Civic engagement was not a new idea for Brady Krien, who has long believed that thriving communities need active and engaged citizens.
But the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior wasn't sure how to go about becoming one of those engaged citizens, nor was he certain that a college student from Lake Geneva could make a lasting difference in the Eau Claire community.
Krien's uncertainty has since been replaced by a sense of empowerment thanks to a university Honors class — taught by a national expert on civic engagement — that brings students together with other Eau Claire community members who want to help solve local problems.
"There is so much power and so much potential in tapping into the energy, creativity and knowledge of a community's residents and it gave me a great deal of hope for the future," Krien, an English and economics major, said of the class. "I walked away feeling incredibly energized by the experience. Civic engagement relies on the power of individual citizens coming together and it left me feeling empowered to make a difference in my community. I gained so much knowledge and confidence in my civic toolbox through this process and I met some great people as well."
Mike Huggins, a retired Eau Claire city manager who now leads sessions around the world on civic engagement, teaches the Honors class "Doing Democracy: Building Civic Agency in Local Communities."
"I'm very concerned about democracy in this country," Huggins said. "I have a deep interest in the concept of public engagement and why it's important for people to play an active role. My passion is to help ordinary people develop the skills they need to build civic agencies. Teaching this class gives me an opportunity to work with young people who are very positive and energized but don't always realize the difference they can make in their communities."
Students in the class become actively involved in the Eau Claire Clear Vision Empowerment Summit, a community visioning initiative that Huggins helped to establish after he retired from his city manager position in 2007. Through Clear Vision, citizen work groups identify and take action on community issues.
"The idea in this class is to help students learn very practical community problem-solving skills and to give them a chance to practice those skills in our community," Huggins said. "By involving them in Clear Vision, students are interacting with their neighbors and other members of their local community. They are learning that involvement at the local level matters; it's not just about what happens in Madison or Washington, D.C."
Connecting with people outside the campus community was a highlight of the class, Krien said.
"We got to get out into the community, interact with residents from across the Chippewa Valley, and really talk about what was important to us and how we can best help the community to become a better place to live and work," Krien said.
While in the class, Krien joined Clear Vision's Empowering Elementary Education group, which focused on working with area elementary schools, particularly those that have struggled to meet state standards. The group focused their efforts on developing better after-school programs by involving community volunteers, said Krien, who remained an active member of the workgroup long after his semesterlong class had ended.
"I learned a great deal about the incredible possibilities there are in grassroots community organization," Krien said of the Clear Vision experience. "There were no politics and no heated debates, just citizens coming together to talk about how to improve their community and that was incredibly refreshing and such a great learning experience."
Like Krien, students often have an interest in community engagement but are uncertain about how to become involved and are anxious about reaching out to others, Huggins said.
"Many of these students haven't done this kind of thing before so they have anxieties about calling people or talking with people at a community meeting," said Huggins. "In this class, we teach them skills like one-to-one meetings and power mapping, and then give them opportunities to put those techniques to work."
As members of the Clear Vision working groups, students learn how to move from discussing an issue to creating an action plan, Huggins said. While the participants work under the umbrella of Clear Vision, workgroup members plan their own meetings, identify their own goals and develop their own plans for meeting those goals, he said, noting that they also must find their own dollars to support initiatives that require funding.
"The feedback I had from students who were in this class last year has been very, very positive," Huggins said. "It was our students who emerged as the leaders in several of the workgroups last year. The students had very active roles in moving discussions and projects forward."
Huggins said students' level of concern about local issues and their ability to grasp complex topics is impressive.
"The students I'm encountering here are simply incredible," Huggins said. "I've been blown away by the depth of observations and understanding. What I see in the young people here is completely the opposite of what the media often portrays as a 'me' generation. I see students with a passion to make the world a better place."
Bailey Boelter, a senior from Lakeville, Minn., said students are equally impressed by Huggins. His passion for civic engagement and his willingness to share his knowledge and connections is an incredible opportunity for UW-Eau Claire students, she said.
"Having Mike lead the class was huge," Boelter said. "He has all this experience and knowledge and really wanted to share it with us. He brought in all these cool people who have a lot of influence in the city. His connections really helped us feel like we were part of the community."
With Huggins' encouragement and guidance, she moved from thinking, "I'm just a student," to "I'm a member of this community and I have ideas to share," Boelter said.
"The change in my perspective definitely broadened the scope of my thinking about what I can do," said Boelter, who plans to pursue a career in the nonprofit community. "I was interested in the whole concept of civic engagement but didn't really know where to start until this class. Ideally, every student would take a class like this one."
Huggins, who has more than 30 years of experience in community planning and local government management, is now a trainer and facilitator with Public Collaboration Associates. In that role, he works with local communities around the world to build the civic problem-solving skills of everyday people so they can collaborate and do meaningful public work.
UW-Eau Claire is fortunate that someone with Huggins' experience, expertise and connections is part of the Honors faculty, said Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, director of the University Honors Program.
"Mike had many wonderfully successful years as Eau Claire city manager, and now is a nationally respected leader in civic engagement and civic education," Vahlbusch said. "Mike is helping our university learn how to provide great civic engagement experiences for our Honors students, and is also starting to train our Honors students to bring these experiences to the wider campus and community."
Vahlbusch said Huggins' work with Honors students reflects the interdependence of campus and community, a notion Chancellor James Schmidt has talked about often since coming to UW-Eau Claire.
"When we work together, across the lines that have traditionally divided us, we can change the world for the better now and enable our students to continue that important work in the future," Vahlbusch said.
The University Honors Program, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, serves academically talented, high-potential and highly motivated students.