Participation Matters: A Brief History of Student Movements and Participatory Democracy

by Adia Davis 

Activism on college campuses is not new, in fact, it has been around for decades.  One of the most inspiring times for student activism was during the 1960s and early 1970s as social and political issues came to the forefront of the national conversation.  Following is a quick look at two student groups that were especially influential at the time, and what we as engaged students and citizens can learn from them today.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged in April 1960 as the youth faction of the civil rights group The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  SNCC felt that the SCLC was out of touch with the views of the younger generation, and thus, formed its own ideological framework and started an independent movement.  The first meeting was held at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC in April 1960.  The meeting was led by civil rights activist and Shaw alumna, Ella Baker.  Inspiration for the founding came after the Greensboro, NC Lunch Counter Sit-ins.  SNCC decided to use the momentum from the sit-ins to gain traction for its own movement.  The group started with 200 members at its first meeting, but soon sprang into a large movement with chapters all over the country, especially in the South.

SNCC’s activism focused on mobilizing local communities.  The group believed in participatory democracy and many of their efforts highlighted this.  From its founding, SNCC promoted non-violent civil disobedience and wanted to not just achieve integration, but social change more broadly. SNCC helped to organize voter registration efforts, sit-ins, the March on Washington in 1963, and the Freedom Rides.  After an ideological split between key members as well as more radical leanings among some, the original group changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee in 1969. The group disbanded altogether in 1976.

Students for a Democratic Society

Another student group that was active around the time was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Founded in 1960, SDS had its first meeting at the University of Michigan and elected Alan Haber as its first president.  In 1962 at the first SDS convention, there were fewer than 100 members but over the years, the group gained traction.  By 1969, there were approximately 100,000 SDS members and over 66 chapters on different college campuses across the country.  This astounding membership growth can be attributed to an explosion of support surrounding SDS’s anti-war agenda.

In 1962, the group released The Port Huron Statement, a political manifesto.  The manifesto focused on participatory democracy, and along with it, nonviolent civil disobedience.  The Statement criticized racial discrimination, economic inequality, and political systems that failed to maintain peace. Living up to its slogan, “the issues are interrelated,” SDS also focused on an anti-Vietnam agenda and to some extent, feminist activism, among other things. SDS focused on “pragmatic activity that made sense to students – protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.”[1]  One of the group’s pivotal achievements was its anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC in 1965, where it was able to assemble 25,000 protestors.  Similar to SNCC, SDS experienced splits in ideology.  Some of its key members also adapted more radical viewpoints.  Not being able to resolve its issues, SDS eventually disbanded in 1969.

SDS and SNCC in conversation

What is clear from these movements is the great opportunity organizations have to learn from one another.  Although the two organizations were founded around the same time, SDS found great inspiration from SNCC. The two groups which were both focused on an intersection of issues, worked together at times.  As former SDS president Tom Hayden, stated, “we were all influenced by Ella Baker, an elder advisor to SNCC…she spoke and personified participatory democracy.” He then went on to say, “SNCC played a direct role in shaping my values, as it did with many SDS founders. SNCC’s early organizing method was based on listening to local people and taking action on behalf of their demands.”[2]

What can we learn from this early activism?

A common theme among both SDS and SNCC was the idea of participatory democracy.  According to Todd Gitlin, another former president of SDS, participatory democracy can be defined as “a public committed to making the decisions that affect their own lives, with institutions to make this possible.”[3]  In practice, this approach leads to an involved citizenship that makes contributions to directly address social and political issues that are important to us instead of only waiting for action through elected representatives. Participatory democracy is about making sure everyone’s voice is heard.  As we go through our own lives as college students, it is important to remember that there are a variety of unique ways in which we can work to directly impact the issues most important to us.

Intersectionality, the idea that different forms of oppression are interconnected, was another important part of both SDS and SNCC that students today can learn from.  While both groups looked at the broader social contexts of the issues they focused on, SDS especially saw different social issues as interrelated.  Both organizations also knew to not isolate their movements.  They understood that they could gain valuable resources and knowledge from working together, especially when their goals overlapped.  Especially today, as intersectionality is an ever present part of the dialogue on activism, it can be helpful to reflect on a couple of the places where it took root.





[3] Smithsonian Magazine

Active Citizen Profile – Carolyn Calder

Carolyn Calder

Carolyn Calder is involved in Aim 4 and leads a Williamsburg Engagement trip to Head Start each week.

