Chicago Needs 'All Hands on Deck' to Stop the Violence
Posted by Katie James on April 23, 2014 at 11:36 AM CDT

Forty-five people were shot over Easter weekend in Chicago. Of those forty-five, nine people died. Six of those shot were children.

For Chicagoans, headlines relating this type of news is routine and, for the most part, elicits a shake of the head and a protracted sigh visibly denoting weariness and helplessness that borders too much on apathy. For the rest of the world, it cements Chicago’s reputation as crime capital.

Too often it seems that the only conversation happening around the issue of violence is one sensationalized and propagated by the media, one that relates the numerical facts and opinionates on strategies in place or not in place and repeatedly simplifies the issue so that ultimately it becomes a problem lacking sufficient context. What we need is a real city-wide conversation that is not reductionist and does not exclude. We need honesty. We need emotion. We don’t need clichés or platitudes. We don’t need band-aid solutions. We need values and understanding and empathy and a firm resolution from everyone in the City of Chicago to stand up and not only say, “This needs to end,” but to also collectively proclaim, “I want to be part of the solution.”

An editorial piece in the Chicago Tribune yesterday pulls back the multi-layered wrapping encasing the problem of violence on Chicago streets and encourages residents to begin to peer more openly and intimately at the heart the issue:

This isn't the time to look at annual murder numbers, which have been in decline. Or criticize Chicago cops, who didn't pull these triggers. Or at federal authorities who have done much to contain gangs, guns and drugs, and now will organize a new anti- violence scheme. Or at any other avenue that shifts blame from where it squarely belongs. We write much here about violence, about strategies, about body counts. But after a weekend such as this, we ask that each resident of metropolitan Chicago focus on Monday's words from a mayor who undeniably cut to the heart of this rampant bloodshed:

"Every child deserves a childhood, regardless of where they live. But to do that, our city and community, the neighborhoods that make up this city, cannot live by a code of silence. They have to live by a moral code. Now I've read some of this, and I just want to say this, when some people go: 'Well, it's the weather.' It's whether you have values."

If we approach violence in this city as a disregard of values, then everyone is implicated. Responsibility transfers upward and outward, beginning most severely with those who commit these heinous, selfish acts and transferring along a chain to touch even those who choose to remain silent and distance themselves from what they believe doesn’t affect them.

But the violence does affect them, as it affects everyone who calls this complex city home. Our values should be the propeller to a conversation that searches for solutions.

Because this isn’t a problem that belongs to the south side or the west side. This isn’t a problem just of gangs, just of drugs, just of guns, just of poverty, just of culture. This isn’t a problem for only the police to solve, or the schools, or the mayor, or the feds. This is a city-wide problem structured through an intricate and often invisible web that stems beyond the places and the people we most frequently assign blame. It’s a problem of the masses and not the few. The Tribune editorial today asks if Chicago is helpless. With street violence plaguing the city for decades and no relief in sight despite a continuous stream of strategic reprieve tactics, the national image of a weakened and vulnerable Chicago postures the city as defenseless against its own residents.

Except, the ethos of Chicago is a far cry from helplessness. So it’s up to Chicagoans from the north side, south side, west side, loop to collectively revive and expand the conversation on violence and situate themselves as a coordinated system building toward a solution. A communicative and engaged city reaching beyond neighborhood barriers, income barriers, racial barriers is not a helpless city. Chicago does not have to continue spiraling chaotically toward its own demise. Let’s stand up collectively in conversation, as other cities do when tragedy strikes, and affirm that the violence needs to end and existing structures sustaining that violence need to change. Forty-five people were shot over the weekend and thousands others remained silent and apathetic; where has the value for human life gone?  We cannot truly be a city of progress and innovation until all residents are accounted for and all lives in this city are perceived as valuable. The City needs all hands on deck for this task—needs a chorus of voices chanting for change and deliberating on what can be done individually and cooperatively to transform the culture of violence swallowing our beloved city.

Is Chicago helpless? Well, no, so long as we start trying to help ourselves. Let’s talk about how.

