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Q&A: W&M’s community engagement fellows on active citizenship

  • Fellows:
    Fellows:  Four alumni are serving as Community Engagement Fellows at William & Mary this year: Bria Brown, Arvin Alaigh, Alexis Foxworth and Rachel Neely.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The William & Mary Office of Community Engagement will host its annual Active Citizens Conference at the School of Education Saturday. The event, now in its fifth year, allows students, faculty members and community leaders to discuss best practices for making an impact on communities and bringing about social change. Approximately 170 people, many from Virginia but others from as far as Chicago and Alabama, are expected to participate in this year’s conference, including two alumni guest speakers: Ruth Jones Nichols '96 and Pete Maybarduk '02.

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The university’s four current Community Engagement Fellows – Arvin Alaigh ’15, Bria Brown ’15, Alexis Foxworth ’15 and Rachel Neely ’15 – recently talked with W&M News about what active citizenship entails and how their experience as fellows has affected their own pursuit of active citizenship.

What do you do as a W&M Community Engagement Fellow?

Alaigh: "As Fellow for Local Engagement, my responsibilities are to plan service days, host community discussions and dinner dialogues, advise students and engage William & Mary’s campus regarding the opportunities offered through the Office of Community Engagement."

Brown: "My job varies depending on the day. I spend a lot of my time making videos marketing the efforts that the School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) is putting forth, planning outreach programs at William & Mary, and I advise the Campus Kitchen at William & Mary."

Foxworth: "As the Fellow for Education Programs, I oversee and advise Project Phoenix and Pineapple Kids, facilitate Education Equity Dinner dialogues and coordinate the annual College Day program, which brings middle school students to campus for a full day immersion into college life."

Neely: "As the Alternative Breaks Fellow, I work primarily with the organization Branch Out. I oversee logistical processes, including facilitating the financial aid application process, managing participant emergency information and overseeing program-wide fundraisers. I also design and write content for Branch Out monthly newsletters to students and alumni, as well as managing Branch Out’s blog. During the fall semester, I also attended and advised site leader training sessions, which are led by student directors."

How would you define active citizenship, and how does it differ from traditional ideas about service?

Brown: "I think that active citizenship can really look like almost anything. For example, I value the importance of building online platforms advocating for issues. I think it's important for activists and advocate groups to make themselves known online now-a-days because it is becoming one of the most powerful tools for sharing knowledge and understanding and making change."

Foxworth: "I think one of the key differences between traditional ideas of service and our model of active citizenship is that the latter emphasizes being with community as opposed to simply being in it. As active citizens, we highlight the importance of continual growth, humility and reflection. In step with these ideas is the fact that we learn from the communities we serve instead of coming in with the mindset that we are correct and our approach infallible. One thing I enjoy about the active citizen's framework is that is necessitates learning from others and developing relationships."

Neely: "I see active citizenship in three components: asking questions and thinking critically, taking action and reflecting. I think active citizenship differs from traditional ideas about service because we view it as a never-ending continuum, meaning that active citizens are always learning, and that there is always room for growth. Active citizens are committed not just to performing service for a few hours or a single day, but to integrating their commitment to service – and to education and reflection – into their daily lives."

Alaigh: "As I imagine it, active citizenship articulates the idea that individuals ought to make choices considering the needs and contexts of the greater community. It is a continuous process – there is no finality to becoming an active citizen. Traditional ideas about service generally possess connotations of a one-way avenue of growth and assistance – the community in need gets aid, but the individual(s) who helped don’t gain anything substantial. However, active citizenship entails a process that grows both the person serving, as well as the community being served."

Do you consider yourself an active citizen, and how has your experience as a fellow shaped or changed your ideas about active citizenship?

Foxworth: "I believe I am becoming an active citizen more and more each day. This fellowship has provided me with the opportunities to expand my active citizenship and my approach to both justice and leadership."

Neely: "I do consider myself an active citizen; while it’s daunting to take on that identity, I think that it pushes me to evaluate my actions more critically. My experience as a fellow has broadened my understanding of what active citizenship can look like. I’ve realized active citizenship also means working in collaboration with others for positive social change."

Alaigh: "I consider myself an active citizen, and I believe that this fellowship helped me imagine ways to operationalize practices of active citizenship."

Brown: "I consider myself to be always working towards what many call active citizenship. I also acknowledge that that looks different for everyone and what many consider active citizenship is simply surviving for so many people."

Why is active citizenship important both to the person who is engaged in it and society?

Neely: "Active citizenship is important for the individuals engaged because their lives are enriched by the connections they make to the communities in which they live and serve. Communities, and societies in general, benefit from active citizenship because the service they receive from well-educated active citizens works to build capacity and create lasting partnerships."

Alaigh: "Active citizenship is vital for individuals, as it will help them in guiding choices are beneficial to the community. With a society devoid of active citizens, people will act in their own self-interest, often to the detriment of the community."

Foxworth: "Active citizenship is important to both the person involved and society because it is based on mutual exchange. The model of active citizenship would be horribly diminished if each "side" was not growing through the experience. Active citizenship was never intended to be a one-sided, one-dimensional approach to community, activism and justice. It is this mutuality that makes active citizenship important for all parties and establishes that one is not successful without the other."

What do you hope to impart to the students and community members that you work with about active citizenship before you leave W&M?

Alaigh: "I hope to help students realize the importance of active citizenship, and how gratifying it is to take steps to become an active citizen, as well as the value of service for our community."

Brown: "I just hope to encourage people to constantly think critically."

Foxworth: "I hope to impart to students alike the importance of being reflective and being willing to always get better. Many times in social justice work, students and community members alike adhere to the belief that perfection is achieved solely through experience and familiarity. Many think, "because I have been involved in this program or served in this way for 3.5 years, I know what I am doing and I refuse to be open to change." I cannot think of a mindset more dangerous and oppositional to the work that we (I) desire to do in community. I hope I have hammered in (maybe annoyingly to many) that we must always listen, learn and be open to opportunities and knowledge that challenges us outside of our status quo and normal way of operating."

Neely: "I hope to impart to those around me that active citizenship is both personal and collaborative. It is important to both figure out what active citizenship looks like for you personally, as well as to be engaged with others working for social change."

What will active citizenship look like for you beyond W&M?

Brown: "Looking for jobs that allow me to continue doing social justice work and use the spaces in which I have influence to have critical conversations."

Foxworth: "Active citizenship after W&M will manifest itself in my life through learning more! I love to learn and hope to be involved in more opportunities that will expand me, my ideas of justice, my understanding of injustice and my relationships with all people through community work."

Neely: "I know that, following my time (five years total!) at W&M, it will feel strange to adapt to a new community, but I hope that the principles of active citizenship that I’ve learned will help me to embody active citizenship wherever I end up. I know that as I adapt to a new place, I’ll be interested in educating myself about the social issues, as well as general goings-on, present in community. Knowing my strengths and the issues I’m most interested in working on, I think that I’ll be committed to seeking out service opportunities and relationships that align with those interests."

Alaigh: "There are many ways to incorporate active citizenship in life beyond college, such as voting regularly, engaging with local politics, working on community issues."