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Students Rethink How to Build Community | The Nation

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Campus-oriented news, first-person reports from student activists and journalists about their campus.

Students Rethink How to Build Community

University of Richmond

University of Richmond (eclecticlibrarian/Flickr)

For the past four years, I’ve worked alongside students from across the United States to build power, disrupt the mainstream policy discourse and propose long-lasting policy changes that realize a progressive American dream through the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. Our coalition spent the past six months thinking through ways to reinvigorate our work in communities across the country. At the end of January, we debuted the product of those conversations: a new model for how we as progressives can rethink our relationship to each other, our movement and the environments in which we live.

The Roosevelt Institute’s new Rethinking Communities initiative is an attempt to take a closer look at questions of governance, representation and participatory power. The aim is to build stronger communities that can serve as the foundation for a more equitable economy. This means challenging anchor institutions—such as universities, hospitals, and other major local employers—to incorporate community representatives at every stage of policymaking, whether that means putting students on key university committees or having more low-income voices included in antipoverty coalitions. We believe that building networks based on mutual trust and autonomy in our local communities is the only way to build a more equitable society.

One of the initiative’s first targets is universities and colleges. Using a series of metrics generated by the Democracy Collaborative, a well-known research institute behind projects like the Cleveland model, students are working to illustrate the gap between universities’ stated goals of community engagement and the extent to which the community is actually engaged. These metrics include things like the percent of procurement dollars directed to local, minority-owned or women-owned businesses to the percentage of university employees being employed at the living wage or above to endowment funds dedicated to community impact investments, among many others. We hope that in the years to come our process of identifying the shortcomings of universities’ processes of engaging stakeholders will create a new standard for colleges across the country.

Another aspect of the initiative has been my work to institutionalize a convening space for students to come together, to dream together about how their university and the community at large might benefit from a radical rethinking of governance structures—like the board of trustees—and the management of community relations. While this convening space does function similarly to a student union in the sense that it unites campus activists across interest areas, it’s also distinguished by its dedication to the political and leadership development of students new to the progressive movement. As we continue to do the work of rebuilding these relationships of mutual trust and accountability, I’m coming to realize just how far we have to go in order to democratize our experience: as student consumers of higher education; members of a mid-sized, often overlooked city; and voters in one of the country’s most ideologically conservative states.

The Roosevelt Institute has nowhere near enough answers to claim expertise on alternative infrastructure building. I think we’d argue that very few organizers have organized on a large scale around the intersection of higher education, local economies and shared governance. We’re heartened by that challenge, though, and motivated by the demands of this process-oriented work. Our new initiative will require constant revision and active critiques from our allies. However, it’s a start, a recognition that we are only as strong as our collective voice.

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Our namesake, President Franklin Roosevelt, once said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” This new project of the Roosevelt Institute is a promise, a resolute commitment that our members are dedicated to rethinking how we build community. We invite your ideas about how to build the sort of participatory infrastructure within and outside of the system that might sustain our movement.

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