Carolyn’s thoughts on active citizenship: “To me, active citizenship is about constant engagement with your community in an effort to improve the lives of those around you. Active citizenship doesn’t take a break– in all of your actions, you have to think about how this can impact your community and how you can be of better service to your community. Active citizenship is cool, because it allows you to let community engagement permeate every aspect of your life. ”

Carolyn’s favorite quote: “Having a right isn’t worth a damn if you can’t exercise it.”- Cecile Richards, president of PP




AnneWherever Anne Davis ’16 was, those around her were sure to feel a burst of energy. That’s one of the reasons I selected her to serve as the Fellow for Hunger and Nutrition in the Office of Community Engagement and why I was so looking forward to working with her. I wasn’t sure exactly where we would end up at the end of a year together, but I knew that the journey would be full of enthusiasm paired with real and meaningful action. That was Anne’s way.

I didn’t get to experience that journey with Anne because she was tragically struck and killed weeks before beginning the fellowship while participating in Bike and Build, a national cross-country cycling program addressing housing insecurity. Anne’s death rocked many of us on campus who knew her through an impressive diversity of involvements. Losing her presence in my life has fundamentally changed how I move through the world.

In our last meeting together to plan for the fellowship, we met at Aromas where Anne ordered nothing and instead ate a banana before packing the peel into a Ziploc bag. She was participating in a zero-waste week, she explained, and was carrying around everything she didn’t use—even a biodegrading banana peel. A few weeks after her death, I was walking back from another meeting at Aromas when I noticed a candy wrapper on the sidewalk. Two paces past the wrapper I stopped, turned around, and retrieved it. “Anne,” I muttered, certain that it was her voice in my head bringing me back to that action.

In the months since then, my daily life has been profoundly changed by the charge Anne unknowingly left me to pick up litter. On my walk from the parking lot this morning, I picked up a mint wrapper. As I head to an afternoon meeting, I’m sure I’ll find a bottle cap or crumpled receipt. I once found a to-do list including “get a tattoo.” Most shockingly, a few weeks ago as I picked up what I assumed was a Wawa receipt, I looked down at a check for $5,000 (returned to its rightful owner, I promise).

Every time I pause and pick up litter I speak Anne’s name in my mind. And when I stumble across that potentially awkward moment as someone reaches out with a handshake and I offer up a soggy scrunchy and a sandwich wrapper, I stop and tell them about Anne. I tell them who she is to me and the task she left me. Sometimes they are puzzled, sometimes they smile, and sometimes they congratulate me on the good deed. No matter their response, it’s a chance for me to speak Anne’s name and give voice to her love of the world. The best moments come when friends and colleagues who often walk with me see me reaching for a wayward scrap and it’s their voice saying out loud, “Thanks, Anne.”

Anne is with me in action. It’s not that every forgotten bit of paper or plastic is the point of connection, it’s the opportunity for change, the direct ability to pick it up and to care. That is what connects me with Anne. There are plenty of little things I don’t do every day, like make my bed, and big things, like dismantling systems of oppression. The bed thing I really don’t care about, but living in a world of justice and equity—a world Anne worked so hard to realize—that matters to me. That world only exists through action. Picking up litter doesn’t make me feel like I am changing the world, in fact it reinforces how much in the world needs changing. But picking up litter reminds me every day that there is work to be done, and I can do it. Every day I take action is a day that Anne is with me, and that is a day when I am doing something right.

-Elizabeth Miller, Assistant Director OCE

In Solidarity with You

Melody PorterSo many times when people talk about “community engagement,” we mean that community – the one off campus. The one made up of the children we tutor, the neighbors whose homes we repair, the citizens whose voices we listen to in city council meetings. So it can be easy to fall into thinking that our role as staff and students in the Office of Community Engagement is to go from campus, out to the community, and back again.

But for the past eighteen months, due to the publicizing of racism and injustice in our country and on campus, I have been thinking about community engagement differently. Community is found anywhere you share space, goals, or common interests with other people. Community is right here on campus, as much as (and perhaps more intimately than) it is in those places we volunteer and advocate. The family you talk with every week as you drop off meals, the grandmother waiting in line behind you at the Food Lion, and the person down the dorm hallway from you with whom you only exchange pleasantries: all these people are part of our community.

That means that for me, and for our office, we should focus on building active citizenship and a just society here on campus as much as in Williamsburg and globally. When we plan projects with community members, we begin by building relationships, and by learning about people’s stories, deep desires, and plans to reach their goals. We learn about the issues they’re facing by asking, and by doing our own homework through reading, watching, and listening. We gain needed skills, whether it’s how to drive a nail or the basics of community organizing. We ask how things are going and what we can be doing differently. And we maintain those relationships like we do with any friend – little check-ins and continuing to get together over time.

