Invited Commentary: Democratic Engagement and Community Engagement: The American Democracy Project at California State University San Marcos

  • Post category:7.1 Feature
  • Reading time:32 mins read
Kimber M. Quinney, Scott Gross and Catalina Langen

California State University San Marcos


The American Democracy Project (ADP) at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) is unique in its structure, as it is a prominent program of the Civic Learning Initiative in the Division of Community Engagement.  By situating ADP in the context of community engagement, the university effectively institutionalized ADP for the long run, regardless of designated campus coordinator. Yet, the aspect of ADP at CSUSM that the authors most value and which they sought to share at the 2017 annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement conference in Baltimore, is the invaluable benefit of implementing programming related to the health of American democracy in the context of—and in collaboration with—regional communities. This article describes the institutional background of ADP at CSUSM, ADP programming, and the benefits of centering ADP within the community engagement context.  The authors maintain that CSUSM’s commitment to democratic engagement and community engagement can serve as a model for the implementation of ADP on other ADP campuses.


community engagement, civic learning, civic agency, democracy

Author Note

Kimber M. Quinney, History Department and American Democracy Project, California State University San Marcos; Scott Gross, Community Engagement, California State University San Marcos.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Kimber M. Quinney, Assistant Professor of History and ADP Campus Coordinator, California State University San Marcos, Division of Community Engagement, 333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Rd., San Marcos, CA 92096. Phone: (760) 750-8178. E-mail:

Educating for Democracy

Graphic design of colorful sillouettes of many faces overlapping one another
Democratic Engagement and Community Engagement: The American Democracy Project at California State University San Marcos

The principle that educational institutions—particularly, higher education institutions—have an obligation to contribute to a healthy democracy has a history. In 1946, President Harry Truman convened the President’s Commission on Higher Education for Democracy, which produced a six-volume report detailing the role of education as a stalwart institution in the face of postwar global threats to democracy. In announcing the publication of the first volume of the report, President Truman explained education’s critical role in democracy:

Higher education in our Nation is confronted today with tremendous responsibilities.… [W]e are challenged by the need to insure that higher education shall take its proper place in our national effort to strengthen democracy at home and to improve our understanding of our friends and neighbors everywhere in the world. (Truman, 1947)

Similarly, the Truman Commission Report reiterated the principle that American democracy depended on education to thrive: “Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises,” the report argued. “Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure” (U.S. Presidential Commission, 1948). California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) continues to value the findings of the Truman Commission, as do many other institutions of higher learning (e.g., Solomon, 2014).

In keeping with the overarching mission of higher education to serve as the “foundation of democratic liberties,” CSUSM created a separate division dedicated to both community and democratic engagement. The establishment of the Division of Community Engagement was a direct result of the institution’s commitment to community partners. As a Carnegie-classified “community engaged” university,[1] CSUSM describes community engagement as “the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity” (Brown University, n.d.). The Division of Community Engagement has devoted considerable thought to building and nurturing such reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships (CSUSM, n.d.b.; Meyer, Barreneche, & Gross, in press).

Formalized under the leadership of a newly appointed vice president for community engagement in 2011, the Division of Community Engagement parallels the organizational structure of the other four university divisions at CSUSM—Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, Finance and Administrative Services, and University Advancement. The Division of Community Engagement at CSUSM acknowledges and acts upon the role that higher education can play in cultivating democracy and bolstering civic agency on campus and in the public square. The division defines itself as “a leader in creating positive community impact through meaningful connections and innovative partnerships between the university and communities” (CSUSM, n.d.c.). The division is committed to building connections between the university and the community to create powerful, mutually beneficial partnerships that serve the public good. As the literature bears out, CSUSM is convinced that genuine and effective civic engagement must inherently exist in partnership with regional communities (Jacoby & Associates, 2009; Longo, 2007; Quinney, 2014; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011; Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009).

The Communities CSUSM Serves

In 2015, California State University San Marcos celebrated its 25th anniversary. The university, which was the 20th campus established in the 23-campus CSU system, has distinguished itself as a forward-focused institution, dedicated to preparing future leaders, building great communities, and solving critical issues. Today, more than 17,000 students attend the 304-acre main campus, nestled in the foothills of San Marcos, California (northern San Diego County), an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border. CSUSM’s diverse student population reflects the region it serves; the university is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, with 41% of students identifying as Latin@. Though the majority of the students (68%) are between the ages of 17 and 22, nearly 30% are between the ages of 25 and 35. The university prides itself on being accessible to the communities it serves; CSUSM has established 14 guaranteed-admission programs with regional school districts and organizational partners, offering enhanced college preparation and ongoing academic support to qualified graduating high school students. Moreover, CSUSM is currently ranked by Military Times to be among the top 25 (of 140) four-year universities in the nation for veterans. Additionally, the campus serves more former foster youth per capita than any other institution in the United States.