We Have a Voting Problem . . . And It Has Nothing to do with Voter Fraud
Posted by Katie James on August 08, 2013 at 04:19 PM CDT

Clouds hang heavy this week over what should be a commemoration of President Johnson’s signing into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A historic piece of legislation, the VRA played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. It safeguarded the right to vote for all citizens in an era of severe inequality and in a culture not only tolerant of, but also perpetuating, racial discrimination; it also increased accessibility for those previously disenfranchised to freely, safely, and fairly participate in the voting system. So in June when the Supreme Court struck down the section of the VRA requiring certain states and local communities to receive pre-approval from the federal government for any changes made to local election law, the once holistic and highly effective regulatory system protecting voting rights turned into a free-for-all in which many states grabbed this small window of opportunity to pointedly disenfranchise not only racial groups, but other voters who tend left, including students and women. How quickly this turn-around happened. And how backwards it is that, 48 years after President Johnson’s signature, we find ourselves fighting a battle against restrictive voting laws and voter suppression efforts that are popping up in a number of historically discriminatory states.

For three weeks, North Carolina has been making headlines for its hasty, almost manic, sprint to push through a GOP-controlled state House, Senate, and governor’s seat legislation that seeks to prevent voter fraud by reigning in current registration and voting practices. Whether or not voter fraud is a problem plaguing our country is better left to be determined by evidence and not assumptions made on my part (although, these numbers show that the data supports my assumption); however, given the pattern that this complaint is lodged by states with a long history of discriminatory laws, my moral bias notes the correlation and considers North Carolina’s (and a handful of other state’s) voting restriction efforts as suppressive in nature and a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate voting outcomes in a way that would forward a specific political agenda—a view I am certainly not alone in declaring. As a nation, it is crucial that we perceive this hurried action by lawmakers as a cowardly display of defense for their own party ideology—one that is inflexible to the demands of a modern nation taking great strides toward a fully engaged concept of equality, and thus one that is in effect contrary to the democratic principles of our country.  

When President Johnson signed the VRA on August 6, 1965, he spoke at length about the significance of the Act as a “triumph for freedom,” arguing for its due relevance and necessity nearly a century after the culmination of the Civil War. He states,

This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to principles, can deny.

His ethical simplification of voting restrictions to a wrong that must be righted should be remembered today as the country observes the latest (and yet entirely outdated) voting suppression debacle. Voting, our democratic American culture tells us, is our due right as citizens; in fact, no other civic responsibility is stressed as having greater purpose or more enormous implications than the power of casting one’s vote. In a struggle to increase voter turnout, the public voice chants that every vote represents a voice, every vote expresses a choice, every vote makes a difference. During election time, the country all too hopefully—and thus only idealistically—calls for every single American to head to the polls to cast their ballot in order to demonstrate our collective, national power as a fully participatory and expressive democracy; in practice, however, too large a number of people are excluded from this right. America’s struggle with poor voter turnout cannot be boiled down to widespread indifference (although admittedly, there is a handful of Americans who can vote, but chose not to for a number of reasons). We have a real problem with the vote, nearly 150 years after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (prohibiting government from denying the vote based on race), almost 100 years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment  (prohibiting the government from denying the vote based on sex), and almost 50 years after the passage of the VRA. In 2013, voting should be our easiest, most convenient civic responsibility; it is, afterall, a constitutionally protected right. Unfortunately, there are some who negatively perceive voting as a handicap, interference, or even a threat to their political belief systems. And so, using misguided patriotic rhetoric and flimsy excuses, a handful of lawmakers continue to try their hardest to legally minimize access to voting for those groups with a disproportional amount of power, including minorities, women, youth, and the poor.

In North Carolina, the recently passed Voter ID law carries severe restrictions on how and when state residents can vote. The new law 1) requires voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls, 2) shortens early voting by a week, 3) ends same-day registration, 4) eliminates a high school program registering students ahead of their 18th birthday, 4) authorizes partisan poll watchers to challenge voters, and 5) discards out-of-precinct voting. If voter fraud is pointed to be the legitimate motive for the audacious law that makes a show of cutting at the problem at every plausible angle, then the numbers and statistics need to support rather than disprove the validity of the problem; indeed, even if voter fraud was as pervasive as these “solutions” make it seem, a campaign as aggressive as this law is would still be over the top for its voting restrictions. The number of specifications laid out in this North Carolina law simply does not add up to its intended preventative purpose; instead, they spell out s-u-p-p-r-e-s-s-i-o-n  and only serve to interfere with the authenticity of our American democracy.

