The Catalyst for Community Engagement is designed to foster dialogue on university-community engagement, including civic and political engagement, community-engaged research partnerships, service learning, and social justice. The role of the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) is to expand local and global initiatives that strengthen and sustain communities, and help improve the quality of life for all.
Bonnie Silvestri, JD, Director of Strategic Communications for the OCEP, writes The Catalyst and is responsible for communications and programming in alignment with the OCEP’s mission. In addition to her work with OCEP, she teaches a service-learning course called Examinations of Poverty and Constitutional Law for USF Sarasota-Manatee, where she previously served as Senior Fellow for Arts, Culture, and Civic Engagement at the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership.
Bonnie’s expertise is in creating discussion around arts and culture as it relates to community engagement and social justice. She believes that discussing culture and artistic expression can help us understand ourselves and others while engaging in meaningful dialogue.
I was honored to spend three days at the biennial National Association of Community & Restorative Justice (NACRJ) conference with 500 socially-conscious educators, lawyers, social workers, and students who are dedicated to working toward, as the NACRJ Executive Director Michael Gilbert said, “a more just, equitable, and fair society.” Gilbert noted that those who are focused on restorative justice often feel there is “not a lot of support” for what he called a “pro-social vision of a different society,” but that the NACRJ was formed to provide that “support system.”
Gilbert began the three-day long conference stating: “These are your people, welcome home.” He said the large contingency, which had increased significantly since the previous conference, “represents our collective capacity for safe and peaceful relationships.” Mara Schiff, NACRJ Conference host, said we are witnessing a time when issues of disparities in racial justice, such as the recent spate of deaths of unarmed African American men at the hands of police officers, have become an important part of the national conversation. She asked, “Did it get worse or just more visible?” She talked about how we are in a time of an unprecedented explosion in social media that allows us to “establish movements and conversations that we did not have before.”
Perhaps the huge uptick in those interested in restorative justice can be attributed to a collective feeling that the American ideals of equity and justice are slipping away. Discussion of white privilege and the vast racial inequities in day-to-day police interactions, school disciplinary programs, and the justice and correctional systems are now more common, and our society seems to have started to wake up from a collective hangover of denial
There is no question that, as Schiff said, since the last conference was held, it has become readily apparent that we can harness the power of social media to draw attention to institutional failure in our democratic system. Indeed, those of us who use social media seem to be “all a-twitter” in social consciousness these days. The term “hashtag activism” was coined during the Occupy movement, raised its profile with #KONY2012, and reached a new level of notoriety when even First Lady Michelle Obama was photographed last May with #BringBackOurGirls after 250 Nigerian girls were kidnapped. Through the omnipresence of social media, learning that a long-lost college friend shares your politics can be a relief, but learning of other friends’ deeply held beliefs that may contradict your own in such a public way can be a shock.
Where once an activist like Daniel Ellsberg had to spend his nights hunched over a Xerox machine copying the now infamous Pentagon Papers by hand, the new generation of “whistle blowers,” Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and others, can share secret government documents quickly and with relative ease. Yet they all have paid a very high price for these efforts, and the consequences of such “truth telling” can be devastating. Technology has also enabled and empowered everyone to bear witness to illegal and unethical activity. And yet, as in the case of Eric Garner, where a video shows clearly that his last breaths were taken in police custody, the police officers were not indicted.
Now that we have the ability to access the world with one click, the word “community” itself has, in some ways, both expanded and collapsed. Facebook has rendered people around the world our “friends,” and we can share messages of hope and freedom as well as stories of the vast inequities in our current system. Yet, simultaneously, with constant updates and news feeds, we seem to have lost the joys of learning about one another’s lives over a cup of coffee in community spaces. Not to mention that our privacy, a hard-fought civil liberty, is somewhere in the clouds, much like a tiny balloon slipping through the fingers of a young child.
Gilbert and Schiff set the intention for the conference to explore shared values and learn from one another how to harness what seems to be a collective longing that a major paradigm shift in our understanding of justice is long overdue. A significant theme of the conference was about uncovering and finding the truth so that we can move forward toward a truly fair and equitable system without forgetting the errors of our past. Another important aspect of the conference was defining and understanding what it means to forgive, and it was clear throughout the week, that forgiving absolutely doesn’t mean forgetting. A key component of forgiveness is ensuring that stories can be told, previously under-represented voices can be heard, and that a deeper level of understanding should result.
