Liberal Arts + An Introduction to Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse

JAKE VERMEULEN ’21 | NEWS EDITOR • In a political landscape that
is increasingly polarized beyond belief, effective discussions on almost any topic can be hard to find. For the last several years, the Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse initiative (WDPD) has been leading substantive, productive conversa- tions on campus and in the surrounding community. Sara Drury, Director of WDPD and Associate Professor of Rhetoric, said, “Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse’s mission is to stimulate produc- tive conversations on and off campus to address public issues.”

WDPD has been a visible, important part of the Wabash community in recent years. Every year, they conduct mental health deliberations with all first-year

students and oversee the sophomore deliberations which aim to get student feedback for improving the College.
Aside from these important functions on campus, WDPD has also helped facilitate conversations in the broader community around Wabash. Last semester, WDPD led discussions about public transportation in Montgomery County. They also helped the County gather public input about a potential comprehensive zoning plan.

More recently, WDPD earned a grant from Indiana Humanities to lead discussions in the community about plant biology under the title, “Cultivate our Gardens.” Professor of Biology Amanda Ingram has also been involved in this progress, working with Drury to secure the grant and then to set up the events. WDPD is also partnering with the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program to put on several deliberations around Indiana. These partnerships continue to provide WDPD with the opportunity to shape and encourage productive debate about significant issues that will affect our society. WDPD continues to be very involved on campus, usually holding between eight and ten events every semester as well as two to three public events

WDPD does not have a political agenda. It seeks to improve conversation on difficult issues and help communities figure out how best to address them. Drury said, “[Wabash Democracy Fellows] are developing innovative ways to address these issues, and then working with communities to impartially facilitate those conversations and report the public’s voice back to that community… deliberation is an impartial process.”

There are currently 14 Democracy Fellows who work with the program as their WISE job on campus and help drive the program. There are other ways to be involved with program, however. Every spring, the Rhetoric department offers RHE-290 Democracy and Deliberation. This course teaches students how to lead deliberations and exposes them to the theories behind successful public discourse. Drury said, “Students who have taken that course have the skills and the experience to then apply to be

a Democracy Fellow.” Students can also become involved by volunteering to help out at WDPD events.

The program also provides many benefits to students who are involved. Democracy Fellow Walker Hedgepath ’19 said, “When you walk into a room and you have any kind of meeting—whether it’s for a club or even a class meeting, you gain this sense of understanding of what other people are thinking, and what are ways
in which we can make the conversation become productive.”

WDPD provides students with a great opportunity to learn about and lead discussions on issues that impact Wabash and the broader community. In an increasingly polarized society, it’s certainly not hard to find value in its work.