CSUSM emphasizes university-community partnerships that are collaborative, participatory, empowering, systemic, and transformative.  The university reaches out intentionally and strategically to all the communities it serves—for instance, underrepresented students, tribal neighbors, military establishments, health organizations, and the business community—to create partnerships that help address the region’s most critical issues. CSUSM works in collaboration with its community partners to serve the public good, a commitment reflected in the university’s mission and values.

California State University San Marcos has a well-established commitment to community engagement. The CSUSM mission statement begins, “California State University San Marcos focuses on the student as an active participant in the learning process.” It continues:

As a Carnegie classified “community engaged” university, CSUSM students work closely with a faculty whose commitment to sustained excellence in teaching, research, and community partnership enhances student learning. As a public university, CSUSM grounds its mission in the public trust, alignment with regional needs, and sustained enrichment of the intellectual, civic, economic, and cultural life of our region and state.

The Civic Ethos of the American Democracy Project at CSUSM

The American Democracy Project (ADP) at CSUSM aligns well with the emergent theory of change (NASPA, 2017) that was integral to the 2017 annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement conference in Baltimore. Most notably, ADP at CSUSM seeks to cultivate a campus environment that encourages and strives to facilitate a campus-wide civic ethos, and to foster collective (and individual) capacities, such as civic action and civic agency, aligning with A Crucible Moment’s (2012) definition of a civic-minded campus.

In keeping with the notion that higher education must cultivate both campus environments and individual capacities to advance civic learning and democratic engagement, the Division of Community Engagement at CSUSM, in 2015, founded the Civic Learning Initiative, of which ADP is a part. The mission of the Civic Learning Initiative is to “demonstrate our civic responsibility and to inspire our communities to take action.” ADP at CSUSM is thus guided by the foundational principle that a healthy democracy thrives in community (Levine, 2013; see also Boyte, 2008, 2015). With this principle in mind, the overriding objective of the university’s ADP programming is to “increase opportunities for CSUSM students to practice good civic leadership and to encourage spaces to openly dialogue about the health of our American democracy in partnership with community” (CSUSM, n.d.a.).

When we refer to the ethos of ADP at CSUSM, we mean that ADP intentionally models the very same democratic values and dispositions that it strives to inform and cultivate. As part of the Civic Learning Initiative in the Division of Community Engagement, ADP inherently shares and advances the values of the division:

  • collaboration—working with others to yield wisdom;
  • community—bonding through shared goals, knowledge, and experiences;
  • diversity—prioritizing inclusiveness;
  • goodwill—demonstrating a willing spirit;
  • integrity—conducting ourselves with sound ethical principles; we do what is right, for the right reasons;
  • innovation—bringing new dimensions through organic discoveries and creative ideas; and,
  • impact—seeking ways to make a difference and to create social change.

Reciprocal partnerships and collaboration are foundational to the civic ethos of ADP at CSUSM. ADP frequently partners with campus associations and initiatives whose objectives align with ADP’s mission. For example, ADP often partners with Associated Students, Inc., and registered student organizations—such as the Political Science Club, Young Republicans, and College Democrats; the Office of Diversity, Educational Equity, and Inclusion; the CSUSM library; the CSUSM Civility Campaign; and the Cougar Chronicle (the campus newspaper). Although ADP is primarily co-curricular, the campus coordinator is a faculty member, and ADP consistently partners with faculty by inviting them to participate in and facilitate programming.

Given ADP’s explicit commitment to community engagement at CSUSM, the initiative seeks to build partnerships in the region, as well as across the nation, centering on civic learning and democratic engagement. For example, ADP at CSUSM formally partners with the League of Women Voters and with the San Diego Civic Learning Partnership, a pilot program of the Power of Democracy, a statewide campaign to bring civic learning into K-12 school districts. ADP also partners with local area high schools around civic learning projects and events. In addition to close cooperation with the ADP national headquarters and steering committee, ADP at CSUSM collaborates with national partners, including the ALL IN Democracy Challenge, the Digital Polarization Initiative, and the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement.