The fundamentals of this work are no different when it’s happening on campus. But on campus, many of us – most often, those of us in the majority or dominant culture – presume that we already are a community. That there are no divides to be bridged through listening, learning, and skill-building, because we already are “One Tribe, One Family.”

What so many on this campus know and live, however, is that we do experience division. We may share some ideals as One Tribe, but the experiences of students, staff and faculty of color, people who do not identify as male, those who are part of the LGBTQ community, and many more people – those experiences illuminate divides of privilege, prejudice, stereotype, and threat.

Since I took on the role of Director of the OCE last semester, I’ve been listening and learning to our community carefully for ways we can make our office and the campus environment more welcoming to everyone.

One thing I’ve learned: I’ve been assuming that everyone on campus knows that the OCE is a place for all. It’s an easy assumption for me, because my privilege means that I experience most places as welcoming. But I know that many of you actually don’t find open arms and big smiles everywhere you go.

And so I say this plainly, without assumptions: please know that we want to offer you solidarity and welcome here in the OCE. That goes for me, and for all of our staff. However you identify and wherever your path has taken you and is headed, we want to know what you need from us to be in true solidarity with you. We want to learn more about what you are up to, and to help you find partners in the work for justice, on campus and off. There is safe and expansive space here for you. In fact, we can’t build community, catalyze active citizenship, and create more opportunity for all without you.

We continue to expand our broad outreach through projects and programs that address issues of division and injustice on campus and off. But just as important, we want to know you and stand by you. To have coffee dates (just ask!, conversations after service that get below the surface to issues that are brewing in our own lives, and ways to help you connect your experience in community – no matter where that community is – to what you’re learning and what you’d like to do next.

The Miracles of the Young and the Old


So the tone of my last few posts has been pretty heavy. So for my next topic, I wanted to go with something more uplifting.

Kids are adorable and sweet. They can be rambunctious and crazy, and hard to handle. One thing that is certain, they have a way of looking at the world that no one else does. They are very perceptive, and they can see the joy and beauty in the world that often big people can’t. So you don’t think I’m fully idealizing kids here, I will also say they can be messy, loud, and tiring. They can demand a lot from you. It’s because children, by their nature, are meant to absorb, to soak in. They are learning about life, and crave any lessons that anyone can teach. At the end of the day, though, most people would agree that life is a whole lot better because of them.

People who are elderly, in my opinion, are generally really cool. They are wise, and calm.  Or they can be super feisty and won’t take crap from anyone. Many of them have a sparkle in their eye and an impish sense of humor. Having lived so much of their lives, they long now to give, to teach. They’ve absorbed wisdom, and experience, and have a great deal to share. Again, not to idealize; there are many challenges that come with being elderly. Accumulating health issues, combined with increasingly limited independence can be frustrating for both the individual as well as their loved ones. In situations with memory loss or personality changes, the feeling of loss for caregivers can be overwhelming. But again, at the end of the day, most people would agree that you would never stop loving someone because they grow old.

Not to get too philosophical here, but I’ve heard it said in different ways that kids and people who are elderly are in fact two sides of the same coin, and it is in reality the people in the middle who are so different. In that space between youth and age, it can be natural to become caught up in the daily concerns of life, and to lose touch somewhat with what really matters. Somehow, though, children and the elderly always seem to remember that.

But, unfortunately, these people are often lost in the shuffle. It is often easier to push them away in favor of something easier, something digital maybe, that doesn’t demand anything of you like they do. I know this because too many times I’ve made that mistake myself.

But there are some really exciting programs out that recognize how maybe kids and the elderly are perfectly matched to give and receive. In these new models, the nursing homes and elder care facilities are hosting preschools in their homes.

This approach has so many benefits. It helps to combat the loneliness and depression that elders often experience because of isolation. It helps keep them mentally sharp and stimulated because of their interaction with quick young minds. It gives them a sense of purpose and usefulness, as they are responsible to interact with the children. And maybe most importantly, it gives them a bond  of zany fun. And I think fun is pretty important in life.

It’s just as good for the kids, too. Kids may often be seen as a nuisance, and made to feel like they don’t matter. But in those moments when they interact with an elder, they can be made to feel like the most important person in the world. They can gain wisdom and insight that will guide them their whole lives. They can also develop a strong concept of the humanity of the elderly, which is often lacking in modern society. But as they grow up, and become the caregivers and policy makers (and as we grow old), don’t we want a generation of people who care?