I couldn’t help but think about my own life as someone very focused on “doing the right thing” as a young person and then during my legal training in what I believed was a fair, but flawed, system. We have been taught that the goal of our courts is to discover “the truth” through an adversarial system, built on a presumption that when each side is given the opportunity to present their case, the crux of what happened will invariably come to light. However, there is a growing awareness, evidenced by the large contingency of people who came to the conference, that this system in many ways subverts the truth. In fact, those of us who have worked in, studied, or even casually observed the legal system are well aware that a miscarriage of justice can occur for any number of reasons, not least of which are the ruthless self-interest rewarded by the process, the imperfections of memory, and the vagaries of the human mind and spirit.
Witnesses take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; however, in many ways, it is not in one’s best interest to do so. Rarely will someone who has been accused of wrongdoing testify, and we all know (and those who do not know are reminded through their so-called “Miranda rights”) that the wisest course is to stay silent when involved with law enforcement.
The first plenary speaker of the conference was the truly inspiring Dominic Barter, who shared his experiences twenty years ago in Brazil that prompted him to start developing restorative circles. He spoke eloquently of arriving in Rio De Janeiro expecting to find the images from post cards, only to discover that next to the stunning beaches were shanty towns with young kids wielding machine guns that in many cases were nearly as big as they were. He found himself drawn to the young people he met, because he believes it is far more dangerous to avoid conflict than to walk into it and try to discover the truth at the root of the unrest. He found that as he talked to the kids about things they were enthusiastic about, he could get them to open up and talk about the things that were troubling them as well. He began to ask himself: “How do you sit with people in their pain without producing solutions for them?”
His growing realization that the source of conflict was largely the result of an unmet human need to be heard, led him to form circles, which were designed as a “conversation among equals whose ending is unknown.” He said that when you begin to take the time to listen to those whom we traditionally consider “offenders” and “victims,” the lines can be blurred and the truth of the occurrence can begin to reveal itself. He recounted seeing a couple fighting in Amsterdam who began yelling at one another, and he realized they were raising their voices because there was a “distance in understanding” not a geographical distance that made them unable to truly hear one another. He said similarly, violence represents “the volume being raised on a message that was not being heard.”
He set up meeting spaces where it would be, as he said, “safe to dialogue,” and he found that just the act of “sitting down together has extraordinary power.” The circles ensure that no one person’s voice receives greater validation, and in contrast to an adversarial system, the previously missing third party, the “community,” which is also heavily impacted by violence, can also be heard. He said when you “watch the flow of conversation, you are able to track people making meaning” of what they are hearing. He said that the circles are set up to “make people comfortable to speak uncomfortable truths.”
Throughout the conference, we were able to, as Barter says, “track people making meaning” as it became clear that when people are given the opportunity to speak without fear of consequence we are indeed able to reach toward the truth.
For more information about Dominic Barter's work go to http://www.restorativecircles.org/
Stay tuned for additional reflections from this conference.
A Tale of Two Cities: how theater helps us delve into the current worldwide prevalence of income inequality
by Bonnie Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications
Recently, Eduard Lewis visited our campus as this year's guest artist for the British International Theatre (BRIT) program for the University of South Florida Department of Theatre, staging the world-famous classic, A Tale of Two Cities. I sat down with him to talk about the themes of poverty and injustice that run throughout the play. These themes are very relevant to our work at the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships.
Even as our economy rebounds, the gap between the wealthiest and the least well off seems an insurmountable gulf. In what Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel calls “the skyboxification of American life,” the wealthiest are increasingly isolating themselves from those less fortunate.
The recent controversy over what was described as a Dickensian (referring to Charles Dickens, the author of A Tale of Two Cities), “poor door” was approved at a luxury condominium on the Upper West Side. It was an alternate entrance for the affordable housing residents, part of the seemingly less apt name, Inclusionary Housing Program, to be able to build larger luxury residences by providing some low-income housing. Those residents also would not have access to the amenities, including the pool and gym.
Sandel continued, “People of influence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”
A shared theatrical experience can be one of the best ways to engage in much needed dialogue. By looking back at history through the Tale of Two Cities, we can consider the injustices at the root of the gaping wound of income inequality.
Stay tuned for more video interviews in the coming weeks.Read more
By Bonnie Beth Silvestri, JD, Director of Strategic Communications
“It looks like there are a lot of members of our tribe here,” said New College Provost Stephen Miles, keynote speaker at the 38th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Educational Research Association last month in Sarasota, Florida as he sat down next to me before his highly engaging talk entitled “The (e)X Factor: What Every Educator Can Learn from John Cage.”