In 2013, our national conversation should not be centered around voting restrictions and disenfranchisement (a word one hoped might be archaic by now, but unfortunately is still in use). Instead, we need to be talking about how to open up the voting process to make it easier for all citizens to participate in elections. States need to consider extending early voting, making sure to include more weekend and evening hours; expanding online registration and voting efforts; and implementing programs to register youth and members of minority groups. If discrimination in voting allowances is a wrong that has already been righted almost 50 years ago this week, then this is a conversation that should be off the table and sealed away, not open for negotiation or revision.

Thankfully, Illinois is sending a ray of light through the voting gloom hanging over the country. At the same time that North Carolina made headlines and became the subject of protests for passing its Voter ID laws, Illinois celebrated in becoming the 18th state to allow voters to register online.

There’s still hope.

Katie James
IPCE Staff


150 Years Later, Gettysburg Defines Our Democratic Identity
Posted by Katie James on July 03, 2013 at 04:20 PM CDT

The Gettysburg Address is at the core of my American-ness. It emotes dogged determination in the face of melancholic frustration—hope undercut by the severity of war, yet still pulsating on that battlefield of death and revived with vigor in the words prepared by the President of the United States.

Like most American speeches that are qualified by the halo of “great,” a tremendous conflict gave birth to the lyrics of the address. By the beginning of July 1863, the civil war had only recently reached its halfway point and was no longer merely threatening to tear apart the democratic fiber sewn together by the revolutionaries almost a century prior, but indeed had already damaged the needlework and ruptured the threads that had once unified the country under a great promise of democracy and freedom. The Battle of Gettysburg, in its bloodied divisiveness, seemed ripe to go down in history as simply another conflict in a great war: uncomplicated by nature of its divided stance in North versus South, winner versus loser; horrifically tragic in the number of casualties incurred; and on one side, an optimistic turning point for a Union wearied by war and hoping to see an end after two years of too many deaths. But then emerges President Lincoln four months later—divine-like in his magnitude, though humanized in his awkward gait—stepping onto the grounds once pooled in blood and still littered with remnants of the battle, prepared to dedicate the land to its sacred use as cemetery. His address, noted for its brevity from a President who characteristically entranced his audience in speeches of greater length, used the power of few words to deliver a message attributing more to the battle than history itself would have written. Whereas a lesser speaker might have offered polite and pretty remarks that effectively dedicated the grounds to their burial purposes, President Lincoln spoke pure poetry and in under two minutes not only consecrated the land (despite his insistence that it was the combatants and the fallen—not he—who did so), but also managed to imbue the battle with hallowed purpose and reorient the Union to its democratic principle of liberty and equality for all. In picking up needle and thread and carefully inserting the first reparative stitch, the President expressed a renewed vitality for the purpose of preserving the Union, for carrying out the mission handled by those now buried in the soil of Gettysburg. And his impressive handiwork 150 years later has not faded in the least; rather, his mending words ultimately created a new design in the fabric of the United States, a design that we still wear proudly as a nation and one that other democracies have adopted in their own governmental lexicon. Indeed, stitched into the essence of our democracy, into the identity of our collective American souls, we embody President Lincoln’s words:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people

And so I say again, the Gettysburg Address is at the core of my American-ness. I embrace this phrase of representative democracy. It qualifies me as a citizen. It places me within a historical legacy in which this very notion had been threatened but ultimately preserved. It, most importantly, acknowledges my personhood, my rights, my privileges.

Today culminates the 150th anniversary of the 3-day Battle of Gettysburg. Heading into the 4th of July when we commemorate the birth of our nation, these two historical observations—one joyful, one somber—coincide in a momentous celebration in which history reminds us that lives were lost and speeches were given and festivities were carried out in the name of our individual liberties and democratic freedom. And the words of history endure. 

Katie James
IPCE Staff

Getting on the Bus: Reflections from ADPTDC13
Posted by Katie James on June 18, 2013 at 02:08 PM CDT

I’m hoping to make the bus.

You could say that Denise Fairchild led me to the bus stop in Denver. She herself had ridden that bus before—back in the 1960s, just a few years younger than me, from Nashville down to Memphis, Tennessee. Fairchild now helps drive the bus, and she’s making sure that people like me not only get on, but eventually take over the wheel and drive our students to their “generational destiny,” as she so eloquently put it.

For all you literal-minded folk out there, Fairchild did not find me wandering the streets of Denver lost, nor did she plant me at a bus stop in the city. While I certainly would have enjoyed the opportunity to stroll with Fairchild, President and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, through downtown Denver and chat while we waited for the bus, I had no such experience. In fact, the only bus I hopped on was the free 16th Street MallRide that dropped me off just a few blocks from the Marriott as I toured the area during lunch, well within the city limits and leading to a predetermined, physical point devoid of the abstraction complementing Fairchild’s call to ‘get on that bus.’  

