How Civic Engagement Spread across Six College Campuses

Jay Theis had a newly minted doctorate in political science when he became concerned about the fate of a Methodist church that was closing across the street from his Kansas City home.

It was then, he said, that he truly learned about politics.

He began to ask questions about what would happen to the building, contacting residents and organizing people until he was working with five neighborhood associations. Through the process, Theis got to know both his state senator and state representative.

He was hooked.

“For the first time in my life, I began to see what politics was like. I wanted to bring that to the students I was teaching in political science classes,” Theis said.

He began looking for ways to give students more experience with democracy that went beyond voting. At the request of his department head at the college where he taught, Theis met with a group from Minnesota interested in civic engagement. One person from that group, Harry Boyte, talked about helping people identify issues in their community and getting young people involved. “I thought, ‘This is exactly the experience I want my students to have.’ So I told them, ‘I’m in. Political science doesn’t teach this stuff. Let’s figure out how to do this.’” 

It began a nearly 20-year involvement that, in turn, led to civic engagement, and eventually the Kettering Foundation. Along the way, Theis discovered that his passion led him to find ways to get more involved, and in turn, helped his students experience hands-on learning. When he left Kansas City and applied for jobs in Houston, at every juncture he spoke about his desire to help his students get involved in democracy. “When you go through an interview process, every school asks what you do that nobody else does. The thing I did that nobody else did was civic engagement work,” Theis said. Kingwood, one of six campuses in the Lone Star College system in Texas, responded and hired him.  

Katherine Perrson, president of the Kingwood branch of Lone Star College, is a true believer in public engagement. “Like most grand efforts, we started small,” she said. Theis worked with high school juniors and seniors attending Kingwood’s early college program, and matched them with college students to act as mentors. They picked a project to improve their community and worked on it all year as part of the public achievement program.  

“The kids think that this kind of change is simple. But it takes more planning and working with people, even if the aim is just to keep a skating rink open a few more hours,” Perrson said. “What was always fun to hear about is what they did when Plan A didn’t work.”

Theis’ efforts eventually brought him to Dayton, Ohio, for a series of research exchanges on the democratic mission of community colleges, as well as the deliberative role they can play, lead by Kettering program officer Derek Barker.

“I got an invitation to go to the Kettering Foundation around 2011 based on the public achievement program I was involved in. I thought this deliberation stuff looked kind of interesting. Deliberation is an essential democratic skill. The way we talk about politics is so vitriolic sometimes that getting students to just talk about these controversial issues is not only valuable for them as citizens, but I found that other faculty members really gravitated toward it and it became a good way to get them interested in civic engagement,” Theis said.

He introduced deliberation to students using a variety of issue guides and recruited a speech professor to train student moderators, which grew to a group of about 20 students. He also began approach other faculty to get involved. “I would tell them, ‘If you let me bring in my students and let your class deliberate on the issues, it could be one day you don’t have to prepare a lecture.’ It was very appealing. So we got into some education and history classes,” Theis said.

Theis became an evangelist for deliberation and civic engagement. He presented his ideas and activities to professors informally and at systemwide events. He conducted a forum on the future of higher education, using the National Issues Forums issue guide, with the president and senior leadership of the college grappling with the issue. Word spread.Theis led a group of faculty that began to invite speakers at night. The efforts began to change the campus culture. “Students who are involved with the college are more likely to complete their degree,” he said.

Sophomore Prince Winbush couldn’t agree more. “If I didn’t have these activities, I would have dropped out by now. This has been an anchor for me,” he said.

When Winbush first attended Kingwood, he heard about the Center for Civic Engagement, which Theis began with several other faculty members. “I thought it would be amazing to get involved,” Winbush said. After moderator training, he moderated three forums; helped register voters at three different campuses; got involved with collecting food donations for local food pantries; and is looking forward to volunteering for Kingwood’s book festival next year, which brings in more than 100 authors to the campus.

The center, which coordinates various activities, also offers six different trips during spring break, two of which are international, on a variety of topics that are either service learning or immersion. One is on the immigrant experience, in which students meet with members of the Border Patrol, talk to documented and undocumented immigrants, and meet with immigrant advocacy groups. Another is “Civil Rights and the Blues,” which involves going to Mississippi, meeting civil rights veterans and those who registered African American voters in the Delta during the 1960s.

Through these activities, Perrson said, the college became comfortable with having communitywide dialogue on difficult issues, such as racism. When the public debate concerning guns on campus became heated, Perrson knew what to do. She asked Theis to organize deliberations on the matter. Theis called in all of his student moderators, built on the partnership that had developed with Windy Lawrence at University of Houston-Downtown to involve their moderators (ultimately, he arranged for 30 moderators to help), and wrote an issue guide on the topic with three choices. Within two weeks, he had arranged to hold deliberative forums in the biggest area on campus, at tables capable of seating 10 each. Theis assumed 200 people would attend. About 350 showed up, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and members of Open Carry Texas, a gun rights group, whose members not only joined the discussion, but also videotaped it.

The next day, Open Carry Texas posted the video, praising the event as fair and expressing the opinion that more such forums should take place. Theis considers it his biggest success so far.

Last year, Perrson released Theis from an obligation to teach classes, and the chancellor gave him a budget, appointed him director of the center, and asked him to organize all the college campuses in the system around civic engagement—six different schools, 90,000 students, and 6,000 employees.

So what’s next?

“I want to get the community involved in a way that has an impact on politics. I want deliberation to be done in a way that increases community-campus partnerships. There is potential here to broaden the reach of these practices,” he said.

“There is a public purpose to education that goes back to the founding of public schools. It helps make our democracy work better. Too often, our notion of democracy is voting and going home, and waiting for leaders to fix our problem. But that isn’t democracy. Democracy should be working with leaders, working across differences, parties, fixing things in our community. To do that we have to talk to people, figure out where they are coming from, craft solutions that don’t divide people.

“It’s simple,” Theis said. “Basically, I have taken the skills organizing the community around the church and the skills I taught in my classes and I applied them to my college.”

Maura Casey is a Kettering Foundation senior associate.