09/20/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013


Run. For public office. Because, yes, it is still possible and critical to make a difference at the local level through city and state political involvement.

That was the message that former Massachusetts State Senator and majority whip Marian Walsh gave as she launched the "Building Community, Reaching for Justice" Speaker Series here at Merrimack College. The audience was primarily graduate students in the masters in Community Engagement program. The Community Engagement Fellowship students spend an entire year of "residency" at local nonprofits developing and sustaining programs as they complete an intensive 1-year cohort program that focuses on issues such as community development, social justice, asset mapping and capacity building.

(I, as the Dean of the School of Education, which houses this graduate program, introduced Marian.)

The talk was great. But what really surprised me was that the graduate students seemed to feel that it was a seemingly novel idea to run for political office.

I of course shouldn't have been surprised. In a review of dozens of academic programs focused on community engagement, a key policy paper concluded that few programs had any particular focus on political engagement. Liz Hollander, the former president of Campus Compact, wrote something similar in my book, The Engaged Campus. She thought that such an apolitical perspective had to do with an overwhelming focus on local community organizing rather than political engagement: "I'll never forget," she wrote, "being told by a dean at a major Midwestern university that its automotive engineering students had 'no understanding that the government builds roads'."

In one respect, this is obvious. The average age of a US Senator is 63. Less than 10 percent of Congress is 40 years old or younger. Yet young adults -- those between 18 and 29 -- make up 30 percent of the voting population. They, literally, cannot envision themselves a part of such a process.

But that is exactly what college is for. To help us envision ourselves -- our ideas, our beliefs, our actions -- in a different way. It does not mean that we will change everything about ourselves from our college experience. But if we change nothing, what's the point? The college experience is about engaging with the complex and contested issues of our society, about grappling with the unknown and the partial.

So that was my big takeaway from Marian's talk: that college and university programs committed to the social good, committed to impacting local practice, should help students engage with the political process. Run for public office. Or at least know someone who's running. This has nothing, by the way, to do with political affiliations or political indoctrination. It has to do with understanding the theory and practice, the knowledge base, for good community development and social impact.

For our theories of community engagement will always, sooner or later, collide with the realities of community practice. And much of that practice may not be what gets taught in the college classroom. The only way, it seems to me, to begin to change that dynamic is to help our students connect with their local communities and understand how change occurs. Or why and how it doesn't. The political process may not always be the answer. But it is certainly part of the mix. So, yes, run indeed.