Last weekend, myself along with my two colleagues—Norma Ramos, Director of Marketing and Communications, and Catalina Nava, Program Coordinator—attended the 2013 American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment joint national meeting in Denver, Colorado. Representing the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), our team was enthusiastic about the theme for this year’s meeting: 21st Century Citizens: Building Bridges, Solving Problems. Three full days were spent listening to inspiring speakers, learning from thought-provoking panels, and interacting with engaged teachers, practitioners, and students about ways the educational experience should be one that comes to once again value the liberal arts for their potential to instill in students the intellectual and practical skills necessary to operate within a 21st century community-centered civic structure; instead of preparing students only for a skill-specific workforce, we must broaden our focus so that students develop the capacity for critical thinking and public participation based upon the learned arts of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and more modern academic areas such as the sciences, literature, history, and even religion. A well-rounded graduate with transferable skills is highly valued not only in the community and in matters of citizenship, but increasingly in the work sphere as well. Adopting such a viewpoint in favor of the liberal arts is indeed critical for creating a national atmosphere in which one’s job is no longer disconnected from civic engagement, the latter of which is typically seen as an ‘after-hours only activity’, always riding the heels of work; we must incorporate the values and lessons of the liberal arts—“the arts of citizenship,” according to Peter Levine, Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Director of CIRCLE, Tisch College/CIRCLE, Tufts University—beyond the classroom so that we come to define ourselves not solely by our job title or degree, but by our actions as citizens, both in the workspace and in the community:

Hello, my name is Katie James and I am a citizen involved in work that helps connect fellow citizens to government.

It’s quite a different approach to the introductory rituals that require us to not just state our name, but to also state our purpose defined by our work when publicly declaring our identities. As Americans, our purpose should be citizenship. Our purpose should be citizenship because, despite where our diverging political preferences fall on the Left/Right spectrum, we all have an obligation to uphold the wellbeing of our individual and communal selves by making good on our promise of democratic citizenship; we have a responsibility to uphold our end of the bargain that requires us to actively participate in the public sphere on matters of governance and social justice and to provide a check and balance on the power granted to those representing our interests at all levels of government.  Education in the liberal arts—and consequently education for citizenship—provides us with the social consciousness necessary for our widespread engagement and gives us the values, facts, and strategies that Levine sees as necessary for equipping students in the 21st century with the problem-solving tools needed to improve our communities.

So, our IPCE team came back to Chicago from Denver with notes jotted on notebook pages and ideas stored in mind attending to ways we can move forward with our Institute work of creating a more effective democracy by engaging citizens. With conference sessions ranging from incorporating deliberation and discourse into the classroom to using new media to tell stories of political engagement to expanding the use of twitter on campuses, there were plenty of paths for learning relevant and adaptable to our unique role as an Institute within a university in which we must constantly navigate our interactions among scholars, students, community leaders, and citizens. We’re excited about potentially incorporating some of these ideas in the upcoming year—of which we’ll happily keep you posted.

ADPTDC13 was my first conference as a practitioner in the field of civic engagement and as part of the IPCE team. Coming from an English language and literature background where the work has too easily fallen into an insular slump that makes it difficult for academics and graduate students to substantiate their work in the so-called real world (a statement that I know many of my past colleagues in the English department would take issue with and disagree), ADPTDC helped assign new value to my educational training. I have always put my faith in the fact that, as an English major, I would graduate not only with highly marketable communication skills for the workplace, but also with a heightened consciousness of current social and political issues in my community and country and the capacity to act upon real problems. My experience in the classroom prepared me extensively for the first, but only a handful of teachers here and there really promoted an academic agenda that used the real world as a text to supplement literature, really crossed boundaries in their own work and encouraged students to do the same in order to reframe the discussion so it might be relevant to us as community members, as U.S. citizens, as global citizens. Fairchild and Levine infused the conference with an inspirational call to transform the educational landscape so that it teaches for change, teaches to build a sustainable future, teaches to address challenges and problem solve, and above all, teaches how to be a citizen. We can’t just equip students with the tools and not also provide an instruction manual; educators, practitioners, and administrators at colleges and universities must hand students the tools and simultaneously help them realize the context for the tools’ use, the appropriate practice for such tools, and the necessity of these tools. Higher education, particularly the liberal arts, hands down to students the responsibility to act in the real world as informed and engaged citizens; however, it is likewise the responsibility of their teachers—as Fairchild passionately explained from her own experience as a student in the ‘60s—“to guide us [students] to good outcomes, to get us out of college . . . to nurture our leadership potential, to nurture our intellectual curiosity and capacity, to channel our energies and idealism to productivity and to make sure that we make a real difference.”