He quickly explained, “Our tribe are believers in experiential learning.” Since meeting in 2007 when I first covered Miles’s iconic New Music New College program for the now out-of-print Attitudes magazine, we have shared an interest in the power of shared experiences to educate students and lifelong learners of all ages. A few hours later, I presented, “Social Justice through Critical Service-Learning: A Qualitative Study of Transformational Civic Engagement” about the profound experiences my service-learning students have through curricular engagement. (More on that later).
Miles spoke extensively about the way Cage has influenced his teaching style and has impacted his students throughout his 27 years at New College. The key to understanding Cage, it seems, is to see how discipline and freedom work together to spark creativity.Read more
The grand jury’s decision not to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner was a gut punch and a wake-up call to our country. Much of America was still reeling from the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown when the news began trending that the decision was about to come in the Garner case.
By the time the decision was expected in the Garner case, I felt pretty certain that the jury would not indict. After doing additional research following the Brown decision, although the bar is quite low for establishing probable cause before a grand jury, history shows that police officers are rarely indicted for their actions in the line of duty. There is much precedent for this throughout government, in fact. We tend to protect government officials for actions taken when they are acting in their official capacity.
This gives public officers the ability to act in their official role with greater authority when dealing with the public. There is an assumption that they are “following orders” and are a cog in the machine rather than an individual using their own judgment. When, however, they are acting as a private citizen, for example, if this took place on Pantaleo’s lunch hour, this would be what is called in tort law “a frolic and detour” and would not be protected activity.Read more
by Bonnie Silvestri, JD, Director of Strategic Communications
The Asolo Repertory Theatre recently opened a stellar production of South Pacific; and I must confess it was a challenge not to burst into song during each classic number. I loved hearing the Rodgers and Hammerstein standards from “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,” and “Bali Hai” performed so masterfully.
Yet, it’s “I’m Just a Cockeyed Optimist” that’s stuck with me the most and is running in a seemingly endless loop in my head. I have an anthem to sing when I get discouraged: “I have heard people rant and rave and bellow; that we're done and we might as well be dead. But I'm only a cockeyed optimist, and I can't get it into my head.”
Sometimes the day-to-day work of civic engagement on a college campus can get discouraging. How can we convince young people to work to change the system when there seem to be so many forces throwing up roadblocks at every turn? How can we maintain a positive outlook when we ask our students to look critically at a system that we find frustrating ourselves?
A barrage of bad news can cause cognitive dissonance in our head. The recent shooting at FSU marked the 91st school shooting since the tragic loss at Newtown. Yet there has been no change to our gun laws, even though 90% of Americans favor stricter background checks; because the gun lobby holds our political system in “virtual lock down.” Also, “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby has been accused of drugging and raping a growing number of women, and yet skillful lawyers have helped him evade indictments for at least a decade. And finally, young unarmed African American men are losing their lives at an alarming rate; and the country is reeling from the fact that the grand jury chose not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown.Read more
By Bonnie Beth Silvestri, JD, Director of Strategic Communications
“I am still trying to negotiate and work out the experience and how it has affected me,” said Elizabeth Plakidas, a Graduate Community Scholars Fellowship recipient regarding her summer project funded through the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. The culmination of Plakidas’s summer collaboration is an exhibition opening this Friday, August 1st at the William and Nancy Oliver Gallery in the USF Fine Arts Building.
Plakidas, a graduate student in the Master’s of Fine Arts program, spent the summer working twice a week onsite at Pyramid, Inc., a community-based arts center for people with severe disabilities. The Tampa-based Pyramid is one of six throughout Florida focused on working with adults to create art in all forms.Read more
The USF Contemporary Art Museum put out an open call to community artists in late spring for an exhibition called “A Different Frame of Mind.” The artists were charged with using recycled museum quality frames from past USFCAM exhibitions to create new works of art. This is part of USFCAM’s “ongoing efforts to find new methods for sharing resources and creative capital with the community.”
When you think about a frame, it is in some sense a limitation, bounding a work of art, for exhibition and public view. But “A Different Frame of Mind” aimed to get artists to think about how to use recycled frames—new frames can generally be quite costly—to explore both the limitations and the opportunities for the expansiveness of the frames themselves. Each of the artists found a unique way to use the frames as a part of the piece and to start a conversation about framing and showing artwork in a gallery setting.Read more
When I began teaching seven years ago, I was assigned three classes: Constitutional Law 1 and 2, and Women and the Law.
