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Breaking Ground: A Wellspring of Civic Energy

The influential 2012 report A Crucible Moment called on higher education to infuse support for civic learning and democratic engagement in every aspect of institutional life, including research, teaching, and campus activities. The authors recognized that this would require significant shifts in resources and practices, but argued that “we dare not be passive about increasing our nation’s civic capacity any more than we are passive about revitalizing its economy” (p. 69).

Those are compelling words. But if you wanted to heed their call, in a time of funding constraints and myriad pressures on the academy, where would you begin?

At my institution, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), a group of us began, at least metaphorically, with a stone. I’m referring to the old parable about stone soup: A stranger enters a hungry village, fills a cooking pot with water, places it over a fire, and drops in a stone. When the villagers ask what the stranger is doing, he explains: “Making stone soup!” Then the stranger encourages villagers to add their own contributions to improve the soup: stock, meat, vegetables, seasonings. In the end he removes the stone from the pot, and the villagers enjoy a delicious meal they have created together.

At UMBC, our “stone” was a conversation starter: What if all the people and departments at UMBC contributing to civic learning and democratic engagement coordinated and jointly advertised their efforts for a single year? Our “stranger” was a small but diverse group of campus stakeholders–students, administrative leaders, faculty and staff members–who engaged in those conversations with people across the institution. Our group shared an expansive understanding of democratic engagement grounded in personal agency and relationships across difference. In our meetings, in addition to soliciting feedback on the “civic year” concept, we teased out the civic dimensions of our colleagues’ campus roles. Some had been making profound, visible contributions for years. Others had had not previously considered their work to be “civic” because it did not include service-learning, voter engagement, or issue advocacy.

Within months, in response to colleagues’ feedback, we removed the “stone” so we all could enjoy the soup. Instead of launching a single year of collaborative promotions and civic activity, UMBC launched BreakingGround, an ongoing initiative to surface, connect, and deepen the civic dimensions in work and activities spanning our institution. With funds provided by our Provost, Philip Rous, we began offering mini-grants to support the development and redesign of courses (more than 30 to date) with civic agency at their core, and projects (more than 20) addressing challenges on campus and beyond. We also connected people across university and community roles  through common initiatives like hosting Imagining America’s 2015 national conference.

For Tahira Mahdi, a doctoral student in Human Services Psychology who has participated in several BreakingGround-funded projects, BreakingGround is “a powerful and necessary force for thinking and action beyond a university’s required coursework and traditional community activities,“ and also as “a mindset, a ‘No Fear’ zone, and a dimension of existence in which I can be one with others because the entirety of my Self is celebrated and needed.” UMBC student affairs professional Romy Hübler, who got involved with BreakingGround as a doctoral student, recalls discovering that BreakingGround was “based on deep engagement and critical reflections on one’s practice – pieces for which I was longing but could not find in my graduate education.” Undergraduate Emily Melluso remembers discovering “a growing culture at UMBC which [promotes] an awareness of collective responsibility that emphasizes the importance of individual agency and the (almost revolutionary) inclusion of young people as powerful agents of a community’s well-being and direction.”

BreakingGround’s “stone soup” strategy has posed challenges at times. We live in an era of data-driven accountability, when it’s easy to undervalue the relational and not entirely foreseeable or measurable consequences of dropping metaphorical stones into metaphorical pots. Yet five years after BreakingGround’s launch, UMBC continues to deepen its identity as a wellspring of civic energy and commitment to an inclusive democracy.

David Hoffman is Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency, and an instructor in Political Science, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He serves on the steering committee for the American Democracy Project and on the national advisory board for Imagining America. David is a graduate of UMBC’s program in Language, Literacy & Culture (Ph.D.), Harvard Law School (JD), Harvard Kennedy School (MPP), and UCLA (BA).

Featured Image credit: Jill Wrigley

To see an example of student work that has been featured on the BreakingGround website, check out Greg Rosenthal’s digital story, “Mis(Perceptions) of the Poor”:


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