With regard to diversity, ADP welcomes and advances diversity of identity, lived experience, and viewpoint. The initiative seeks to create a space in which constructive dialogue between and among different voices can ensure a more robust democracy for the benefit of the public good. Regarding goodwill, all of ADP’s programming—and the language it uses to describe that programming—invites a variety of perspectives and demonstrates a willingness to listen to and learn from one another. In relation to integrity, ADP seeks intentionally to understand best practices in democracy based on research and evidence-based observation. All of ADP’s discussion topics originate in this way. Regarding innovation, ADP acknowledges that democracy evolves as the nation evolves; thus, the initiative seeks to explore the various ways in which 21st-century democracy might “look” and “feel” different compared to previous experiences, and to identify innovative tools for meeting new challenges and changes. With regard to impact, because ADP adheres to the notion that democracy is a verb, it prioritizes creating opportunities for civic action and civic agency. ADP works to create spaces for the campus community to practice democracy in order to inform and strengthen democracy, which is the impact the initiative seeks ultimately to have.

On the Health of American Democracy

In recent years, political science scholars and other observers have expressed serious concerns about the strength and stability of liberal democracy in the United States (Diamond, 2014, 2017). Among the most notable studies have been a series of surveys conducted recently by Bright Line Watch, an entity formed by political science professors at Dartmouth College, the University of Rochester, and Yale University. A “bright line” for democracy (from which the organization takes its name) centers on the notion that some violations of democratic institutions and norms will be so self-evident and egregious that conscientious citizens will reject them. In order to gauge the bright line, the scholarly collaborative of political science professors comprising Bright Line Watch has sought to put its finger on the pulse of the nation’s prevailing attitudes about the welfare of democracy.

Bright Line Watch has conducted national research among both experts and lay people regarding their concerns (or lack thereof) about the health of American democracy. The results of the first survey—of over 1,500 political scientists—were gathered in February 2017. The survey identified 27 characteristics of a strong democracy and asked the respondents to prioritize and then rate American democracy against those characteristics. The criteria were grouped in categories, such as elections (“elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation”); protections (“government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents”); accountability (“government officials do not use public office for private gain”); institutions (“the judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power”); and discourse, the most amorphous category, aimed at establishing norms (“elected officials seek compromise with political opponents”). The experts concluded that American democracy is strong but also possessed notable vulnerabilities (Bright Line Watch, 2017; see also Miller & Quealy, 2017). Since the first results were published, the survey has been conducted among more scholars as well as among the American public. The most recent results, released in February 2018, revealed disparities between the attitudes of experts compared to the American public at large. More specifically, the most recent survey results suggest that the American public is more concerned than experts about the fragility of democracy in the United States, but that “both experts and the public agree that the performance of U.S. democracy has declined” (Bright Line Watch, 2018; see also Avishai, 2017).

The Bright Line Watch data have served as both the inspiration and the source of ADP programming at CSUSM. We are persuaded that a thoughtfully and intentionally designed campus chapter of the American Democracy Project can help mitigate inadequacies in our national democracy and bolster civic agency by engaging the community in the programming.  In the same way that secondary education scholars have urged primary and secondary schools to take up their civic missions as “guardians of democracy” (Gould, Jamieson, Levine, McConnell, & Smith, 2011) CSUSM is committed to a similar enterprise in higher education.  That is, ADP at CSUSM seeks to make education for democracy central to the function of a 21st-century university.

With its mission in mind, ADP at CSUSM’s programming objectives are designed to create opportunities for dialogue about the health—and the heart—of American democracy in collaboration with community members. To this end, ADP at CSUSM supports and/or leads initiatives to achieve its overriding objectives in four primary programming areas, detailed in the following sections.

Voter Education and Engagement

Among the 27 criteria for a healthy democracy identified in the Bright Watch Survey are principles pertaining to elections, including, for example, “All adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote,” “Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation,” and “All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.” Thus, in addition to promoting voter registration at the National Voter Registration Day every fall semester, ADP at CSUSM emphasizes voter education and engagement, in partnership with campus organizations as well as off-campus community partners.

As is the case on many college campuses, ADP works closely with Student Affairs and Associated Students, Inc., to encourage voter engagement and registration. However, at CSUSM, the League of Women Voters is an indispensable community partner in this enterprise. The fall 2016 semester exemplified this collaboration. Because so many election-related activities were happening across the campus, ADP took the lead in establishing a website that served as a central clearinghouse or hub for coordinating and promoting Election 2016 activities; ADP was also responsible for the planning and participating in many of those activities. ADP at CSUSM works to increase voter engagement by, for instance, participating in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE); partnering with campus and community partners for National Voter Registration Day every September; and providing voter resources on the Voter Education website.

