Campus Democracy Project

Barry University’s commitment to promoting civic engagement through political education and participation in the electoral process recently prompted a group of faculty and staff to create the Campus Democracy Project (CDP). A nonpartisan initiative, the CDP has already achieved notable success in organizing or supporting campus activities that have attracted hundreds of students and generated increased interest in the 2012 elections.

The strategy used by the CDP includes voter registration, candidate and issue education, community outreach, and voter turnout activities. Highlights of its program consist of a forum on the health care policy, a student debate, presidential debate watch parties, and voter registration.

Held to commemorate U.S. Constitution Day, the forum on the health care policy featured panelists discussing how the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act impacts students, families, and society. They also discussed the legal, political, and economic ramifications. About 50 people attended the event on Barry’s main campus, with many others connecting via the Internet from the St. Petersburg site and the Barry Law School campus in Orlando. Students asked questions about preventive care, managed care, related costs, and the possible impact on the medical field.

A student debate on the presidential candidates and their policy positions was held on October 23, a day after the final presidential debate. About 90 students and staff encouraged College Democrats Xavier Swain and David Zaret and College Republican George Schnell to debate the issues. Lively discussion and probing questions were followed by a straw poll where Barack Obama was favored over Mitt Romney by a large margin.

With CDP support, residence halls hosted four debate watch parties during the presidential and vice presidential debates with nearly 200 students in attendance. Two of the events were covered by local networks on their evening newscast.

The CDP provided students with opportunities either to register to vote for the first time or to update their address. Electoral officials were invited to campus, and the CDP also set up voter resource centers in the Landon Student Center and the Business Center in Thompson Hall. The Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Organizing for America, and the Republican Party of Florida all sent representatives to campus during CDP-organized events. Approximately 330 students were registered through these efforts. In addition more than 150 registered voters on campus signed a pledge to vote in the November elections.

Prior to November 6, the CDP organized information sessions to inform voters about the various ballot questions and to assist students in getting to the polls. CDP worked with Resident Assistants to organize a Halloween Dorm Storm during which hundreds of pieces of candy with “Vote!” messages were passed out at the residential halls.  Many students also took advantage of CDP-organized van rides to an early voting site. An hourly parade to the local poll at Hubert Sibley Elementary marched students to vote on Election Day. A rally was held on Election Day for students to make buttons or signs urging registered voters to go to the polls.

Apart from activities focused on the elections, the CDP also lent its support to other civic engagement initiatives such as the CCSI’s Deliberative Dialogue series and the Peace-In event.

The topic of the inaugural Deliberative Dialogue, held on Sept. 25, was “The Death Penalty: An Eye for an Eye?” Among the five panelists was a former death row inmate, Herman Lindsey, who told the story of his conviction, incarceration, and exoneration. Lindsey, whose 2006 murder conviction was overturned in a unanimous decision by the Florida Supreme Court in 2009, admitted to the standing-room-only audience that, while he did not commit the murder, he was a drug dealer with a lifestyle that made him vulnerable. Lindsey discussed some of the problems with the criminal sentencing procedures that led to his wrongful placement on death row. He is one of 23 convicts exonerated in Florida and now works with the non-profit organization Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Approximately 200 Barry University students attended the second annual Peace-In. Held on September 20 in commemoration of the United Nations International Day of Peace, the event featured workshops on topics related to peacemaking, peace building, civic engagement and social justice. Attendees participated in interactive workshops and sessions focused on fair trade and labor, LGBT sensitivity, efforts to address global poverty, work with the Peace Corps, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a dialogue about race-related issues, domestic and dating violence advocacy, and peace education. Workshops led by Laura Finley, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology, area activists, and Barry students Chelsea Baker and David Carden focused on engaging students in dialogue and on presenting opportunities for students to take action about the respective issues.

"It is difficult to measure the exact impact of these various efforts on civic engagement and voter participation,” said Sean Foreman, Associate Professor of Political Science, who serves on the CDP committee. “Collectively these events promoted civic engagement and offered students opportunities to become informed citizens. Many of the events encouraged students exercise their right to vote. That is an essential element of the democratic process."

Seven departments across three university divisions – Academic Affairs, Mission and Institutional Effectiveness, and Student Affairs – are represented in the CDP. They are the Center for Community Service Initiatives (CCSI), Department of History and Political Science, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Office of Mission Engagement, Center for Student Involvement, Department of Campus Ministry, and the De Porres Center for Community Service. The CDP receives support from the Student Government Association.

Florida Campus Compact supported the initiative by awarding a $100 mini-grant, which was allocated to Constitution Day activities and to support Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

CCSI Associate Director Christina Leaño, who chairs the CDP, emphasized that, like Florida Campus Compact, the CDP does not endorse any candidate or political party. "This non-partisan initiative seeks to promote civil and issue-based dialogue, increase civic participation among our students, and inspire civic responsibility in a participatory democracy."