So, while I may have missed the bus during my educational career, I found out in Denver that it’s not too late to hop on. I got on in Denver because of Fairchild, and I want to infuse my work with a purpose to help others who may have missed the bus as well. I got on the bus, and now I want to drive the bus. Ambitious, yes. But we all have a responsibility—educators and practitioners alike—to drive students and their adult compatriots in the direction of action and engagement so that they might answer the call of citizenship and work to build stronger communities and a more effective, responsive government.

Katie James
IPCE Staff Member 

Empowering the 'Hillary Clintons' of Tomorrow
Posted by Katie James on March 25, 2013 at 02:18 PM CDT

We have a lot to celebrate in Women’s History Month—the last one hundred years in particular have seen monumental gains in women’s rights, from the right to vote to the FDA’s approval of birth control to The Feminine Mystique to the Equal Pay Act to the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) to Gloria Steinem to the Equal Rights Amendment to Roe V. Wade to Sandra Day O’Connor to Sally Ride to the Violence Against Women Act to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to Hillary Clinton to the unprecedented number of women in the 113th Congress.


That’s quite a list of accomplishments, and certainly much to celebrate. I would say, in fact, that it’s pretty fortunate and certainly noteworthy that many of us hear these buzzwords and know their referents simply because of their prevalence in our cultural lexicon. And so we celebrate Women’s History Month to honor the proud heritage of our mothers and grandmothers who have fought through barriers of discrimination to get where we are at today.

But what about now? We still have a ways to go before achieving a more fully equitable society. Women see a significant pay gap at work, inadequate options for family leave, and an incessant slew of disrespect shown towards their health and bodies; what’s more, women this past year faced the argument of whether women can or cannot “have it all,” and what that even means. Given these contemporary issues, should Women’s History Month always be relegated to the past—a past that, while certainly relevant, is steadily retreating into history, placing more and more distance between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of women’s gains?

Women’s history in the United States has a rich and vibrant background, especially within the twentieth century. And because there were such singular, outstanding female leaders from that era, we tend to take as our role models the pioneers of the ‘20s, the ‘60s, and even the ‘90s of the last century. In fact, I would wager that more young girls/women are familiar with the names of historical women in their textbooks than they are with the Marissa Mayers and Sheryl Sandbergs and Sandra Flukes and Elizabeth Warrens out there right now. Preserving the past is crucial for seeing just how far women have come, but we also need to look to the future and empower young women of today by the examples of smart, talented, inspiring, successful women who make up this present decade. We need a stronger community of female mentors at every stage so that women early on can begin a trajectory toward a successful, fulfilling life.

So, with Women’s History Month now winding down I say, to my female readers: open yourselves up to mentorship opportunities, whether as a mentor or as a mentee; action is inextricably linked to empowerment, so seek out women who inspire you and in turn model yourself as an inspiration for others. And to my male readers: acknowledge the strong women in your lives—wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, friends—and work to cultivate a society that disassembles, rather than builds, barriers of discrimination.

Americans Envision a Civic Infrastructure for Public Dialogue and Deliberation
Posted by Norma Ramos on October 31, 2012 at 04:02 PM CDT

I had the opportunity to attend the National Coalition For Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) Conference in Seattle a few weeks ago and thought this was a great overview and blog post about the conference and the efforts in the field to make progress in strengthening our country’s and communities’ civic infrastructure.

Janice Thomson’s post “Americans Envision a Civic Infrastructure for Public Dialogue and Deliberation” first appeared on’s blog last week.

Several key points from her blog include:

       Social capital serves as both the foundation and lubricant for a robust civic infrastructure — i.e., knowing and trusting one’s neighbors, public officials, and others with whom one must cooperate.

       Deliberative public engagement seems to be most sustainable when it is a process (not a project) that the community itself owns and which government officials trust.

       Engage politicians as politicians to support deliberative public engagement.

       Politicians in states with direct democracy (initiatives and referendums) appear to be more supportive of deliberative public engagement than politicians elsewhere.