An essential aspect of ADP’s voter education programming includes conversations around relevant topics pertaining to voter access. Thus, two of the initiative’s Speaking of Democracy conversations (described in a later section) focus intentionally on the voting process and on the impact of elections, including a session called “Does Your Vote Matter?” in which participants discussed the impact of gerrymandering in two regional congressional districts (i.e., the 49th and the 50th) and a session planned for spring 2018 on “The Power of Political Intimidation,” which will include discussion of incidences of voter intimidation.

César Chávez Day of Service

César Chávez is a prominent historical figure in the CSUSM community. Many of the university’s faculty, staff, and students have direct experience or familiar experience with the working lives of migrant farmworkers in California. Indeed, in 2017, CSUSM celebrated the 20th anniversary of the César Chávez Day statue, which holds a prominent place on the campus and serves as a daily reminder of Chavez’s legacy in local communities. In honor of César Chávez’s birthday, March 31 is a public holiday in the state of California. Every year on this day, when campus is officially closed, ADP at CSUSM takes a leading role in the organization and implementation of the university’s annual César Chávez Day of Service, in which the campus community (approximately 300 students, staff, and faculty) participates in three hours of community service at various sites in the region. The service sites vary every year, given the needs of community partners. Indeed, ADP at CSUSM is intentional in its efforts to identify suitable projects by sending a call via the community-partner database, which includes over 1,000 organizations and associations with which the university partners for community service and internships—and César Chávez Day.

In keeping with the learning objectives of ADP programming, once participants have completed their service projects, they return to campus for a lunch and an opportunity to reflect on their experience and the relationship of service to the life and legacy of César Chávez—and to democracy itself. Student peer leaders who participate in a training session with regard to facilitating reflection are responsible for prompting their fellow students to reflect on the value and impact of community service on local communities and on the ways in which community service contributes to a healthy democracy. Ultimately, ADP wants CSUSM students to recognize that the act of giving back to the community is a pillar of a strong democracy—and thus central to ADP programming.

Speaking of Democracy

The Speaking of Democracy series is a set of monthly drop-in conversations about the health of national democracy. Intentionally scheduled during University Hour (an open hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:00-1:00 PM, when no classes are scheduled), the series invites students to join with community leaders who are alumni of the Leadership North County (LNC) program in dialogue about democracy.

In 1986, prior to CSUSM’s founding , a group of concerned citizens in North San Diego County approached the then-chancellor of National University’s Vista Campus, requesting his help to create a program that would address the issues facing the region and develop a harmonious working relationship within the various cities.  This objective required strong ethical leaders who would bring about positive change. What started as Leadership 2000 became Leadership North County when the program, in 2001, was entrusted to CSUSM, where it is currently managed by the Division of Community Engagement. Since its inception, LNC has inspired over 400 individuals to become part of the region’s most outstanding citizen leaders, including mayors, city officials, college administrators, and business leaders. Given that the objective of the program is to impact the region’s development by preparing an active network of exceptional leaders with diverse backgrounds, LNC alumni are well suited to engage as community partners with students in the Speaking of Democracy series.

In bringing LNC alumni and students together to talk about the health of American democracy, ADP at CSUSM turned to the data generated by the Bright Line Watch collaborative. Included among the topics of discussion in the 2016-2017 academic year were “Equal Rights: Legal and Political,” “Private Gains from Public Office,” and “Questioning Patriotism.” Topics for 2017-2018 include “Does Your Vote Matter?,” “Checks and Balances on Power,” “Consensus and Deliberation,” “The Power of Political Intimidation,” and “Accusations and Allegations: Misconduct in Politics.”

 ADP Signature Events

ADP Signature Events are higher profile, larger capacity events, the intention of which is to bring community experts to the CSUSM campus to address issues relevant to a healthy democracy. For example, one signature program featured Julie Winokur, director and producer of Bring It to the Table, a film that attempts to find ways to peer over the blue/red walls that divide us, in an effort to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the other side of the political spectrum. In her visit to campus, Winokur screened the film and then invited the campus audience to participate in civil discourse around opposing political values and principles.