Women and the Law seemed to present the greatest challenge – how would I make this course relevant to young people attending college in the “aughts?” This was the “Sex and the City” era, when women seemed to be more empowered than ever and were reaching the highest echelons of business and politics.
Although I experienced some sexism, particularly while job hunting in Manhattan, I was selected as the first Executive Director of the Judicial Campaign Ethics Center for the New York State Court System. As a general matter, I did not feel constrained by my gender. Overall, I felt the system, by and large, was working.
Unless we have a personal experience with the legal system, we tend to believe that our constitutional system guarantees that we are all treated equally under the law. However, when one begins to study the law more carefully, particularly in a course like Women and the Law, we discover that in many cases, that is far from the truth. We covered topics ranging from women’s suffrage to equal employment to sexual harassment to reproductive rights.Read more
(Spoiler Alert this describes the episode "The Strategy")
I fall into the camp that believes that Mad Men is one of, if not the best television show of all time. The final analysis to keep it in the all-time greats is how it will end. We have eight episodes to go for the brilliant Matthew Weiner to tie everything together and satisfy his legions of fans.
I thought the most recent episode, “The Strategy,” particularly its conclusion, was one of the strongest of the series. The quiet conversations, especially between the show’s leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) seemed both appropriate for the time period, the late 1960s, and yet so very timeless in their simplicity.Read more
Graphicstudio on the University of South Florida campus and the Tampa Museum of Art came together in a unique partnership to celebrate the outstanding work that has come out of this very special, research-based atelier located right on USF campus.
Graphicstudio began in 1968 as the brainchild of Donald Saff, who developed what Curator of the Collection of the USF Contemporary Art Museum, Peter Foe calls the “premiere house for experimentation in printmaking.”Read more
As part of a series about “the Disney effect,” in part one, I looked at whether Disney’s focus on princesses is creating unrealistic gender norms for young girls. How will watching princesses in gowns and tiaras affect a generation of young girls who are taught to expect nothing less than the royal treatment?
Beyond the obvious concerns with setting up young girls to expect Prince Charming to solve their problems, even the decidedly more modern Princess Sofia has a bevy of servants attending to her every need. Does any Disney character engage in daily tasks like pouring a bowl of cereal or taking out the trash? Through the Disney effect, children are learning to desire and even demand the trappings of wealth and prestige served up to them on a silver platter. But with wealth inequality on the rise, that may be slipping further and further away.Read more
Although I have mixed feelings about the pervasiveness of the Disney brand in our culture, it seems as though visits to Disney World have become about as important to parenting as changing diapers and packing lunches.
I grew up at a time before the princess revolution that has permeated the world of young girls. I was a part of the second wave of feminism reading Betty Friedan and singing along to “Free to Be You and Me” a musical compilation about gender equity developed by Marlo Thomas to serve as an alternative to fairy tale mythology.
As the mother of a three-year-old, I am keenly aware of her exposure to the Disney princess brand. Will the fact that every Disney employee seems required to call her “princess” seep into her consciousness and impact the way she views herself and others? What will the long-term effects be of the omnipresent emphasis on royal balls and fairy godmothers?Read more
Although I am frequently moved by theatrical experiences, there are those rare and special moments when you see something that touches you so deeply you feel you have been transformed. I saw one of the two final performances of The Grapes of Wrath this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and I have been transfixed by the experience ever since.
