Mural by Joseph Testa-Secca at the Allen Building.

Mural by Joseph Testa-Secca at the Allen Building.

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.


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.

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"The (e)X Factor: What Every Educator Can Learn from John Cage" - a primer on experiential learning

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).


New College Provost Stephen Miles and students perform Cardew's The Great Learning, Paragraph 7, at the former Mack B Gallery.

New College Provost Stephen Miles and students perform Cardew's The Great Learning, Paragraph 7, at the former Mack B Gallery.

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.

Miles says that it is often difficult for newly minted PhDs, himself included at the beginning of his career, to go from spending all of their time “immersed in an expert culture where you are rewarded for going really deeply [into a topic] at a very high level” to teaching very smart and capable non-experts at the undergraduate level. But, he said Cage helped him, because of the need to give students both discipline and freedom to both master a difficult topic and also to look at it critically. He said there are four key factors, “the (e)X Factors,” that can be applied to teaching methods.

The first is primacy of experience, which Miles says, means that until someone has an experiential connection to something, such as, in the case of music, actually hearing the piece of music rather than reading about it, they are on the “other side of learning.” He said, once a student has an actual experience with the music, “They will meet you.” I thought this was a very exciting connection to make that is an excellent way of understanding why service-learning is such a high impact pedagogy. Until a student experiences for themselves, e.g., the primacy of experience, the actual subject matter covered in the course, they are, as Miles says, “on the other side of learning.”

He continued, “By getting them to pay attention to their experience, I was paying attention to their experience.” Learning, it follows, “must be grounded in our own experience” of the matter studied.

The second factor is the imperative of exploration, which he says “gets to the heart of modernity.” So, by looking at what actually fits within the confines of the definition of music, we can consider why we define music the way that we do. At the beginning of his remarks, for example, Miles performed Cage’s 4’33,” in which the performer stands silently for that length of time using a timer to ensure the proper duration of the piece (he also turned to face in three different directions during the course of the piece).

4’33” calls into question what we consider to be music and asks us to listen more intently to the sounds around us. Miles uses this piece to get into a discussion of the conventions we share, e.g., what we think constitutes music, and asks us to consider why our traditions, or our shared understanding of how things are supposed to be, are given “inherent authority.” Miles would argue that all societal conventions are “subject to change,” and that to “live for awhile in the world of John Cage” helps one understand, “it’s all contingent.”

This is very important for those of us who are teaching topics related to social change. Society tends to lend more credence to conventions and traditions, said Miles, when in fact, just because we have always done things a particular way doesn’t mean it is right or just. This makes me think about the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We can change the course of history through education and shared experiences.

“Culture is not something that is a given. We must explore it. We must shape it. There are no absolutes,” said Miles. This is why exploration through a guided educational experience is crucial and an important method for developing critical thinking skills. This absolutely ties into the way faculty can utilize service-learning as a way to help students understand what is; while in class, we can discuss what can be.

Miles says that this imperative to explore is empowering for students. “They explore, because they have to!”

The third E(x) factor is the necessity of experimentation which is what Miles calls, “the deep desire to learn to be taught by experience.” In other words, we need to trust in the primacy and significance of our own experience and to value those experiences as valid and necessary to a deeper collective understanding of the world around us.

The fourth E(x) factor is redefinition – he said that educators and students must first master an understanding of tradition and “then be distinct from” that tradition. He said “the tradition of modernity is critique” and developing our understanding of that which “runs counter to prevailing wisdom.” Basically, we must not cling too deeply to our long-held beliefs but be open to the new ideas our students present. We need our students to help us advance our society and our culture; and we should see ourselves as guides toward our students’ discovery.

He ended his remarks by saying “keeping it experiential is always essential.”

At the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, we are here to assist faculty in the design and delivery of high impact experiential educational opportunities. If you need one-on-one guidance or are interested in attending our events and workshops, check out our schedule at


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What will it take until we can breathe again?

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.

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"I'm Just a Cockeyed Optimist" is Proving a Helpful Anthem for Staying Engaged

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.”

Kelly Felthous as Nellie Forbush singing "I'm Just a Cockeyed Optimist" in "South Pacific." Photo by Cliff Roles

Kelly Felthous singing "I'm Just a Cockeyed Optimist" in "South Pacific." Photo by Cliff Roles

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.

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"No Filter" - a USF/community collaboration opens on campus

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.

MFA candidate Beth Plakidas in her studio.

MFA candidate Beth Plakidas in her studio.

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.

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Sometimes all you need is "A Different Frame of Mind"

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.”

"A Different Frame of Mind"

"A Different Frame of Mind"

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.

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Developing Empathy Key to Deeper Understanding

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.

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The Changing Structure of Families in the Late Sixties on Mad Men

(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.

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"Uncommon Practice at USF" collaborative exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art

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.”

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A Fractured Fairy Tale?: A Critical Look at Disney (Part 2)

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.

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A Critical Look at the Disney Brand (Part 1)

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?

Meeting one of the omnipresent Disney princesses at age eighteen months.

Meeting one of the omnipresent Disney princesses at age eighteen months.

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The Grapes of Wrath still relevant after 75 years

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.

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Serendipity and Community

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.

Photo by Javier Rodriguez

Photo by Javier Rodriguez

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the road weeps, the well runs dry - a community engaged theatrical event

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.

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Alexis Castle saves a life through a service-learning project on “Castle”

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.

Alexis Castle works on the Innocence Project at Columbia

Alexis Castle works on the Innocence Project in a service-learning class at Columbia University.

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Focus on Early Learning and Prevention at the Glazer Children’s Museum

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.

The Glazer Children's Museum

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.

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Iconic film "Footloose" as a teachable moment?

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.

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"I think I'm gonna like it here!"

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.

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