Again, not to idealize- elder care facilities can be rough places. As time progresses, someone’s health may deteriorate, and that is hard for anyone to watch. It can especially be hard for a child who may have developed a bond with the elder, and may even have to watch them die. For someone so young, with most likely a very vague concept of what death even is, this could be traumatic. Some experts have mentioned that this may be ultimately positive, because our culture is so skittish about even acknowledging death. They think it may teach children the importance of accompanying people through this phase of their lives.

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. I know if I were a parent, it would be instinct to keep my children away from that kind of pain, and it would kill me inside to watch them suffer. But at the same time, maybe early exposure to the realities of aging would make them less afraid, and allow them to have the right priorities and a richer life overall. Like most things in life, this isn’t a clear-cut situation. However, I also think, like most things in life, if you approach the situation with compassion and humanity, you’ll be a amazed of what can come of it.

Let’s talk about the border- Part VI

This is the last post in my series on Latino immigration, and offers some of my final reflections and ideas for how you can choose to become involved.

What now, and what Can I Do?

This series was pretty information dense, and somewhat un-bloglike, so kudos to you for making it to the end! I kept it that way on purpose, though, because this debate can become so emotionally charged, and somewhat disconnected from reality. I wanted to show that the facts in this debate really argue for themselves. When you look into the causes and effects of the system, anyone can see it that it is broken. It causes so much harm to people, both those who are hurt and those who do the hurting.

A couple of years ago I visited the Eastern Shore for Professor Arries’ medical interpretation externship, where worked mainly with migrant farmworkers. I really recommend it if you are at all interested. I got to see a taste of the terrible abuses of the system. I visited camps.  I saw an old, broken, two-story house with 40 people living inside. I saw how close the pesticide dispensers were to the camps- in fact, our car got sprayed with them as we drove there. I saw people sick with chronic illnesses that spiraled out of control because they lacked the resources to care for them. I saw agricultural businesses with so little accountability for the way that workers were treated that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope.”  Even with things as bleak as they are, hope can’t be lost. There are so many ways that we, even as young adults, can become part of the efforts to reform the system, at any level that we feel comfortable with.

Border Relief Centers

Kino Border Initiative-They offer food, shelter, and medical support to migrants.

No More Deaths– They offer humanitarian aid in the desert, keep records of abuses, and work with local community groups to help migrants after deportation.

Houston Catholic Worker- Casa Juan Diego– They offer multiple services, including food, clothing,  services for pregnant women and women who have been abused, and for people with disabilities.


Manos Unidas- CITA– They help workers obtain visas, advocate for improved working conditions, and help workers find jobs.

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights– They work to combat abuse of immigrants at a local level, as well as documenting abuses and advocating to organizations such as the United Nations.

National Immigration Law Center– They provide legal counsel to immigrants with low incomes, as well as advocate for legal protections.

Farmworker Justice– They advocate for improved conditions for farmworkers.

Local Opportunities

Eastern Shore Medical Interpretation Externship– You work with Professor Arries to work with Eastern Shore Rural Health to medically interpret over the summer.

Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services- They offer case management, assistance with legal counsel, and resettlement assistance.

Sacred Heart Center, Richmond– They offer English language classes, adult education programs, family services, and economic initiatives.

So there you have it- just a few ways that you could choose to become involved. There is so much to be done, and so many changes that must be made. But when you try, please, above all, remember the dignity of the people you work with. Ask them what their experience is, what they need. If you let that guide your efforts, the results will amaze you.

Emily Mahoney- Living Outside the Box

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Recent graduate Emily Mahoney has a heart for everyone she meets. Kind and humble, she is quick to laugh and be silly. She looks for opportunities to welcome others and make them feel comfortable. But she also is an accomplished researcher, who has worked with Dr. Scott Ickes in his public health research for years. During college, she also gave her time to MANOS, or Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship. Currently in Uganda, she shared some of her reflections with us on what community engagement has meant to her. 

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Emily Mahoney: I was involved in Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship (MANOS) for 3 years.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

EM: MANOS is a student-led research team that partners with a small, rural community in Nicaragua in order to identify and address the community’s needs in a collaborative manner.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

EM: Active citizenship means cultivating an awareness of the problems going on in your community–both locally and globally–and then seeking to imagine and create something different alongside fellow community members.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

EM: MANOS entirely shifted the way that I approached academics. It made me hypersensitive to sweeping assumptions made in the classroom and an advocate for practice-informed research. Being an “active citizen” in the classroom really taught me to think critically.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

EM: No matter what I do, I plan to use this active citizen perspective to think critically about my place in the world.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

EM: While working with MANOS, we got to see the project grow by leaps and bounds. It was incredible to see how community members took more ownership over incoming resources and began to advocate for themselves and for their communities. It was really exciting to see measured, sustainable change taking place.

