Change is a fire that begins with a spark from one person to make the community a better and safer place.
At University of Maryland Baltimore County, the civic engagement program is trying to build that fire by empowering students to want to change the community around them for the better. It is an initiative to help students become more involved in their community through civic agency.
“It is part of our culture and our DNA to prepare students to have community impact,” said David Hoffman, Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at UMBC. “It’s not just an activity. It’s your identity.”
Civic engagement is any action that works toward the common good that is not particularly narrowed to a single context or setting but everywhere. UMBC wants to push students to go beyond the class requirement of community involvement by giving them the skills to solve larger community problems.
Starting with a philosophy
In August 2012, UMBC formally launched the initiative Breaking Ground. Although it is called an initiative, it is more than that. It is a philosophy of life, said Hoffman.
It is a philosophy to prepare students to think outside the constraints of thinking that civic agency is a class requirement and believe civic impact can happen anywhere.
“Civic engagement is not just a two hour event each week,” said Michelle Stefano, Folklorist-in-Resident at UMBC and Program Coordinator for Maryland Traditions, a Maryland State Arts Council program. “Engaging with communities and looking at real problems out in the world, it is something you can take with you all the time.”
Through Breaking Ground, UMBC hopes students will take on big challenging problems and work together to get them solved. There is a need to prepare people to innovate with others who see things differently from themselves.
“We are trying to help everyone on campus, particularly students, come to the conclusion themselves that the world can be changed through their actions,” Hoffman said.
Breaking Ground gathers the resources of various civic engagement projects and makes it more visible to the public and to students. The initiative is an opportunity to bring students together and prepares them to think creatively and entrepreneurially about how to solve a problem in any situation or any community.
Documenting the past
After 125 years, the Sparrows Point Steel Mill closed its factory in March 2011. At one point during the 1950s, the steel mill was the largest in the world. When it finally stopped production, it might have an end of era, but it is an opportunity for students to learn about how significant the steel mill was to its community.
Cultural documentation and participation in communities, which Stefano teaches, is a small part of the Breaking Ground initiative. The Sparrows Point project wants to bring the philosophy of civic engagement outside the UMBC community.
The project is designed to take students out into the field, specifically the communities of Sparrows Point Steel Mill of the Dundalk area, to discover stories that often go untold, said Stefano.
The goal of the project is to have students learn values and the significance of Sparrows Point Steel Mill and come away with occupational and living heritage, said Stefano. Students are learning the skills to go out into the field and meet people and learn from their stories and the importance of the steel mill.
“Students are learning about larger economic forces and putting a face on that,” Stefano said.
Stefano has teamed up with Bill Shewbridge, director of the New Media studio at UMBC, and document by recording the interviews of former steel mill workers at Dundalk Patapsco Neck Historical Society.
They hope the students can come away with an experience that they won’t get in a classroom. By filming former steel mill workers, they are preserving these untold stories and creating artifacts, Shewbridge said.
Inventing a new culture
When looking at a geographical map of any kind, small red dots are placed sporadically across over areas of the map. A red dot is a symbol of a violent act, which can range from hateful words to rape; it is a power-based personal violence, any time someone uses their power or control that threatens, harms or intimidates another person.
Green Dot is a program at UMBC is a bystander intervention program designed to create a culture that is geared toward making the UMBC campus a safer place. A green dot, opposite of a red dot, is a symbol for an act that makes the community safer and that builds a culture that does not tolerate violence.
“There is a culture of violence that needs to be broken,” said Erika Surock, who is on the student advisory committee of Green Dot.
The program trains students to be more aware of their surroundings and how to identify a red dot. Then, act on it to make everyone safe. Green Dot wants to reverse a culture of violence by replacing those red dots with green dots. It
“We live in a society where people are desensitized to violence,” said Jennifer Treger, Community Health and Safety Specialist at UMBC. “The more we allow it (violence), the more society will feed itself more on violence.”
To reverse the culture of violence, the students are trained to recognize red dots, situations that have the potential to be violent or lead to violence, and prevent them from escalating. To diffuse violent situations, students are instructed to use the three D’s: distract, delegate and direct.
By the end of the training, 97 percent of participants said they will do something or get someone else to do something if they see something that concerns them. The program teaches values that students can take anywhere.
“Once you’ve been trained in Green Dot, it’s hard not to do something,” Surock said.
Green Dot is geared towards stopping the attitude of a society where people learn to mind their own business and preventing situations where we see something and don’t do anything about it. The program empowers to student intervene and diffuse violent situations.
“Most people are good and most people don’t want people to get hurt,” said Treger.
Even though Green Dot has only been around since fall 2012, the program has trained nearly 250 students and wanting to train more students on campus. Following the philosophy of Breaking Ground, Green Dot at UMBC wants a community that helps one another.
“It is about all of us,” Treger said. “We are all in this together.”