Hosting A Civic Leadership Academy on Your Campus

Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Summer 2018 issue.

One of the greatest joys of being a political science professor is that we have the scholarly expertise and teaching skills required to engage our students and broader community in learning experiences that foster civic knowledge, identity, and engagement. This issue’s Teacher-Scholar column highlights a program we designed on my campus to bring people

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

together to gain key information and advice required for civic leadership. Many people have asked me how they can replicate this Academy on their own campuses. I offer this piece summarizing the topics covered in our Academy and providing a checklist of questions to answer before launching your Academy, as a useful resource. Readers who wish to learn more about IU South Bend’s Spring 2017 Civic Leadership Academy can access a video recording of each event at

Based on community requests, student interests, and media headlines, we determined that we would highlight the following topics:

  • March 22 Facts Matter: A Guide to Critical Thinking
  • March 29 Real News vs. Fake News: Know the Difference!
  • April 5 Contacting Elected Officials: Influencing Decision Makers
  • April 12 The Legislative Process: Influencing Policy Debates
  • April 19 Protest 101: Making Your Voice Heard
  • April 26 Solving Community Problems: A Step-by-Step Guide

These topics were the subject of numerous questions and discussions at our past events, and in our courses, and fit nicely with Bob Graham’s model of civic leadership, a step-by-step approach I teach in my classes.

Next, we determined the agenda of each session, including specific topics to cover in each session. Once again, we drew upon the questions that people were asking us, Graham’s book Democracy: An Owner’s Manual, and our observations about the critical skills needed in today’s political world. Each session was designed as a moderated panel discussion, followed by audience Q&A.

Facts Matter: A Guide to Critical Thinking featured professors of psychology, philosophy, rhetoric, and communication studies and included:

  • The difference between facts and opinions.
  • The difference between claims and arguments.
  • The importance of the scientific method.
  • Common rhetorical devices designed to mislead.
  • How to recognize and avoid logical fallacies.
  • How to make ethical arguments.
  • The problems of confirmation bias, tribalism, and the backfire effect.
  • Key resources for fact checking political claims.
  • How to talk to someone who disagrees with you.

Read News versus Fake News: Know the Difference featured a political columnist, multi-media journalist, editor, and PR expert (the last two of whom teach in our mass communications program). Topics covered in this session included:

  • What is fake news? What isn’t fake news?
  • The danger of fake news.
  • The political deployment of the “fake news” label.
  • The role of the media in U.S. politics.
  • How to spot fake news sites and stories.
  • How to verify facts before spreading fake news.
  • How to call out fake news and keep your friends.
  • The difference between news and satire.

Contacting Elected Officials: Influencing Decision Makers featured politicians with experience on the city council and county council, as mayor, and in the state legislature, as well as the district representative for our local congressperson. Topics included:

  • How to identify your elected officials.
  • How to identify decision makers.
  • Strategies to make your voice heard.
  • Dealing with social anxiety.
  • Phone calls, letters, emails, and petitions.
  • Lobbying and personal meetings.
  • Creative ways to share your message.
  • What to do when you can’t get through.

The Legislative Process: Influencing National, State, and Local Policy Debates featured a former state senator and current members of the county council and city council. We discussed:

  • How a bill becomes a law – U.S. Congress.
  • How a bill becomes a law – Indiana General Assembly.
  • How and when you can influence legislation.
  • How to track legislation.
  • How to read a bill for yourself.
  • How to access public meetings, hearings, and floor debates.
  • How to stay up-to-date on bills that matter to you.
  • How to participate in city and county policy debates.
  • How to write your own laws!

Protest 101: Making Your Voice Heard featured a history professor, a women’s and gender studies professor who both taught about, and participated in, political protests, along with the activists representing local organizations that had recently hosted highly visible protests and rallies in our community. Topics of discussion included:

  • When to organize a protest.
  • How to organize a protest.
  • How to attract participants.
  • How to craft a message.
  • How to gain media coverage.
  • How to protest safely and legally.
  • How to stay out of jail (if that is your objective).
  • The principles of non-violence.
  • How to make a difference if you cannot attend.

Solving Community Problems: A Step-by-Step Guide to Civic Leadership featured four local community organizers representing different types of organizations and approaches to civic leadership. Topics included:

  • Defining the problem.
  • Identifying the decision maker.
  • Gauging public support.
  • Persuading the decision maker.
  • Building coalitions.
  • Using the calendar.
  • Engaging the media.
  • Funding your initiative.
  • The 3-3-3 advocacy method for real results.
  • Preserving victory and learning from defeat.

This series attracted a large community audience and many favorable media stories. It also expanded our network and led to new partnerships and additional series and events the following semester. We ended the series with a networking reception. People who attended at least four events also received a Civic Leadership Academy Certificate. We were amazed by how many people attended every session because they wanted to earn that (non-credit, ADP-issued) certificate of participation! We snapped wonderful picture of people smiling from ear-to-ear as they proudly held their certificates.

For us, this Academy was a great success! The students who attended enjoyed it. They also enjoyed staffing the events, and even moderating the session on protests. The community members who attended stayed connected with us via our email list and Facebook and many attended the Civic Leadership Academy on Asset-Based Community Development the following fall, and our candidate debate series the following fall.

Before hosting your own Academy, you should consider the following questions:

  • Why do you want to host a Civic Leadership Academy?
  • Who is your audience?
  • How will you find out what they want to learn?
  • What are some topics you think you might cover?
  • What speakers would do a good job covering those topics?
  • What media outlets might cover your events?
  • Who might be good co-sponsors for your Academy?
  • Will you provide a certificate? Why or why not?
  • Will you provide credit of some kind? Required, enrichment, CTE?

Also consider who will:

  • Plan the series.
  • Plan each session.
  • Handle logistics (room, AV, programs, food, furniture, etc.).
  • Invite the speakers.
  • Write the press release(s).
  • Talk to the media.
  • Answer questions from the speakers? From the public?
  • Promote the series on campus.
  • Promote the series social media and community calendars.
  • Moderate each event.

Finally, discuss how you will:

  • Assess the effectiveness of the Academy.
  • Keep in touch with people after the event.
  • Learn from the experience.
  • Capitalize on the new connections and knowledge gained.

This checklist of things to consider and list of suggested topics of discussion should prove useful when designing your own Civic Leadership Academy. I hope your series is as fruitful as ours was! Such academies can help us to fulfill the public purpose of higher education. As political scientists, one of our most important roles, if we choose to accept it, is to educate people for democracy. Hosting a Civic Leadership Academy is a wonderful way to teach beyond the campus. It allows us to meet a critical need in fostering the knowledge, skills, and motivation people need to make a meaningful difference in their communities.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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