Bard College has debuted a new course on local politics and civic engagement that has brought students to local government in Red Hook and other communities to help with special projects.
Among the assignments students have accepted are positions in the offices of Red Hook Village Mayor Karen Smythe, Red Hook Judge Jonah Triebwasser, and Tivoli Deputy Mayor Emily Major. Students are also working at the City of Hudson mayor’s office, and with State Sen. Michelle Hinchey (D-46).
The new course, “All Politics is Local,” is being taught by the executive vice president of the college, Jonathan Becker, and a colleague, Erin Cannan, who is the vice president of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). CCE is most widely known for its decades-long work to secure an on-campus polling location for Bard students.
“Jonathan and I realized that there is very little engagement with local government here, when more engagement of local people and Bard means more civic literacy and a better functioning government,” said Cannan.
On one hand, students get direct experience in local government. At the same time, government leaders say they benefit from the ideas of young people.
“Few people have access to youth voices, the perspective of someone who is current on certain trends that older people don’t have,” Cannan said. “Students are going to move into the world soon, and this experience gets them ahead of the times and properly engaged in politics.”
For instance, Cam Evans, a Bard freshman who intends to major in global studies, is currently responsible for revamping the Red Hook Village website alongside Mayor Karen Smythe and Red Hook Village Board member Melkorka Kjarval.
“Cam has brought me focused attention, new ideas, and the energy to follow through,” said Smythe. “She is interested in what is happening in the village.”
Evans concurred. “I feel as though I am working directly for local government, becoming civically engaged and excited on my own, rather than interning for a class,” she said.
Each Monday, 10 students meet at Bard late-day to discuss the intricacies and importance of politics on the local level. The goal of the class, which will eventually become an elective towards Bard’s certificate of civic engagement, is to encourage civic literacy by putting emphasis on local, instead of national, government.
The certificate is awarded after completion of four courses that focus on civic engagement, the completion of 100 hours of civic engagement activity, and the completion of a reflective essay on those experiences.
The new course is distinct in Bard’s political studies program because it requires students to engage in a weekly local internship throughout the course’s duration. Matched to jobs based on interests, all students spend three to six hours a week collaborating in person with a member of Hudson Valley government.
Each of the positions was assigned to ensure cooperation between student and official to build political literacy for the student while providing helpful insight for local government.
“We want to provoke more systematized youth engagement,” Cannan said. “The idea is that once internships get set up, the student takes responsibility for developing a relationship with their supervisor. The hope is to create a culture of literacy in Red Hook and in kids in general.”
In the case of Red Hook Village, Smythe contacted Bard directly seeking out an intern specifically to work on improving the village website. Her goals dovetailed neatly with the plans for the new course.
“The website was previously difficult to navigate and was occasionally misinformed, so we are working to make information present and clear for the village,” Cam Evans said.
She has spent much of her time at the Village Hall inserting technical details of community proceedings, such as Village meeting minutes and environmental regulations, onto the website. In addition, she wrote an introduction to Red Hook’s government that explains the roles of various committees in the Village.
Communicating with local committee members is a crucial part of her internship, Evans said, and she has spent time outside of her direct responsibilities for Smythe corresponding with local committees, such as the Village Green Committee, on how the website can better represent their missions.
The updated website hosting interface, which will likely be done by the end of the semester, is meant to encourage participation in Red Hook government and ensure that public information is accurate and up-to-date.
“I reached out to Erin because I knew that I wanted an intern or two from Bard, and Erin already had an idea for a class with an internship requirement,” said Smythe, who has also utilized intern help to develop the Village’s first e-newsletter for residents.
The website and newsletter both have become crucial communication vehicles as the village prepares to break ground on its long-awaited municipal sewer.
Evans will be assisting in updating the “Sewer Department” section of the Village website throughout each stage of the project so citizens can stay informed and keep track of ongoing changes.
“I knew a Bard intern could help me bring some of my ideas to reality,” Smythe said.
When Bard students return to the classroom each week, they share entries from required weekly journals that detail their internship experiences each week and discuss one article from a news source that is related to their topic of engagement in local government. Each week, Cannan and Becker also circulate news articles with an emphasis on local government. Students, for instance, have been discussing critical race theory, party politics, voter participation by Bard students, and the drawbacks of uncontested elections.
Class time is also devoted to off-campus learning experiences. Smythe hosted a tour of Red Hook Village Hall while explaining jobs held by officials in local government. Students walked through the police station and the village courtroom and were given historical information about the building.
“What we learn in class is applied to the real world through our internships,” said Bard senior Megumi Kivuva, who is majoring in both computer science and Spanish studies. “We study and write about how change takes place and then actually get to see it happen.”
Kivuva is currently interning with Housing Justice Director Michelle Tullo in the city of Hudson, a position that allows her to explore her interest in housing equity and reform. “Issues such as Covid relief have become a reality not just on the federal level,” Kivuva said. “The pandemic significantly affected housing, and I learned in my internship how Hudson housing prices were driven up when people moved out of the city during that time.”
Her weekly tasks include scanning and reviewing policy memos and quarterly updates for federal grants, planning informational events, and posting housing updates on the Hudson City website. Bard interns noted the significant amount of basic scanning and organization that is involved in their internships. This is, they now acknowledge, crucial but overlooked work which they previously had not associated with government positions.
Megumi will graduate from Bard in May 2022 and said the internship has been invaluable to her future life planning. “I have a deeper understanding of why local politics matters,” she said. “Even if it is joining the school board, I want to find a way that I can continue to get involved with my community.”