       Politicians in states with direct democracy (initiatives and referendums) appear to be more supportive of deliberative public engagement than politicians elsewhere.

       Citizens must stop behaving like demanding consumers and take responsibility for their decisions.

       Courage is needed to engage a divided public on a growing number of contentious issues.

Read the full blog post:

~Norma Ramos

UIC IPCE Staff Member 




"We the people of the United States" are Celebrating Constitution Day
Posted by Katie James on September 13, 2012 at 03:38 PM CDT

We are all familiar with the first line of the Preamble to the United States’ Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” And stop. Here our memory fails us, because civics class in elementary school happened just too long ago, and the Constitution isn’t short and rhythmic like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star Spangled Banner to make for easy memorization. Of course we are all aware of the relevance and constant referencing in public life to the Constitution and its Amendments. We see it when people practice their right to free speech in protests and when people gather in their houses of worship to practice their religion without persecution. We see it in the structure of the United States government, in the power invested in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and in the checks and balances that occur in all three branches. And we see it, perhaps most significantly, when ALL citizens—no matter race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political preference—gather on Election Day in November to exercise their civic duty and cast their vote in local, state, and national elections. We don’t need to have the Constitution memorized to know that its impact on our daily lives is substantial and influential.  

However, I do think it’s worth noting that it’s not insignificant that Americans are able to recite the first line of the Constitution, particularly the first three words. “We the people.” We, signifying the all-inclusive. We the people, signifying a commonality—a nationality—that connects our personhoods to one another and to a larger good. “We the people of the United States,” from past, present, and future, understand and accept the organization of government laid out for us by our founding fathers and commit to participating in our right to civic life to the fullest degree. We see ourselves in terms of communities, as citizens of a nation, and in order to make our communities and our nation function as we see best, we—the all-inclusive we—need to take part in the simplest and yet most instrumental aspect of civic life: voting. The United States is not an “I” country; the head of state does not hold all the power. We as voters hold the power and the choices that keep our country working and moving forward.


Today, September 17, 2012, is Constitution Day. On this day we as a nation celebrate the creation and signing of the U.S. Constitution by the 39 delegates and commemorate all those who have become citizens (whether by birth in the United States or by naturalization).

Today the University of Illinois at Chicago is leading Constitution Day events, much like communities throughout the country, and I encourage you to participate. Throughout the morning the campus community will have the opportunity to register to vote as well as sign up for internships and volunteer work. At noon, the public is invited to attend a guest lecture on “The First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court” by Professor George Anastaplo from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

Whether you choose to participate in Constitution Day events or not, I urge you to consider your role within that “we” come November when it’s time to cast our ballots and elect the president of the United States. Our government provides us the opportunity to vote for our elected officials, and that’s not something to be ignored or taken for granted.

Katie James
IPCE Staff Member 

America Turns 236 Years Old
Posted by Katie James on July 03, 2012 at 02:24 PM CDT

The United States of America is celebrating its 236th birthday tomorrow. That’s a large number for sure, and an age none of us will ever reach with our mortal 70-something longevity (on average). So isn’t there something remarkable about the fact that our democratic system has been passed down from generation to generation, surviving wars and economic crises, to reach an age that no human has the capacity to match?


Aside from all the woe that this year has brought in news, from the economy to election-year issues, America has much to celebrate in its grand history. A modern democracy at its birth, America’s revolution (like others at the time) championed independence and equality. On July 4, 1776, 236 years ago, representatives of the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence as a statement announcing their freedom from the tyranny of the British monarchy and their intent to form their own government. Our democracy was established for the people by the people; it was created for an ever-changing present and a hopeful future. To that end, our country is not just serving those of us in the immediate present. Our country with “liberty and justice for all” has evolved throughout its two-plus centuries to bring truth to these founding words of freedom and equality and serve those who now make up our history and textbooks, and our democratic model will continue to evolve so that all the people it represents (and will represent) find themselves included in our mantra for equality. The U.S. has an imperfect history, and it continues to remain an imperfect nation. But the pillars upon which it was built serve as an ideal and a goal that our evolving democracy must strive to meet.

So let’s celebrate our nation’s birthday as we do every year—with with picnics, fireworks, parades, families, political speeches…and apple pie! But let’s also take time to reflect on the founding ideologies of our nation—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—and be better in this 236th year at advancing these rights among all who pay tribute to the American flag.

Happy Birthday America!