John Steinbeck published the book The Grapes of Wrath, 75 years ago this month. The themes of the play are so universal that the story of the Joad family living in the forties is nearly as relevant to our lives today as it was when it first entered our cultural lexicon. The book was an immediate hit with waiting lists at local libraries; however, while it inspired so much appreciation from its fans, it also elicited a great deal of hatred and anger, and as a result is one of the most banned books in American history. The truth can be a dangerous thing for those who do not want to hear it. Interestingly, the Joads find themselves confronting truth-tellers along their journey who try to warn them that the promises of jobs and security in California are not what they seem. And Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a frank reminder of the darkness that can overtake men’s souls when resources are scarce. It is hard to dwell in that place where you are so keenly aware of that reality.Read more
This week, serendipity has given me a greater sense of community. On Wednesday afternoon, my colleague pointed up at the sky in awe. A halo encircled the sun in a dazzling display by Mother Nature. I found myself wanting to summon all of the students working fevershly on their laptops outside to step away from their end-of-the-semester preparation and look up at the sky. Instead, we left to eat our lunch only to return to find a small gathering of USF staff snapping photos and pointing -- it was still there! We all started talking about what we saw in the sky. Was it a rainbow? Was it made of tiny crystals surrounding the sun? Did it mean a storm was brewing? Our little group seemed to have different theories. I exchanged cards with Javier Rodriguez who took this beautiful photo far better than the ones I snapped on my iPhone. I learned he is a professional photographer as well as the Fiscal and Business Specialist for the USF Office of Graduate Studies.Read more
the road weeps, the well runs dry produced by the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance is a landmark example of community engaged research, development, and scholarship. The final performances representing the culmination of a three-year process to produce this previously unpublished play written by Marcus Gardley, took place during the weekend of April 12-13th. Stay tuned for a wrap-up of all the community engaged programming related to this milestone production.
This massive undertaking began when USF Theatre Professor Fanni Green was approached by a former classmate of hers, Lisa Rothe of the Lark Play Development Center, a “laboratory for new voices and new ideas” that runs a program called Launching New Plays in the Repertoire Initiative to support mid-career playwrights, such as Gardley, who was selected as part of the pilot of this project in 2011. Gardley wanted his play (which is staged in four settings through the grant) to be produced in at least one university setting in Florida, where the play is partially set.Read more
Service-learning can be a novel concept to explain; but once a student experiences a service-learning class it will stay with him or her forever. When students find out about service-learning, invariably they become very excited about volunteering on a community-based project as part of their coursework. But they often express concerns that it will be daunting – they wonder how they can find the hours to volunteer in what is already a busy day, often including full-time work, loads of reading for class, and family obligations. However, nearly every student by the end of one of my service-learning courses is grateful to have had the opportunity to “learn by doing” and the chance to reflect on their service activities.
It’s one thing to run a book drive or wash dishes at a soup kitchen, but it is quite another to dig deeper and think about the larger issues that people in our communities are facing and why they are facing them. Whether it is inadequate health care, a lack of food or a place to live, or a scarcity of other resources, there is so much more to providing service than clocking hours. In order for the service to be meaningful and to help bring about significant change, we need the chance to process these experiences, reflect on them, write about them, and most importantly, share our discoveries with one another.Read more
In a stroke of serendipity, I was invited to the Glazer Children's Museum to connect with potential community partners for building collaborative relationships with USF—“matchmaking” work that the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships helps facilitate. The Museum is an amazing community resource for the Tampa Bay area, providing children under 12 and their families a chance to learn, play, connect, and grow together.
This week, the Museum is celebrating the national “Week of the Young Child,” which is an initiative of the National Association for the Education of Young Children to draw attention to the kinds of hands-on activities that parents and educators can do with their kids to enhance their learning during the crucial 0-5 years. “The more people that participate, the louder and stronger our voice can be heard,” remarked Kerry Falwell, the Director of Education and Outreach for the Museum, in regard to how vital it is that very young children receive a quality education well before they reach kindergarten.Read more
In my efforts to ensure that students understand the impact politics can have on their daily lives and the importance of their own involvement, I find myself using the classic movie “Footloose” for shorthand. Immediately, everyone gets it. A small town bans singing and dancing in public; and it takes a big-City teen to help them realize that acts of civic engagement can be necessary to bring about desired social change.
In case you are too young to remember the original and made the wise decision not to sit through the remake, “Footloose” is the story of Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon), a Chicago teen who moves to a small town called Bomont, where dancing and rock music have been banned by the local city council. Ren falls for the Reverend’s daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer), whose uninspiring boyfriend, Chuck (Jim Youngs) feels threatened by charismatic Ren. This movie was among the first to feature a showdown involving dancing, which has inspired a host of films that in essence celebrate the significance of arts and culture to our daily lives.Read more
I have recently joined the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) as the first Director of Strategic Communications. Among my assignments is to spread the word about the importance of the university’s role in community engagement. Faculty, staff, and students are already involved in a dizzying amount of projects to help our local and global communities achieve their goals.
Since I started last month, I have been trying to wrap my mind around the multitude of existing programs both on and off campus, such as those designed to improve the lives of young people through the School of Education and the elderly population through the School of Aging Studies; the myriad of patents developed on campus for cures to intractable diseases; as well as the work of our own office’s poverty studies action groups.Read more