Civic Action Parties Help Students Make Difference
By Tim Meehan
In many districts across California, high school students are required to perform a certain amount of community service hours.
Those students often arrive at college with neither the time, desire nor readily available resources to give back to their communities.
That’s not the case at Cal State San Marcos thanks to Rochelle Smarr and the Department of Service Learning and Civic Engagement (SLCE).
That group sets out to introduce students to immediate opportunities to engage in their communities while setting the stage for a life of giving back.
“This generation, Gen Z, is all about taking action,” said Smarr, who has been the director of SLCE for a year. “And so before they get out there to protest and respond, I would love for them just to learn about a social cause, take some action about it and connect with organizations so they don't feel like they're just flying off the handle, but they have a direction in their service and purpose.”
One of those Gen Z students during a collaboration in the middle of the pandemic shared his opinion that CSUSM students were looking for greater ways to connect, even if it was just online.
Up to that point since the onset of COVID-19, SLCE had focused on plans for bringing in guest speakers for a potential in-person gathering.
But the idea stuck, and after developing the potential plans, Smarr set out to collaborate with another organization to help facilitate their plans into action.
Thus was born civic action parties through a collaboration with a company with a strong online platform that sets out to help groups change the world.
Impactree offers students a way to engage virtually in two- or three-minute actions. So far, there have been more than two dozen actions and five civic action parties.
The goal of the parties is to pique students’ interest and follow that up with tangible actions that are not only achievable but also offer long-term opportunities and viable solutions to overwhelming problems in a variety of social, political and ecological areas.
“This is a defining decade for key social and environmental issues,” said Jarrod Russell, the COO and co-founder of Impactree. “It is more important than ever to sustain civic participation. Our goal at Impactree is to make it easier for people and communities to build, sustain and celebrate their collective action. That's why this collaboration between CSUSM and Impactree is so important.
“Impactree is a place where your actions connect together in a journey, one that you can look back on and be proud of, all while contributing to the collective impact of the CSUSM community.”
Smarr, who has worked in community engagement for 13 years – including eight years overseeing higher education programs – was approached by several organizations before deciding to partner with Impactree.
While the other companies pitched specific issues such as strictly voting, Russell and his group offered more than two dozen actionable issues to get moving on immediately.
“Imagine: With a campus population of over 16,000 people, if everyone at CSUSM completed 10 actions on Impactree this month for the causes they care about, they'd contribute to a collective impact of 160,000-plus actions across over a dozen issue areas,” said Russell, who was born and raised in nearby Oceanside. “Being able to advance a variety of actions within dozens of causes across a diverse campus is an extraordinary opportunity, one that I am really grateful to be a part of.”
The civic action parties have so far been on Zoom.
The typical party includes an overview of the platform and how to use it followed by a short discussion on that particular theme. Then everyone turns off their cameras for 10 minutes to listen to music while performing activities on the action hub. When they come back, participants discuss the actions they took, do another 10 minutes of actions on their own and then return to talk about ways to connect with the community on a larger scale.
A recent theme was Juneteenth and the significance of celebrating that holiday for our country.
The CSUSM campus community has already completed 4,000 actions for topics that include racial justice, gender equity and climate change. A goal of 10,000 completed and shared actions by December has been set.
A comprehensive list of actions can be seen on the Impactree Civic Action Hub page.
“We'll have a deeper discussion on that issue that you're interested in,” Smarr said. “And my hope is that will connect you with a local opportunity, a local organization that's looking for a couple more hours instead of four or five minutes. You can now give three hours on the weekend with the food bank or doing environmental justice or writing a campaign.
“We want to pique your interest enough to say that civic action isn't something that has to be big and grand. It can be something as simple as signing up for a petition, donating, sharing with your friends or watching a video to learn more about a topic.”
Plans are being made for in-person parties to include food, a DJ and the general good vibes that come with sharing the same space. But more work needs to be done.
First, Smarr hopes to launch a civic engagement campaign across campus. There are currently about 300 volunteer opportunities that are connected to service-learning courses.
The ideal cycle for a CSUSM student would look something like this: volunteering to service-learning course to an internship in community engagement to perhaps a career in public service.
Smarr is also looking to create a fellowship of civic engagement ambassadors. It would include business sponsors, alumni and community activists to donate their time and financial resources to grow the program. She can be reached at email@example.com or through the group’s Instagram page (@csusm_civicengagement).
But first comes the task of inspiring the college student who arrives on campus wanting to give back and build communities but isn’t sure how. The journey to becoming a life-changing community influencer often begins with a single action.
“The world is not so much just about my own experience as it is about our collective experience,” Smarr said. “If we can take small actions to better the social society of community, that will better ourselves as well because you don't have to go to work all the days and make all the money for yourself. But we have a broader mission in ourselves to want to help others. If we can start now on our own campus community and connect to our local community then it won't be so much of a chore and will just be something natural that you're doing.
“Because we all have a role to play in society – whether it is in a professional capacity or it is volunteering, we all have a say. And we all have a voice in this democracy.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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