Katie James
IPCE Staff Member 


It's Finally Summer: Time to Heat Up Civic Engagement
Posted by Katie James on June 21, 2012 at 02:52 PM CDT

Happy Summer!


Yesterday’s solstice marked the official start of summer, and it sure felt like it here in Chicago. We’ve been feeling the heat in the city for awhile now, and we’re happy to finally have the season match the temperatures. We’re even more excited for the opportunities and free time that summer can bring.

Here at the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), we are committed to helping citizens find ways to engage with the policymaking process and current social trends. We believe that an informed citizenry increases engagement in our democratic system and creates a more responsive government. That said, it’s not always easy to find information that is relevant, accessible, and, let’s face it, interesting. Sometimes it’s difficult to relate a cause to our personal well-being and find meaning in an issue that doesn’t directly affect us. It can also be hard to decode the encrypted language that makes up so much of our government documents and data; even harder is finding and accessing this information, which is not always open to the public. Probably most common, however, is the pervading sense of boredom that has latched on to anything government- or policy-related. But how is our government benefitting you if you remain detached and uninvolved?

CivicSource is dedicated to combating these three issues of disengagement by motivating you to become an informed, participating citizen. By visiting our web portal regularly and following us on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll have access to the latest news regarding community and government efforts to increase civic engagement. You’ll see success stories, bold ideas and initiatives, and even matters of concern that might rile you up and instigate reaction. And see, just by READING these stories, you are a concerned citizen who is using the coupled power of knowledge and information to participate in our democracy. Engagement doesn’t always have to be active, outward shows of involvement. Simply sitting down to learn what’s happening in our government and across the country in local communities is a great way to stay up-to-date on policy and community issues.

I’m pretty sure, however, that it won’t be long before you run across that one story that hits close to home and challenges you to take the next step and lend your efforts to a cause. For those ready for action, CivicSource has plenty of ways for you to engage locally or nationally with issues that inspire you to help create a more equitable democracy. When you get involved, you’re creating a two-way flow of communication that is telling our governing institutions you matter and you want to be heard. And that is the best outcome of civic engagement efforts: creating a responsive government that is held accountable for its actions.

One of the biggest challenges to overcoming disengagement is simply finding the time to participate. Work, school, and family life can easily get in the way of extending our interest into and beyond our communities. Summer, however, is a great time to begin building our capacities as engaged citizens. The sunshine makes us feel more energized and longer days can mean more time. Some may have summer vacations that allow even more room for an active role. This is great and you should definitely take the opportunity to volunteer your time and effort to an issue that inspires you. Yet time off during these hot days is not the reality for many. This is why CivicSource is a great resource. It only takes five minutes to read a post and share your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. You can do it at work on your lunch break, on your phone when you’re on the go, or right before bed when you have settled in for the night. Reading, learning, and communicating with others are all great tools for building an informed citizenry, so let this summer inspire you to start.

Katie James
IPCE staff member

Let the need drive the technology in civic engagement
Posted by Norma Ramos on September 09, 2011 at 11:26 AM CDT

I recently attended a conference for civic engagement academics and practitioners who discussed the role of technology in engaging citizens in democratic activities.  While there was a real sense of excitement about the potential that the Internet, mobile devices, and interactive applications hold for creating better informed and engaged citizens, that excitement was balanced by several concerns about the limitations or even negative consequences of a rush to adopt new technologies in our field.  One nearly universal concern among participants was that high-tech engagement tools, particularly those that are Internet-based, could replicate existing digital or non-digital divides in society usually associated with cost of access, differences in educational attainment, income, and other factors. 

Another concern was that with technology advancing so quickly there could be a drive for seeking a use for a particular application rather than first identifying a need/problem that technology could help solve.  I know that sometimes we don’t ‘see’ the need for something to be done better until a technology comes along that demonstrates its potential to us.  However, I think the concern here was more rooted in the ‘cool’ factor of a particular technology blinding us to the fact that it may actually be expensive, more time consuming to set up, or introduce new challenges for engaging citizens in a deliberative process.


