Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 1

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
The Civic Work of Diversity
Educating Multicultural Community Builders: Service Learning at California State University Monterey Bay
Education for Democracy: Place Matters
In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Curricular Transformation
Narrative and Community: Civic Engagement and the Work of Diversity
Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding for Students of Science and Technology
Research Shows Benefits of Linking Diversity and Civic Goals
Diversity and Civic Engagement Outcomes Ranked Among Least Important
Academic Service Learning for Effective Civic Engagement
Faculty Involvement
There Is No Substitute for Experience
Student Experience
The Personal Is Still Political: HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Communicating Common Ground
Resources for Diversity and Civic Engagement
The Civic Engagement Imperative: Student Learning and the Public Good

The Civic Work of Diversity

By Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives, AAC&U

Although rarely named as such, diversity work—whether local or global—is in fact civic work. I just finished reading a powerful book, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005), by Fergus M. Bordewich. It describes in a gripping narrative how a small minority of abolitionists, fugitive slaves, and free blacks organized, preached, wrote, went to court, politicked, and defied laws and lawmen for a half century until they had shifted the collective conscience of the North. Moving from laissez-faire and pro-slavery sympathies in the 1820s, northerners ultimately could no longer tolerate the moral and political oxymoron of a democracy that enslaved a third of its populace.

If Bound for Canaan were taught in a college course, would it be read only in diversity courses? Or would it be seen as one of the great civic lessons that every graduate should know about? Until the answer is the latter, we risk losing the very heart of this great democratic experiment in the United States.

When the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning, a multi-project initiative, in 1993, the long-entrenched habits of memory and national narratives that had sanded smooth the violent and contested history of our democracy were being unmoored by new scholarship on diversity that touched every discipline, century, and genre. For many, it was a revelation to juxtapose diversity with democracy. What could they have in common, some asked in amazement. The answer, of course, was everything.

Whether in the United States or in other democracies around the globe, diversity tests the moral commitments of a democracy. Are the opportunities and privileges of a democratic society meted out equally across different groups of people? In the United States, our nation’s identity continues to evolve as excluded groups—citizens and noncitizens—organize civically to insist that our democracy honor its deepest principles. Democracy, at the same time, provides the moral compass for diversity. What does the common welfare of all demand from each of us? It is not simply a matter of securing individual rights, but one of agreeing to live together as a diverse democratic community. This kind of conversation was at the center of AAC&U’s Tri-National Seminar, a project that involved educators from India, South Africa, and the United States who examined comparatively the nation-building role of higher education in diverse democracies.

Parallel Educational Reform Movements

The link between civic work and diversity work, however, has sometimes been lost in the explosive growth of civic engagement on college campuses in the last decade. Most of that growth resulted in volunteer centers organized to work in local communities, service learning through which such activities were nested within academic courses, and entrepreneurial partnerships between institutions and community-development groups that sought to transform entire sections of cities. The unfortunate, if unintended, result of the growth of the civic engagement movement on campus has been to uncouple diversity from the civic arena.

Too often, diversity was dropped from the language, conception, teaching, and practice of civic learning on most campuses. Instead of a unified, student-centered educational reform movement that sought to educate students for socially responsible engagement in a diverse and sometimes divided world, two parallel educational reform movements emerged nationally and on many campuses. One expression of that division is that the diversity education practitioners and leaders are multiracial, while the civic engagement practitioners and leaders are largely white.

To be sure, there are people who have a foot in both worlds and whom we have sought to feature in this issue of Diversity Digest. They realize that uncoupling diversity and civic work diminishes the possibilities for learning and building strong communities, locally, nationally, and globally, which is, of course, a goal embraced fervently by those engaged in civic engagement work. To do civic work with integrity and have an impact, students need knowledge about the cultures and communities with which they will interact and understanding of the historic and current inequalities that have defined social locations and opportunities.

The Power of the Union

In making civic engagement the focus of this issue of Diversity Digest, we offer concrete examples of institutions that have linked diversity and civic engagement in powerful, effective, and educationally transforming ways. We are encouraged by what we see in the field. Articles feature new conceptual frameworks for civic learning, curricular designs that explicitly address rather than erase the connection between diversity and civics, community engagement that moves from charity to partnerships, faculty development models that practice community-based learning, and research about the democracy outcomes of diversity learning.

Wanting to provide a structural expression for the integrated vision, AAC&U in partnership with Campus Compact established a new Center for Civic Engagement and Liberal Education. The center is deliberately located squarely within AAC&U’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives. We wanted to underscore the integral connection between diversity and civic work and the importance of placing such learning at the academic core of a student’s experience.
One way to integrate diversity and civic learning is to move from the language of service to the language of justice and social responsibility. A second is to link both diversity and civic work to the learning outcomes we want to cultivate in students. What do students need to know in order to function effectively and responsibly in a dynamic, volatile, stratified world? The accompanying chart suggests the kinds of learning that present a new face of education for responsible citizenship.

This emerging new practice of multicultural civic learning teaches students to be empathetic, look at an issue from multiple points of view, analyze interlocking systems that govern lives, and understand the history of and contemporary struggles for democracy. It also helps students gain new intercultural competencies and commit to democratic values and an ethical framework for action so they can practice responsible acts of citizenship and the arts of democracy.
With such capacities students may themselves become the democratic activists writing the next great chapter in democracy’s unfolding evolution.

Faces/Phases of Citizenship
Face/Phase Community is...
Civic Scope
Levels of Knowledge Benefits
Exclusionary only your own
civic disengagement
• one vantage point (yours)
• monocultural
a few and only for a while
Oblivious a resource to mine civic detachment • observational skills
• largely monocultural
one party
Naive a resource to engage civic amnesia • no history
• no vantage point
• acultural
random people
Charitable a resource that needs assistance civic altruism • awareness of deprivations
• affective kindliness and respect
• multicultural, but yours is still the norm center
the giver's feelings,
the sufferer's immediate needs
Reciprocal a resource to empower and
be empowered by
civic engagement • legacies of inequalities
• values of partnering
• intercultural competencies
• arts of democracy
• multiple vantage points
• multicultural
society as a whole in the present
Generative an interdependent resource filled with possibilities civic prosperity • struggles for democracy
• interconnectedness
• analysis of interlocking systems
• intercultural competencies
• arts of democracy
• multiple interactive vantage points
• multicultural
everyone now and in the future



Bordewich, F. M. 2005. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the war for the soul of America. New York: Amistad Press.
Musil, C. M. 2003. Educating for citizenship. Peer Review 5 (3):4-8.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
Copyright 1996 - 2014
Association of American Colleges & Universities | 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC, 20009