Department of Political Science, Swarthmore College

Meta Mendel-Reyes, (610) 328-8098 (9/98)

The purpose of Democracy Project is to deepen students' understanding of and commitment to democratic citizenship in a multicultural society. The project features an innovative approach to civic education, through community-based learning combined with rigorous academic study, integrated with the overall program in political science. Students enrolled in the core seminar, Political Science 38 "Public Service, Community Organizing, and Social Change," engage in semester-long internships, for a minimum of five hours/week, with local service and advocacy organizations. The other two courses, Political Science 19 "Democratic Theory and Practice" and Political Science 36 "Multicultural Politics," feature a class community service project. By integrating reflection and experience, the project enables students to study the relationship between democratic theory and practice, the ways in which multicultural communities define and seek to empower themselves in the United States, and the role of the activist in public service, community organizing, and social change (see course desciptions below). The core course, "Public Service, Community Organizing, and Social Change," may be combined with either of the other courses to form an honors preparation in the college's signature Honors Program.


Political Science 38: Public Service, Community Organizing, and Social Change

Through community-based learning, this weekly seminar explores the experience of democratic citizenship in a multicultural society, focussing on the role of the activist in public service, community organizing, and social change. Internships in Philadelphia or Chester (5 hours/week), challenging reading assignments, dialogue with local activists, and popular education pedagogy enrich reflection upon and analysis of topics including individual and community empowerment; public policy at the grassroots; urban politics; communication and coalition-building across differences of race, gender, class; leadership and organizing skills development.

In the United States near the end of the 20th century, poverty, racism, homelessness, inadequate education, lack of access to health care, unemployment, environmental pollution, etc., have become daily realities for many people. The pervasiveness of injustice and inequality call into question the meaning of American democracy. More and more people have given up on political participation, even as politics becomes more urgent. At the national level, the federal government has increasingly distanced itself from the plight of American cities. Yet, at the grassroots, in neighborhoods and workplaces, people are organizing and trying to resolve the tremendous problems which confront them. How do communities empower themselves to take action? What are the roles and responsibilities of individual citizens and activists - as members and leaders of struggling communities, as people from the outside engaged in public service, advocacy, or organizing?

Because community based-learning involves interacting with people off campus, often in sensitive or challenging situations, enrollment is limited to a maximum of 12 students who have previous experience in community service, and who request permission from the instructor before registration. During Spring 1998 semester, students interned with the Chester Community Improvement Project, and in Philadelphia with the Maternity Care Coalition, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Women's Law Project, People's Emergency Center, the Village of Arts and Humanities, Friends' Conflict Mediation Program, Coalition Against the Death Penalty, New Jerusalem (drug rehabilitation), and the Norris Square Neighborhood Project.


Students, Movements, and Citizen Education

This course explores the relationship between theories and practices of democracy, focussing on the gap between the nearly universal commitment to "the rule of the people" and the fact that very few people exercise power today. During the Fall 1997 semester, the course focussed on student, labor, and civil rights movements, and on education for democratic citizenship. Case studies featured: student activism in the 1960s and the 1990s; environmental justice; labor organizing among miners in West Virginia; and popular education in Latin America and in the United States.

The root meaning of the word, democracy, is "rule of the people," which seems like a simple, straightforward idea. Today, nearly everyone agrees that political power belongs in the hands of the people. But the appearance is deceptive: The decline of citizenship in the United States raises a host of complex questions, both practical and theoretical. What explains the gap between the ideal and reality of democracy? Is democracy feasible in a complex, technological society? in a large, bureaucratic, nation-state? in a global economy increasingly dominate by multinational corporations? Is democracy simply about the institutions of government? Power is surely also exercised, for example, in the economy, families, and educational institutions. What does democracy entail in these contexts? Can political democracy occur in a country in which there are tremendous economic and social equalities? Does democracy require absolute equality? And what does it mean for "the people" to "have" power, anyway? Must political decisions be made by consensus to be considered truly democratic? When and how do political movements arise, in which people attempt to empower themelves and to reclaim democracy?

The course design explores democracy by being democratic. Students have input into all aspects of the class, including themes, format, and assignments. In line with the dual focus on theory and practice, the students chose either a group action project or a group research project as the final assignment. In the "action" option, they organized themselves "democratically," and plan and carry out a "democratic action" by the end of this semester; they also write a paper and make a presentation to the class, analyzing their action in light of the democratic theory and practice studied this semester. If they selected the research option, they choose and study a contemporary or historical movement, in which students play or played an important role; they also write a paper and make a presentation to the class, analyzing the movement in light of the democratic theory and practice studied.

Political Science 36 Multicultural Politics in the United States

This course explores the ways in which multicultural politics has shaped American democracy, past and present, with a focus on the community level. Is the United States a "melting pot", a "mosaic," or a "battleground" of racial, ethnic, and cultural "difference"? Which, if any, should it try to be? These questions become more urgent as diversity increases; by the middle of the 21st century, there will be no racial majority in the United States. In American political culture, nostalgia for a country united through the assimilation of immigrants contrasts with widespread anxiety about a nation increasingly divided by race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual orientation, and income.

The first half of the semester investigates the historical experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and gays and lesbians. We consider both the subordination of these groups and their efforts to empower themselves, concluding with the civil rights and other movements of the 1960s. The second half of the semester emphasizes multicultural politics in the 1990s, from theoretical approaches to specific issues in public policy, including the relationship between poverty and race; affirmative action; multicultural education; immigration, particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border; and a local focus on criminal justice in Philadephia. At the end of the course, students make group presentations on issues in multicultural politics, bringing together analysis of past and present with recommendations for the next century. The course concludes by considering the future of multicultural democracy, and strategies for action.