team of undergraduate and graduate students researched and wrote the history of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, a forty-year-old student-funded program designed to diversify the USC student body by annually supporting hundreds of incoming low-income students. Faculty edited a forthcoming book on black–Latino relations in Los Angeles, addressing a critical issue that affects most US urban communities but is often neglected by university civic engagement efforts. The CDD has been critical in supporting these and many other efforts.

A National Conversation

In 2011, the CDD collaborated with the Office of Government and Corporate Relations to organize the USC Civic Seminar, one of twenty such events being sponsored by the Bringing Theory to Practice initiative (in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities). Organized by Don Harward, former president of Bates College, the national Civic Seminar Initiative brings together campus and community partners throughout the country and at selected international sites to engage in reflection and collaboration about the specific role colleges and universities play in nurturing civic democracy. At each of the twenty institutions, individual faculty, staff, and students, along with community partners involved in civic engagement work, gathered to discuss the need for civic renewal in twenty-first-century communities. The conversations explored the challenge of invigorating democracy at a time of profound transition brought about by immigration and racial reconfiguration, severe economic crisis, and worries about the efficacy of a college education. 

For those gathered at the USC Civic Seminar in April, these issues of diversity and democracy reflected longstanding concerns. The USC group included faculty, students, and community members, but was particularly rooted in staff working across the university's programs to engage the south Los Angeles community and to enhance college access for local primary and secondary students. Well-represented were staff members from Dornsife College's Joint Educational Program (JEP), a groundbreaking service-learning center that has organized opportunities for USC students to engage with the surrounding community for the past forty years. JEP sends over two thousand students each year into community-based projects organized for course credit and experiential learning. The USC Civic Seminar gave staff members who manage these programs a rare opportunity to discuss the meaning of civic engagement and democracy on a campus and in a community that have undergone radical demographic transformation.

Key Questions and Future Directions

At USC, Civic Seminar participants focused on several key questions: What is the meaning of "citizenship" when nearly half of local residents are not themselves citizens of the United States, and many are politically marginalized by virtue of their undocumented immigration status? How have approaches to campus partnerships changed as the local community's demographics have shifted from overwhelmingly African American to predominantly Latino? Should USC reinvigorate its campus–community partnerships by allocating funds to support local schools that are facing massive budget cuts as a result of decades of legislative neglect? Should civic engagement efforts at USC set target goals related to college access and improved community health and well-being as part of the strategic planning process? Though they found no easy solutions, participants were encouraged by the discussions, and they committed to reconvening in the 2011–12 school year to continue developing a broad understanding of the democratic nature of civic engagement work.

In the meantime, the Center for Diversity and Democracy has committed itself to tackling some of the most difficult issues facing urban communities and institutions of higher education in the twenty-first century. On campus, the CDD will continue to promote scholarly efforts and curricular innovations that push USC to help reinvigorate the south Los Angeles community. These innovations will include sustained attempts to expand democratic participation through empowerment and inclusion. They will also involve efforts to fully engage community perspectives about the future of higher education—a critical step if USC is to fulfill its overall educational mission. By participating in national discussions related to civic engagement and diversity on college campuses, the CDD hopes to share its insights with the broader movement for US education reform and to support all Americans' full participation in higher education's future.

For more information about the CDD, visit http://dornsife.usc.edu/cdd/home/index.cfm.


Sanchez, George J. 2004. "Crossing Figueroa: The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy." Presented at the fifth annual Dewey Lecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, October.

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