What’s Next? Moving Students to a Greater Understanding of Civic Engagement

by Lindsey Woelker & Christopher Miofsky

“We can’t take a stance on that! It’s too political!”

How many times have you heard this from organizations? Often, local chapters are hesitant to take sides on an issue not to upset any contingent of their members. As community service and engagement organizations, however, we cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibilities just because it is “too political” or might be contrary to the views of some of our members. Over the summer, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Fraternity/Sorority and Civic Learning and Civic Engagement hosted a series of webinars about the intersection of civic engagement and fraternity and sorority life. This article will explore key takeaways from these sessions, as well as provide some recommendations for practice.

Have you turned on the news lately?

It’s dicey out there. Our students are impacted by what’s happening in the world around them, and we have a responsibility to prepare them to engage effectively. You may be asking yourself how to navigate political conversations or sensitive topics in your organizations. There are so many approaches you can take, but one of our favorites, and most resourced, is deliberative dialogues. Engaging in dialogue through intentional formats, programs, and events is one way to allow our students to process heavy/hot topics, share perspectives and experiences, and build trust among members. According to The Sustained Dialogue Institute, dialogue is “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn” (https://sustaineddialogue.org/, 2022). We are in a very tense political climate right now, and your students need areas to process through what they hear/see/experience – especially in high-stakes election seasons.  Students will have differing opinions, and that is okay. They will argue, and that is okay. They will get emotional, and that is okay.  As student affairs practitioners, we should encourage their passion and engagement in the discussions. Using dialogue programs like the National Issues Forum or Living Room Conversations can help you prepare and feel confident when setting up these opportunities for student engagement.  

Dialogue doesn’t always mean solving.

Having more individuals in our society that can engage in difficult dialogues is critical to the success of our democracy.  One topic discussed this summer in our series was that dialogues are not meant to solve a conflict. Yes, if your group is having a tough time, engaging in dialogue is critical to working through that. The dialogue we are talking about, however, is meant to prompt conversation that students are probably already having, just in a way that can be both productive and educational.

Your students are already talking about free speech, abortion, LGBTQ+ issues, environmental racism, and more. Why not provide the space to develop skills to be able to effectively navigate these topics in other spaces like at home, in student groups, or with friends or partners? We also discussed that this work is hard. We aren’t saying host a dialogue and all will be well – we aren’t that naive. Dialogue often means multiple sessions; it’s not just a one-and-done initiative.  This takes the investment of time and people power.

Create an experience.

Community service should be an experience and not a task. Members should take time before, during, and after the event to talk about what they are doing. For example, if an organization is volunteering at a local food pantry, prior to going, they should discuss what they are going to do and why it is important. During the event, they should seek out employees or those being served and hear their story. After the event, they should debrief what they learned with each other and if they can find someone from the organization to assist with that, all the better! By seeing community service as an experience, rather than a checkbox, you create a space for greater learning. It may lead to these members working with local organizations or lawmakers to improve conditions for those who need it.

Implications & Recommendations for Practice

Here are a few recommendations of how to move forward with Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) work in the Fraternity & Sorority Life (FSL) community. This is not an exhaustive list of recommendations or resources.

  1. Know who you are serving before you serve.  Have you researched the mission statement? The population the organization serves? The area of town it’s located in and some reasoning behind why it may be in a certain neighborhood? How long has it been in existence? Asking some of these questions and having a pre-service conversation with your organization before serving is just one way to show investment in your community and in the work you are doing in the community.
  2. Do you have a local office that focuses on service or volunteer work?  Connect with them! Ask about the prominent issues in your own community and any community partners they work with that may be looking for more students to serve.  Make sure you’re doing the things that are needed in your community.  Work to ensure you are connecting organizations with local  offices where appropriate. For example, if you know an organization is working with veterans or the United Service Organizations (USO), it is important to connect them with the local  office of veterans services. This way, both stakeholders will have an opportunity to pool their resources to best serve veterans in the community  because it is crucial that anything we do is to support those with whom we are working and that we never make the things we do purely about us.
  3. Dig deeper into issues that are impacting students, including those in your organizations (for example, take a tour of the local  food pantry and have a representative talk about how many folks they serve and needs they may have).  We believe FSL students have a responsibility to their campus community and are often seen as influencers on campus – be aware of issues that impact your fellow students.
  4. Make your social media highlights matter. Instead of a group photo with piles of canned food in the background with the hashtag #weservedtodayyay, try a caption that says: Today we served with the local food bank, here’s a stat about food insecurity in our community, here’s what you can do to help, etc.

Our organizations are critical in advancing society and civic engagement. While it may be difficult or unpopular to take a position on a topic, we are in a prime place to advance discourse and rhetoric. As member organizations with a lot of resources at our disposal, we must understand that it is partially our responsibility to ensure that we move our society forward.

If you want to engage in more dialogue or have ideas about educational sessions or resources to share, please email naspacldekc@gmail.com.


About the authors

Lindsey Woelker is the Director of the Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement at UNCG.  Lindsey has been at UNCG for almost 6 years, having previously served as the Associate Director of Leadership at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. Lindsey received her Masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Loyola University Chicago and her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan.

Christopher Miofsky is the Associate Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University of Denver, where he has served for the last year and a half, having previously served as the Assistant Director of Student Involvement at both Washburn University in Topeka, KS and Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. Christopher received his Masters degree in Adult and Higher Education from the University of Missouri – St. Louis and undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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