Avalon- A Place of Refuge and Empowerment

OCE Community Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

For sexual assault survivors, and for people in abusive situations, it can often feel like there is no where to turn. Without outside assistance, it can often be very challenging or dangerous financially, emotionally, and physically to remove oneself from a destructive situation. Often times, in such situations, one’s self-worth has been so eroded that it can be hard to see a way out. That is why Avalon is such a vital force in our community- by providing support for people in these situations, they not only provide physical safety, but a place to rebuild one’s sense of self.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Avalon:  Avalon: A Center for Women and Children provides shelter and support to those experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault in the Greater Williamsburg area. By offering tools for safety, self-sufficiency, and empowerment, we work to break the cycle of abuse and help create a positive future. We offer an emergency shelter, counseling and support groups, legal advocacy, and much more to survivors in our community. As the only emergency shelter in this community, we also serve those experiencing homelessness as space allows.

OCE: What role do William and Mary students play at Avalon?

A:  William and Mary students play an important role at Avalon. Many of our volunteers are students, and are able to take advantage of their flexible class schedules to help all throughout the day. They assist in all aspects of our work, from administrative and office help to childcare and working in the emergency shelter. We also work closely with student and staff advocates to bring information about domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as about Avalon’s programs and services to the campus. We work closely with The Haven to support survivors and the volunteers working with them, including providing training for the volunteers.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William and Mary students, and how do you see the students benefiting from their work?

A:  The students who volunteer with us benefit in many ways. They are able to learn about working in a nonprofit and begin gaining leadership and work skills. They also gain new awareness of issues facing this community and experiences with people from all walks of life. We also offer our services, like counseling and support, to students, and have seen an increase in the number of students accessing these services.

OCE: How does your organization help educate the student volunteers about community needs?

A: Avalon works to keep all our volunteers, not just student volunteers, aware of our needs and ways people can help. We do our best to educate volunteers through their training and as they volunteer with us. We also engage with staff and faculty at William and Mary who will pass on information about Avalon and our needs to students who may be interested in giving a hand.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

A: For Avalon, active citizenship is what it sounds like – being an active participant in one’s life and community. It means finding one’s passion or mission or heart and actively working to make the community a better place. For those interested in social justice, women’s and children’s issues, or wanting to help people, Avalon is a great place to help.

Head Start- The Right Start to Life

OCE Community Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

The early years of childhood are vitally important for development from all angles, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally. However, often times, when parents are of lower income and are trying to support their children, it can be difficult for them to provide enough stimulation and enrichment to their children in an affordable way. Head Start offers that lifeline- a safe place for young children to go, where they can learn, socialize, and be supported in a positive environment.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Head Start: The Head Start program in Williamsburg-James City County provides comprehensive services that includes early childhood education, nutrition, medical, social development, parent involvement, and transportation services for children ages 3- 5 to develop skills that will enable them to be successful when they enter Kindergarten.  We also assist parents with setting goals for themselves and their children.  We empower the parents to be advocates for themselves and their children.  In doing so, we help them to become self-sufficient.

OCE: What role do William and Mary students play at Head Start?

HS: William and Mary students volunteer in our classrooms to work with individual students or small groups to increase the ability of children to feel successful in the classroom setting.  They have also spread mulch for our playground and painted classrooms.  Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority reads to our children twice a month and raises money so that our children can take home books to read.  They also partner with us at our Fun Festival day to create an awareness of the importance of reading.

We generally have an intern that works with our Head Start program during the spring semester as well.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William and Mary students, and how do you see the students benefiting from their work?

HS: The William & Mary students assist our teaching staff and increases the opportunity for a teacher/student engaged learning experience for our students by providing individual or small group learning opportunities.   They are able to assist the teaching staff in accomplishing many things in a shorter time frame.

Students who volunteer say that by coming to work in the classroom they are able to keep their work in perspective at William & Mary.  They feel like they make a difference.  The children almost immediate are attached to them and appreciate the attention they get from the students.  Showing encouragement and support for our children increases their chance for success when they get to the public school.

OCE: How does your organization help educate the student volunteers about community needs?

HS: We participate in the S.H.O.W. day for freshmen and begin to tell them about the Community Action Agency.  When students choose to volunteer in our program, they must first participate in an orientation which explains our program and the requirements of it.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

HS: Active citizenship is citizens who are willing to give of their time and talents to serve and make a positive difference in the community.  The change can be minor or significant depending on the magnitude of the program and how many people will be impacted by their efforts.  It requires putting forth effort and using areas of expertise to increase skills, abilities, and/or self-esteem of another individual(s).