The fall 2017 Signature Event consisted of a panel of local-area, high-profile journalists in the region who discussed the role of the press and democracy. In keeping with its commitment to non-partisanship and political impartiality, the ADP program team was strategic about selecting journalists who worked in diverse forms of media and whose political orientations varied. The panelists included Matt Hall, editorial and opinion director (as well as social media editor) for the San Diego Union Tribune; Scott Lewis, founder and CEO of an online news source, Voice of San Diego, which acknowledges and embraces its liberal political bent,; Alison St. John, a public radio reporter for the local national public radio outlet, KPBS; Ruben Navarrette, a nationally syndicated columnist who writes for various prominent news outlets and hosts his own conservative talk-radio show. The panel was designed as a civil conversation among journalists with diverse professional and political backgrounds practicing civic agency—looking beyond their respective differences in order to find common ground through collective conversation about the role of the media in a healthy democracy.

The spring 2018 ADP Signature Event (which had not yet taken place at the time this article was submitted for publication) will emphasize the importance of viewpoint diversity in a healthy democracy. CSUSM will welcome to campus Debra Mashek, the new executive director of Heterodox Academy, for an engaging dialogue with faculty, students, and staff, as well as off-campus community members to discuss “A University with Different Perspectives: Bring Light, Not Heat.”


California State University San Marcos believes that the work of the university is absolutely essential to a healthy democracy and that a strong democracy can only thrive in the context of a healthy and thriving community.  To this end, ADP at CSUSM strives to create and facilitate opportunities for civic action and civic agency on campus and in regional communities in an effort to bolster a stronger democracy.  As the Truman Commission Report concluded 70 years ago, “Education is the foundation of democratic liberties.” Ultimately, ADP at CSUSM aims to serve as a foundation for democratic liberties in hopes of contributing to the strength and health of American democracy in service to and in partnership with community.


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Top of Form

Longo, N. V. (2007). Why community matters: Connecting education with civic life. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Meyer, M., Barreneche, G. I., & Gross, S. (in press). Reciprocity and partnership: How do we know it is working? In Faculty development in the service of community engagement and service-learning: Defining purpose and roles, developing models of practice.

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Bottom of Form

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Author Biography

C:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\REV_Kimber_Quinney_CSUSM1.jpg Kimber Quinney is Assistant Professor of History, and Campus Coordinator of the American Democracy Project in the Division of Community Engagement at the California State University San Marcos. An historian of American foreign relations, Kim studies the history of U.S. foreign policy toward early Cold War Italy. In particular, she is interested in the role played by Italian immigrants and refugees in an effort to shape U.S. policy toward fascist (and, later, communist) Italy. Kim is a devout fan of democracy and is committed to advocating on its behalf. She is fond of quoting Winston Churchill who said (in 1947): “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” She holds an M.A. in international relations from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD in history from the University of California Santa Barbara.

Scott Gross is the Associate Vice President for Community Engagement at California State University San Marcos.  In this role, he develC:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\REV_Scott_Gross_CSUSM.JPGops meaningful connections and builds innovative partnerships with the community.  Recently, he has been creating support mechanisms for faculty who are interested in “community engaged scholarship,” bridging the gap between theory and practice and ensuring the work of academia stays relevant.  In addition to community engaged scholarship, he finds it rewarding to direct and facilitate Leadership North County.  Dr. Gross also oversees the university’s Civic Learning Initiative, which includes programs that support students and faculty becoming actively engaged in their local communities.  Dr. Gross earned his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Creighton University, his Master’s Degree in Education/Sociology from DePaul University, and his doctorate in Educational Leadership as part of the Joint Doctoral Program at University of California San Diego and California State University San Marcos. Dr. Gross’ research interests include social capital and social networks, particularly how leaders connect to share resources and influence decisions.

Catalina Langen is the Civic Learning Coordinator at Cal State San Marcos who works with students and community members to C:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\REV_Catalina_Langen_CSUSM2.jpgencourage civic engagement on campus. Catalina believes that helping students realize their own civic agency has the power to change the fabric of campus life and the health of our democracy.  In her role as Civic Learning Coordinator, Catalina has supported the growth of the Civic Learning Initiative at Cal State San Marcos, ensured the success of multiple volunteer opportunities for the campus, and developed sustainable partnerships with community. Catalina holds a B.A. in History and Spanish from the University of California Santa Barbara.


  1. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is a national organization responsible for classifying all institutions of higher education.  The Carnegie Foundation began an elective Community Engagement Classification in 2006.  In January 2015, the Carnegie Foundation announced that CSUSM had received the 2015 Community Engagement Classification, recognizing the institution’s commitment to engagement through teaching, research, service, and partnerships.  As one of the elite institutions that initially received the classification in 2006, CSUSM is now joined by 360 other colleges and universities in the United States that hold this prestigious distinction, which is valid through 2025.