| Carolyn Noel
SPRINGFIELD –Springfield residents and beyond are getting the opportunity to study the history of civic engagement in America while also writing their own stories about democracy through a new Clemente Course called “This Is Your Democracy.” The course is hosted locally by Martin Luther King Services and coordinated and funded by Mass Humanities.
Focused on civic and democratic engagement, the online course offers free college credit to low-income students in Springfield and five other cities in Massachusetts.
According to a press release, “For “This is Your Democracy,” students meet online once a week to explore the ways activists like John Lewis have used stories, conversations, and even art to connect people despite their differences. Class conversations include discussions of the challenges and civic engagement efforts of people of color, the incarcerated, the poor, individuals with disabilities, survivors of gun violence and others.”
There have been three sessions of the course, with the third beginning in February. According to Brian Boyles, executive director at Mass Humanities, there will be new and similar Clemente courses offered in the summer. He said that another writing course focused on civic engagement is likely.
Clemente courses in Humanities give people in underserved neighborhoods and adults who want to continue their education the opportunity to learn more about history, philosophy, writing and gain critical thinking skills, said Boyles.
“It’s really a great way for people not only to restart their education but also to build strength in their own roles as leaders in their community,” he said.
Clemente students range from senior citizens, single mothers, recent immigrants and those living at or below the poverty line. Taking these courses often gives people the initiative and will to continue on with their education or further their careers, according to Boyles.
“We see people restarting their education, but we also see people going back to work in Public Health or Public Education and I think that’s something we really want to support more of. Clemente really helps people put their lives in perspective, but also get ready to join the workforce with new skills,” he said.
Throughout the weeks of the “This is Your Democracy” course, students will write about their own experiences as participants in democracy. Essays from students will then be collected and published by Mass Humanities in the second edition of “We, Too, Are America.” The first collection of essays was published in the summer of 2020.
“Summer of 2020 turned out to be such a historical moment from COVID to the protests for racial justice to the polarizing election that we were going through. So we have Clemente writers who wrote about everything from homelessness, to George Floyd, what it’s like to be a mother of a black child, what it’s like to have Lupus, just really a pretty wide spectrum of opinions on living in America today and living as someone who hasn’t had access to a lot of the things that a lot of us have,” said Boyles.
The first edition ended up publishing 33 writers, with 10 being from Springfield.
According to Boyles, this is a new and exciting chance for Clemente students to see themselves in print.
Boyles said he believes this course is important because of its relevance in our current state of the world.
“We’re at a moment when it’s really important that all of us understand how democracy is supposed to work and how it’s worked in the past, that people have made sacrifices to make that work happen and sacrifices that each of us make in order to participate in this democracy,” he said. “Many people don’t think of themselves as doing civic engagement or being engaged in the life of their community and democracy, but when they step back and really think about the things they do for one another, for local organizations, just to get to the ballot box they realize that they are participating and we could all do more.”
Boyles said it is important for people in communities where Clemente courses exist to have their voices heard and be a part of change in America.
“I think it’s really important that we are able to have a conversation around where American democracy has been and where it’s evolving and that we’re able to bridge differences amongst us to really talk about where we are gonna go,” he said.
Those interested in learning more about future Clemente courses are encouraged to visit the Mass Humanities website at https://masshumanities.org/ or the Martin Luther King Services website at https://www.mlkjrfamilyservices.org/.