Skip to Main Content

IU Northwest News

IU Northwest fosters civic participation through coursework, conferences, activism

Courses like Participatory Democracy aim to make students socially conscious, inspires them to act

Tuesday Dec 12, 2017

Raoul Contreras is a firm believer that a true democracy is born from social movements, not elections.

Active participation by citizens, not decisions made by politicians, are how positive change happens, says the Indiana University Northwest associate professor of minority studies.

Inspiring students to get actively involved in their democracy is a primary goal of Contreras’ course, “Participatory Democracy, Social Movements and Social Justice” (CHRI-C490), offered each spring at IU Northwest.

“When Barack Obama was running for president,” Contreras said, “people were excited about the possibilities for change. I wanted to keep that momentum going and talk about the economic problems of 2008 and other issues of the time. I wanted students to debate the issues, discuss the meaning of democracy, and collaboratively create and implement policies to address those issues in a truly democratic way.”

This was how the Participatory Democracy Conference was born. Every year since 2009, the course now culminates with a two-day conference in April. Organized by the Social Justice Club, the conference brings in activists from various community organizations and gets students actively involved in discussing the issues, proposing solutions and working together.

The next Participatory Democracy Conference will be planned by the IU Northwest Social Justice Club beginning in January with help from some of the students in Contreras’ course. For the students enrolled in the course, the conference is their final exam.

According to Contreras, climate change is expected to be the hot topic on the agenda.

“It’s a contentious issue that will demand a social movement if progress is to be made. It’s hopeless individually,” Contreras said.

Contreras said this year’s conference will serve to help attendees examine democracy outside of a presidential election year and highlight its role in the issues. He hopes the topic of climate change, for instance, will shine a spotlight on the dangers of inaction within our democracy.

Helping Northwest Indiana thrive

Contreras said that many community activists and groups participate in the conference as well, making it a meaningful gathering of civic-minded folks throughout the entire region who want to mobilize and inspire change. Such groups as Veterans for Peace and the Interfaith Federation of Gary are active return participants. 

Contreras expects to also see a number of community activists who regularly get involved in various causes throughout the region, such as recent efforts surrounding immigration and the lead crisis in East Chicago.

He notes that another benefit of the conference is the networking that takes place amongst students and community activists, which serves to spread awareness and influence public opinion on the issues.

Critical thinkers at the helm of our future

Victoria Morales, a 2017 graduate who attended the conference last year, said the exercise helped her realize that her generation has a responsibility to be critical-thinkers and problem-solvers, and to do so with courageous empathy.

“We have to let our beliefs be challenged, and we cannot meet change with denial or opposition,” she said. “Throughout this conference, I enjoyed that everyone respected one another's opinions; it is not very often that we get to speak our minds and challenge our belief system in a safe environment.”

Morales added that a successful democracy depends on a citizenry that listens before it speaks and recognizes that it is permissible to be ambivalent about issues. Participating in the conversation is the key.

“Especially for students, we have to be involved more on campus and within the community during social justice events,” Morales said. “We are the new generation, and we have to be willing to fight for each other's rights and consider the struggles of the person sitting next to us. I think that's the underlying message that I took away from the Participatory Democracy Conference.”

A brighter future for all

Taking an active role in the community is a core value of IU Northwest shared by faculty and students alike. Matthew Paskash is an economics major who shares Contreras’ philosophy.

The 30-year-old Portage resident participates in many causes and feels strongly about the necessity for individuals to unify and advocate for what a society needs.

Some of the activism Paskash has been involved with include fighting the deportation of immigrants through a group known as the NWI Resistance; bringing together undocumented residents and Syrian refugees with allies in the community through Unite the Region for Justice; and fighting for resolution in the lead and arsenic crisis in East Chicago.

“Every one of us as humans share some commonality in our desired ends and it is far easier for us to secure these goods through cooperation, solidarity, and shared struggle than it is through purely personal pursuits,” he said.

View Indiana University Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications Media Contact information