Focus on the Presidency: Engaging Students in the Political Process

By Ronald L. Carter    //    Volume 20,  Number 4   //    July/August 2012

This presidential election year provides every American college and university campus a special opportunity to engage its students in the political process. With the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte, N.C., Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) will be connected to electoral politics in a historic and very meaningful way. As a new urban, private university with a public purpose, we plan to be front and center during these next few months as we encourage our students to become politically aware, socially active, and intellectually astute.

Because we have a special relationship with the Democratic National Convention as a hub for major operations and as co-presenter of one of the convention’s most important events to target college students, JCSU has the privilege of being able to provide our students, faculty, and staff with hands-on experience and a behind-the-scenes view of this major event. Our students will be able to observe some of the most important and closely guarded aspects of hosting an international event. After the convention, our faculty will be able to incorporate this rare, real-world experience into their classroom teaching.

In preparation for the convention, we invited a number of speakers to campus as part of our “Democracy 2012: The Road to Charlotte” Lyceum Series. The series presented an outstanding slate of speakers from the news media, politics, government, and education, including Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist of The Washington Post and MSNBC political analyst, and former Charlotte mayors Harvey Gantt (D) and Richard Vinroot (R).

Another way JCSU students are gearing up for the election and the convention is through an interdisciplinary project called The REEL Urban Network. Students are drawing attention to Charlotte’s Historic West End by capturing personal stories and unveiling them on a dynamic interactive Web site: RUN-DNC.org. The project, inspired by the 2012 presidential elections and Charlotte’s pride as the host city, is an innovative, interdisciplinary project that provides students, alumni, and westside Charlotte residents an online platform to discuss issues and experiences that matter to them. It engages participants in sharing ideas on how to improve the community through the democratic process and civic engagement.

Recognizing that entrepreneurship, smallbusiness development, and job creation are also important issues in this election and for young people across the country, JCSU is working with local and national leaders in business and government. The goal is to educate, develop, and inspire a new generation of social entrepreneurs at our Innovo Laboratory in uptown Charlotte. The incubator/think tank focuses on eliminating barriers and connecting students and aspiring entrepreneurs to those who drive the free-enterprise system.

The Democratic National Convention will come alive on campus in a number of ways:

The university will co-present a summit on campus with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute on September 4. The theme for the summit, co-hosted by actors Alfre Woodard and Hill Harper, is “UFuture: A Summit for Innovative Young Thinkers.” During the summit, students from 20 regional colleges and universities will have access to a panel of speakers, from the White House to the local level, through the real-time use of social media.

Having access to local, regional, and national policy makers provides us with an influential network, which is particularly important as higher education has become a key issue in this election year. We want to encourage the next generation to become energized about the political process, and UFuture will give them an opportunity to share what is on their minds and talk about their challenges as we move forward in the 21st century.

As on campuses nationwide, we are encouraging our students to register to vote, participate in a town hall meeting, volunteer with the political party of their choice, and ultimately, perhaps, prepare to start their own businesses. We hope that this up-close and personal look at the political process during the Democratic National Convention will have a lasting impact on their lives.

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