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Dr. Katy Strzepek, Ph.D. '18, Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, head shot

Dr. Katy Strzepek, Ph.D. '18, Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning

Spotlight: Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning plans for the future

With a new director, a new strategic plan, and a new designation from the Carnegie Foundation, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning has big plans for the future of civic engagement at Illinois State University. We sat down with center Director Dr. Katy Strzepek to ask about what the University can expect to see moving forward.

Why was it important for the center to create a new strategic plan?

Creating a new strategic plan was important to help us refine our mission and vision to align with the University’s strategic plan and to focus our efforts on working towards a more just and equitable world. Developing our new plan has allowed us to grow together as a team, to outline our goals for the future, and to envision how we can work in solidarity with others across the University and in communities locally and globally to develop signature civic education programs and events that support our University’s core values.

What are the main areas the center will focus on in the future?

Our mission and vision highlight the importance of integrating anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion into all types of civic education. We believe justice must be infused into all that we do and that the best way to grow all aspects of civic engagement is to ensure that all people can participate in the co-creation of knowledge in support of justice. This means we want to elevate our collaboration across the campus and community to communicate about the resources we can provide to students, faculty, and staff who want to work together to change the world.

We want to educate our campus and community on the many different types of civic engagement. In particular, we want to elevate our emphasis on political engagement and to dispel negative stereotypes about what it means to be political. We are excited to help implement our campus voter engagement plan with the goal of increasing voter registration and voter turnout. We hope to develop leadership opportunities for students to serve as voting ambassadors and to provide resources for faculty who want to incorporate political engagement in their curricula.

To support democracy, we must encourage thoughtful and respectful dialogue on difficult topics in our classrooms and in our communities. We received a Fell Trust Grant to train facilitators to host Deliberative Dialogues around the topic of safety and justice and will also be hosting book groups about Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, as well as a film screening. Stevenson’s work highlights inequities in the criminal justice system. The Just Mercy events will provide opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and community members to engage with the theme of safety and justice from multiple perspectives by participating in and learning from activities in classes, speakers, panel discussions, service opportunities, and Deliberative Dialogues.

The curricula we use for the Deliberative Dialogues encourages students to analyze evidence and to listen to each other as they interpret policies. We hope these activities promote collaborative problem-solving and will encourage students to work across differences to develop justice-based solutions. Dialogue participants will consider how systemic discrimination based on race and class affects the justice system and will discuss how our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices could be enhanced to make all members of our community feel respected.

What changes might we expect to see moving forward?

We recently submitted a proposal to change our unit name to the Center for Civic Engagement as we feel this best encompasses our work to support all forms of civic engagement, rather than only community engagement and service learning. The new name will also help us better align our work with the civic engagement core value of the University.

Another exciting change is that the civic engagement and responsibility minor will now be housed within the center. We created a curriculum review committee for the minor and are working to create a designation for classes in the minor so that students and advisors can easily find these courses when they register.

We are also excited about the opportunity to streamline our assessment process and to provide assessment tools for faculty and staff involved in civic engagement projects with students so that we can best assess how these high impact practices affect students’ experiences. Research shows that civic engagement supports student retention and success and also helps them in their future careers, and we are glad to continue our collaborations with University College and Career Services to support our students throughout their Redbird journey on campus and beyond. We know it is important to educate our students not only about local issues but also about global concerns, and we look forward to enhancing our connections with international education and we are exploring the possibility of creating a credit-bearing Study Abroad Alternative Break class.

We are grateful to build upon our institution’s history as a national leader in the American Democracy Project (ADP), and we will be doing so by integrating ADP into the work of the center. ADP is a network of higher education institutions that strives to educate students to serve as active members of their communities through active participation in the political process. Our connections to this important national organization are a perfect fit with our university’s core value of civic engagement.

Finally, we recently created a Civic Engagement Advisory Board to enhance our collaboration with units across campus and to provide feedback and direction on center initiatives and concerns. This board will complement our existing Community Consulting Board (CCB), with some CCB members also serving on the advisory board.

You mentioned the creation of an advisory board. Will students be included as well?

Of course! Yes, students will fill several seats on the center’s advisory board. We understand the value of student input, and we definitely want their voices to be heard on all projects and information we take to our advisory board.

The new strategic plan states that the center affirms the other core values of the university. How do those other values tie into the work of the center? 

Our strategic plan affirms our commitment as a Campus Compact institution dedicated to using higher education to support full participation in a democratic society. This means that, as a public institution, we are responsible for making sure our democracy works and that no one is left out of the process. Thus, diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect must be built into all our efforts to work towards our center’s vision of a more just and equitable society.

We must stay engaged to help solve the world’s problems. Our programs help students dig deeper to find the root causes of problems and to consider intersectional perspectives. So, when our students go to clean up the Mississippi River through our Alternative Breaks program, we want them to also gain knowledge about why it is polluted in the first place, and to learn how systemic discrimination based on race, class, and gender relate to environmental concerns. We ask them to consider policies that could be enacted to help keep the river clean and to collaborate with individuals and communities most affected by the problem to honor their wisdom and to create partnerships for sustainable change. We also hope students will think about attitudes and personal behaviors they must change to become part of the solution.

The United States has seen an increase in both protests and important steps toward social change over the last year. Can you explain how the center’s work connects to broader issues of social justice?

The center is dedicated to anti-racist education and action, and we assert that it is vital to educate students, faculty, staff, and community members about systemic oppression so we can create a more just and equitable world. As we prepare our students to work in their communities, we ask them to consider what social justice issues matter most to them. We also ask them to practice perspective taking and to challenge themselves to think about how issues affect people differently based on their identities. We want our students to avoid a “savior” mentality when working for justice and instead to educate themselves in solidarity with the communities they serve to co-create solutions.

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