Eastern Faculty Create ‘Democracy at Work’

Written by Jolene Potter

Democracy at Work LogoWillimantic, CT. – With the 2016 presidential election drawing near, politics have taken center stage at Eastern Connecticut State University. In order to generate student discussion around the election, Eastern faculty created a series of events titled “Democracy at Work,” featuring more than 25 activities focused on various aspects of the campaign.

“I am extremely pleased with the amount of students who turned out to these events,” said Professor of Political Science and Chair Nicole Krassas, who initially proposed the event. “These events required a huge collaborative effort and I cannot thank the faculty that made it possible enough. ‘Democracy at Work’ truly embodies Eastern’s liberal arts mission.”

The election series kicked off with a panel discussion of national media experts on Sept. 29. Panelists included Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute; Tim Murphy from Mother Jones; and Fernando Pizarro of Univision. The panel was moderated by Lucy Nalpathanchil of WNPR.

 Political science and theatre major Lucy Shea and theatre major Sabina Mamedova

Political science and theatre major Lucy Shea and theatre major Sabina Mamedova

Panelists explained that media coverage of presidential elections has changed, with information now being disseminated through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. “The information that you get from those two (Facebook and Twitter) is really different,” Pizarro said. He said while Twitter “allows you to go beyond your beliefs or your ideology,” Facebook feeds provide you with information based on the topics you’ve already looked at. Pizarro said it is important to discern “what is news and what is not” and what is objective and what is not. The series continued on Oct. 4 with a viewing and discussion of the Vice Presidential Debate.

Democracy Under the TentOn Oct. 5 and 6 the series held “Events under Tents” on the library quad, providing opportunities for students to interact with various campaign organizations, participate in poetry readings and play historical games. Eastern students also volunteered to assist with voter registration, many volunteering in 3 hour shifts. “I think it is important for our students to be educated on how to register to vote so they can have their voices heard,” said freshman pre- social work major Maria Puorro.

As a part of Eastern’s “University Hour” series, students also conducted a mock presidential debate on Oct. 5 in the Paul E. Johnson Sr. Community Conference Room in the J. Eugene Smith Library.  This event was co-sponsored by the Student Government Association. “The mock presidential debate was a wonderful opportunity for me to see what other students at Eastern think about the candidates,” said sophomore psychology major Alyssa Sokaitis.

On Oct. 5, “The Immigrant Project: A Multi-media Oral Story-Telling Performance” was held in the Fine Arts Instructional Center Studio Theatre. The event centered around the personal experience of Eastern student and Theatre Major Sabina Mamedova, who described her family’s journey alongside the history of oppression and forced migration of Russian Turks. “Being able to tell my story is a dream come true,” said Mamedova. “I am proud to be Muslim and I believe that more people in my community need to speak out about their struggles with oppression and migration. I am proud to be in America and I love the opportunities this country has given me even though my transition has not been easy.”

The personal oral history contrasting with the presentation of present world events created a form of “documentary theatre.” The performance came together with the collaboration of students in the New Media Studies, Theatre and Political Science programs. Senior political science and theatre major Lucy Shea was proud to help bring Mamedova’s story to life, stating, “This show illustrates how powerful and educational theater can be in communicating political issues.”

“It occurred to me that personal stories have the power to connect complex and important world events on a human level,” said Theatre Professor and co-creator David Pellegrini. “A success story, and one of survival, Sabina’s story of the generosity of America to welcome victims of political oppression and religious persecution is one that needed to be heard to counter xenophobic rhetoric in the political arena today.”

Throughout Oct. 5 and 6, faculty across numerous departments organized lectures spanning a variety of topics related to the election. Professor of Psychology Jennifer Leszczynski and Professor of Sociology Cara Bergstrom-Lynch discussed a variety of issues related to women’s rights in their open classroom titled “Gender and the 2016 Election.” The lecture focused primarily on the gender gap in voting, where women are more likely to vote for democratic candidates when compared to men. Other topics included how to close the gender gap, issues that are the most important to students in the upcoming election, unequal pay and family leave. The lecture had 97 students and two faculty in attendance.

Political Science Professor Martin Mendoza-Botelho and Communications Professor Cesar Beltran focused their discussion on the potential effects of the upcoming presidential election on U.S. foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on the expanded influences of China and Russia, unsteadiness in the Middle East, trade and migration relations with Latin America and U.S. support in Africa. “We hope that attendees left with a better understanding of the potential course of action that the main two nominees might choose if elected,” said Mendoza-Botelho.

Sociology Professor Dennis Canterbury held an open classroom titled “U.S. Elections and Global Inequality.” Which candidates’ foreign policies would have the greatest impact on reducing global inequality was explored. “Global inequality takes on many garbs including that of race as the countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, characterized by the darker peoples of the world, are the poorest,” said Canterbury. “I wanted to help students understand the systemic differences in wealth and power among countries, recognize the impact of different economic standards of living on people throughout the world as well as research on global inequality today.”

History Professor Tom Balcerski organized an open classroom titled “The Election of 1800: Lessons Learned,” discussing the historic transfer of power from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. The class provided students with a historical overview of the issues at stake in the election of 1800 as well as the campaigning methods used by both candidates. “The Revolution of 1800 still offers us many lessons,” said Balcerski. “Most importantly, it shows how Americans must always stand ready to safeguard our cherished democracy in times of turbulent transition.”

Sociology Professors Theresa Severance and William Lugo held an open classroom concentrating on the impact of criminal justice involvement on voting rights and representation in communities, which a particular focus on how communities of color are effected during elections. “Communities of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and policies limiting the voting rights of individuals have an even greater impact on these communities,” said Severance. “This open classroom presents an opportunity to bring greater awareness to these issues.”

Biology Professor Elizabeth Cowles led a discussion titled “Science, Distrust and the 2016 Election,” focusing on the candidates’ views on topics such as vaccines, climate change and water and ocean pollution. Biology Professor Kristen Epps held an open classroom titled “Politics and Endangered Species,” concentrating on how political climates influence the implementation of the Endangered Species Act as well as the candidates’ future plans for policies centered around endangered species.
“Democracy at Work” fulfilled its mission of helping Eastern students understand the various issues that are crucial to our nation’s current pol