More research is needed to fully understand the ways that technology is helping/can help people become better engaged.  For example, a certain technology may make it easier for a facilitator to engage or communicate with larger numbers of citizens than before.  However, is that communication more likely to result in a citizen becoming better informed or participating more fully in our democracy?  With the overwhelming speed with which the Internet has become a ubiquitous communication tool, research is only beginning to catch up in this area, and even then good longitudinal research needs enough time to generate useful results.  Some of these concerns are addressed in recent research supported by the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

There was general agreement at the conference on the potential for technology to transform how people participate in democracies – in fact that transformation is clearly underway.  My impression is that there was consensus that the use of technology is to be welcomed, rather than feared.  At the same time, the use of technology should be 1) filling a clearly identified need 2) improving the scale and/or quality of engagement  and 3) resulting in more inclusive participation of different segments of our population, or at the very least not creating a more exclusive form of participation.

Joseph K. Hoereth, PhD
Director, IPCE 


Welcome to CivicSource-A New Tool for Civic Engagement
Posted by Administrator on September 13, 2010 at 11:27 AM CDT

CivicSource is born! This wonderful new web resource created by the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), offers useful information for concerned citizens, community leaders, academics, or students seeking to learn more about civic engagement or connect with civic engagement efforts. I invite you to take CivicSource for spin – browse through all it has to offer.

As the Director of IPCE, I see this moment as a great opportunity to write a few words about our motivation behind creating this resource. CivicSource brings individuals, organizations, and institutions together with information they need to understand, deliberate, and take action on policy issues. We believe a more effective democracy is one in which all citizens are fully informed and engaged in the democratic process and we believe CivicSource can help make that happen.

The term civic engagement is used many different ways, so it is important for us to explain what we mean when we use it on this Web site. Civic engagement includes exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens, but CivicSource represents a concept of civic engagement that goes well beyond voting and jury duty. Generally we define civic engagement as any action by an individual or group that contributes to a more effective democracy. This may include participating in a town hall forum, or becoming better informed about a particular policy issue. Civic engagement also includes expressing one’s opinion on policy issues, such as writing a letter, posting something online or joining a group of others with similar opinions. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg of our broad definition of civic engagement. For more on our thoughts regarding civic engagement, click here to read more about our definition and to learn about examples of what we call civic engagement in action.

Why is civic engagement important? There is currently a 'deficit of trust' between citizens and government in the US. Many individuals have lost faith in government and are becoming disengaged from the democratic process or are not engaging in it in the first place. We believe that taking steps to keep citizens informed and create a more responsive government can help to improve trust in our democratic system and re-engage (or newly engage) citizens both as participants in the democratic system as individual agents of change in their communities. Engagement has the potential not only to improve the democratic process, but to also improve lives and communities through either policy change or direct community development efforts. CivicSource offers tools for such engagement, including stories about innovative civic engagement leaders who have done this kind of work and how they used their passion for engagement to bring about real change in their communities.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how technology makes a difference in civic engagement. Technology is completely transforming what is possible in a democracy. In 2011, we need to be thinking about civic engagement as a 'space,' a virtual space where people, government, and institutions come together to share information, learn, plan, or take action to address key issues of the day. When the US was mostly small towns this physical space may have been the 'Town Square', but it was also the church basement or the kitchen table where neighbors chatted on the day's events over a cup of coffee after dinner. To share information or do anything collectively people had to physically be in the same place at the same time.

Today thanks to technology and the Internet, the space for civic engagement is not limited by where you are or when you are trying to engage. People with common interests, people with different interests, government, corporations, and neighborhood organizations can be anywhere and gather to share, learn, and take action at any time through the web. In this new space and in the old, new forms of interaction are possible and old forms are enhanced. The movement toward deliberative democracy, where citizens deliberate policy alternatives themselves and rank their preferred choice and share the results directly with their elected representatives has been enabled partially due to changes in technology.

Government is an important player in this new space, but governments at all levels must also become better consumers and users of technology. This new space for civic engagement allows government to be more responsive and effective. There are more ways for citizens to reach government directly and government can provide some services more efficiently through the Internet. One of the primary goals for CivicSource is to house research and data on how governments are using technology.

We believe CivicSource has the potential to make difference in civic engagement. Though it is important to remember like any other web-based resource, it is just a tool. It is a great tool for learning more about policy issues , an important tool for discovering policy research, a useful tool for engaging like-minded (or even not so like-minded individuals) in dialogue, and ultimately a tool for improving how government works for all citizens. We have also made efforts to integrate this resource with social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, so that you can easily access CivicSource through whatever mechanism you primarily use for connecting and sharing with others. Please make it one of your spaces for engagement. If nothing else we will all feel just a little bit more connected with each other in some meaningful way.

Joseph K. Hoereth, PhD
Director, IPCE


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